February 18, 2002
The push to label food products and other goods will have negative effects on rural resource communities.
The Product Labelling ScamThe comprehensive labeling of food and other products has become the latest crusade for the anti-trade crowd. Their demands sound reasonable, but complying with them would put many products beyond the reach of the average household budget.
Who in their right mind, you might ask, would object to labels on food products? Labels tell us what is in the food and provides the consumer with vital information about ingredients. If you are glucose intolerant, you have the right to be told whether glucose is in the food product.
However, the level of product labeling they demand stretches far beyond this simple concept, with potentially negative consequences for rural communities whose incomes depend on selling these resources. Here are three examples.
A recent draft of the U.S. Farm Bill imposes a “Country of Origin Labeling” mandate. For the Canadian beef industry, this new law would be a disaster. If passed, it would require that all Canadian or Mexican beef be identified. But what exactly is a Canadian cow? Many American feeders are sent to Alberta, fattened in a feedlot there, and then shipped back to the U.S. Is this Canadian or American beef? An accurate description of this back and forth process would make it so complex to ship to the U.S. that American food retailers would just stop buying Canadian beef. We only supplies 3% of the U.S. market, and that could easily be replaced by U.S. beef. The loss of that small market, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal farm scene, would be a major disaster for rural Canada.
Environmental activists want us to label any foods that contain genetically modified crops and have successfully stoked the fears of consumers about the safety of these foods. These fears that have absolutely no basis in science. Transgenic canola has been a real success story on the Prairies because it allows farmers to improve production practices. Canola oil and meal show up in a wide variety of products for both human and animal consumption. Would you label the pork that was raised partly on canola meal or the meal itself? You can see how costly and complex it would be for the food industry to comply. The consumer ultimately pays.
Finally, there’s the forestry labeling scam. It’s called “Forest Certification,” a stamp of approval on wood products by, you guessed it, environmental activist groups, who would certify whether or not the goods came from forests whose harvesting they deem friendly to the ecology. Some companies have bought into this -- effectively ceding control of their operations to the tree-huggers -- and are desperately seeking to be “certified.” All Canadian foresters operate under government licenses that are granted only after exhaustive (and largely wasteful) environmental processes. But that’s not good enough for the “green groups.” A certification process allows them to penetrate to the highest levels in these companies and influence operations. The forest industry doesn’t appreciate that the ultimate goal of these folks is to stop commercial tree harvests. It’s a common scenario, an industry wants to “play ball” by cleaning up its image and the activists want to stop the game altogether. And producers just lets it happen and sometimes even provides the cash!
Beware of activists bearing gifts. The labeling movement will take the paycheques right out of the pockets of many Canadian workers, and make the goods we produce too expensive to sell. The value we might gain is not worth the cost.
Robert Sopuck, Senior Fellow
is a modern environmentalst whose interests include solving environmental problems without reducing human freedom. He is a natural resource policy consultant with a special interest in rural issues who lives and works at Lake Audy, Manitoba. He received his B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba and Masters from Cornell University. His first career was in fisheries management. He later coordinated the sustainable development initiative for the province of Manitoba and was on the Canadian delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He was Manitoba's observer on the Board of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. In October 2007 he was appointed to the federal government's National Round Table on the Environment and Economy.