Over the weekend, protesters marched in 436 cities in 52 countries to protest the biotech giant Monsanto Company’s tightening grip on the global seed market. As hundreds of thousands of people rallied against a range of issues, including Monsanto’s treatment of farmers, the much-publicized Monsanto Protection Act, and the ubiquity of genetically modified ingredients, one overriding concern became clear: how people can identify, let alone avoid, Monsanto products.
Outside of Connecticut and Vermont, GMO labeling efforts have been trounced time and again in Congress, in state legislatures, and even on ballot initiatives. Though companies will not be legally required to disclose GMOs on a national scale anytime soon, the tech industry is rising to the challenge to help consumers find out for themselves. A slew of new mobile food trackers are proving that, as always, there’s an app for that.
One mobile app, Buycott, recently caused a stir among people looking to make more informed purchases. Buycott lets users scan a product before they purchase it to see its connections to companies with certain agendas. Users can sign on to campaigns to help them avoid the Koch Industries, Monsanto, companies that lobbied against GMO labeling, companies that contribute to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and many more. There’s a wide range of right-wing causes, too — if they wish, users can support Koch Industries or companies that have pushed for looser gun laws. The app also lays out the network of corporations, exposing how seemingly unrelated companies are linked.
On Tuesday, Food Safety News highlighted a number of other apps dedicated to tracing food back to its source. HarvestMark has the most extensive database thus far, tracking five billion fresh food items (vegetables, fruits, and meat) from major companies like The Kroger Company, Driscoll’s Berries, and Coleman Natural, as well as international companies shipping food from China, Mexico and Taiwan. The app lets shoppers scan a product or type in a label to pull up a full profile of the farm it came from, how it was grown, and whether or not the farm has had any foodborne illness issues. The app has already helped limit foodborne illness outbreaks — during one recall, 15 percent of consumers who used HarvestMark discovered their leafy greens had been flagged for health risks.
Food companies are also sensing marketing opportunities in the push for greater transparency. One organic meat company, Applegate, has started using scannable labels called QR codes that let consumers watch videos about the farmer that raised their meat. Top 10 Produce, a tracing company, is working with small independent farms to help them promote their products via mobile technology. In Seattle, a shellfish company is rolling out QR codes to let customers know where each oyster they buy came from.
Though the technology is advancing rapidly to provide consumers with more and more detailed information about their food, individual boycotts face daunting odds: Monsanto, for example, owns the patents for roughly 90 percent of the seeds grown in the US, and virtually all processed foods contain GM corn or soybeans. Many families cannot afford to exclusively buy organic or well-sourced food. And boycotts alone likely won’t be enough to break a few companies’ monopoly over American grocery stores. Regulatory agencies like the FDA and the USDA have been rendered more or less toothless by special interests, frequently citing food producers for violations yet taking no meaningful action to prevent dangerous products from reaching the market. Instead, regulators often look the other way — with sometimes fatal consequences. Meanwhile, government officials are actively helping Monsanto and other food giants to drive out all other competition and stifle food diversity.
On the other hand, the five-year Farm Bill that’s currently being debated in the Senate and the House could make all the difference if it includes more support for small farmers, cuts subsidies for corn and soy giants, and encourages crop diversity. In order to truly change the food landscape, individual consumer choices will need to translate to calls for concrete policy action.