Food, Transparency, and the free software movement

This is an expanded version of a previous post on Reddit.

Let’s start by taking a light look at the state of consumer education about food in 2014, courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel.

There is a strange discomfort associated with three-letter acronyms (TLAs) by the general public. Many people reflexively ask to be served MSG-free food at Chinese restaurants, simply because they’ve been told that MSG is bad. And honestly, the scientific term monosodium glutamate isn’t much more reassuring to the public than its TLA, despite being a stabilized salt of the amino acid glutamic acid that is naturally produced by the human body.

The fact is that after years of extensive, double-blind tests going back as far as 1970, no causative link has been found between the purported symptoms of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and MSG. Casual anecdotal tests have had similar results, and of course, billions of people in Asia do not complain about consuming glutamates.

As it turns out, there’s a technical term that could quite possibly explain such bizarre symptoms. It’s called the nocebo effect, an inverse case of the placebo effect wherein participants report adverse side-effects after receiving a placebo. Much as the placebo effect has been studied and validated, similar studies have confirmed the behavior and mechanisms of the nocebo effect.

Which brings me back to the subject of food. Certain “sensitive” individuals, who coincidentally tend to be subscribers of various “health publications” put out by astoundingly rich pseudoscience advocates like osteopathic practitioner Joseph Mercola, claim to report adverse reactions to a wide range of substances including conventionally grown produce. When pressed, these individuals will fall back on a variety of explanations, ranging from pesticide residues (also found on organic produce) to genetically modified foods (despite a profound lack of evidence).

So, let’s set aside all the hype and fear-mongering. Acronyms don’t have to be scary, and we don’t have to let a fear of long technical words paralyze us.

Tempering Our Fears

We must acknowledge that all food has risks. It doesn’t matter if that food had its genome tweaked by biologists using CRISPR, or bred for better flavor or durability over several generations by farmers. Even something as benign as E.coli, a strain of bacteria normally found in the lower digestive tract, can cause serious illness if it makes its way into our food via unhygienic handling practices.

Two cases in particular come to mind: a 2002 outbreak of “killer zucchini” in New Zealand that was traced back to an organic crop, and in the 1960s, a selective breeding program intended to create the perfect potato chip instead gave us the Lenape potato with toxic levels of solanine.

As professor Thomas deGrigori wrote in an article for the University of Houston’s Daily Cougar,

Even stores that fraudulently claim to be free of genetically-modified produce will have many items produced using transgenic yeasts, enzymes, emulsifiers, micro-organisms or transgenic soybeans. The only way that we can be sure about what we are eating is to be given a CD-ROM with each purchase that gives the complete provenance of the food crop as well as the hundreds, if not thousands, of toxins that its genome is capable of expressing and its likely invisible microbial infestation. And for any grain product, check your food safety authority for the tolerance for aphid infestation, and the prescience of rodent hairs and feces — that is, if you really want to know.

Therefore, we must admit that because all food has risks, it is in the public interest to transparently and openly disclose all of the steps that have been taken to produce the final product. This standard goes far beyond the labeling standard that anti-GMO activists have been agitating for, or even the ingredient lists mandated by the US FDA. The closest analogy is perhaps found in the software world.

The Free Software Movement

The introduction of copyleft licensing by Richard Stallman in 1989 with the GNU GPL effectively turned an entire industry on its head. Yes, open-source licensing predated the GPL; open-source licenses were what permitted UNIX to dominate the mainframe world since the 1970s. But UNIX wasn’t a coherent ecosystem. It was balkanized with a multitude of different, often incompatible licenses, encumbered by royalty agreements between different companies. Since the GNU General Public License both required that the source code remain available, and the license remain unchanged for any derivative works, it prevents companies from abusing the privilege of free access to the source to profit off of the work of others.

Similarly, in food, we have a problem right now where it’s difficult to know what actually went into, say, a box of cereal. An ingredient list tells you in general terms what’s in it, but not the proportions or amounts (save for certain regulated items), and not how it was processed. We don’t know what cultivars of corn may have been used, or what pesticides the farmers may have sprayed on that corn. In fact, we often don’t even know the country of origin for many items.

If something is organic, it just means that the entire supply chain complies with  the established rules for the USDA Organic label. It still doesn’t tell you specifically how it was grown, or what specific pesticides were used. The list of banned “naturally occuring” substances is laughably short, while the list of allowable “synthetic” substances is hilariously long. This sort of regulatory policy is also inherently reactionary, as substances are only added to these lists after they enter public awareness and are subjected to months to years of lobbying, legislative wrangling, and administrative action by the executive branch.

Likewise, a “GMO Free” label is meaningless. It just says that the genetics weren’t manually tampered with – despite the fact that traditional breeding has resulted in thousands of genome changes in maize alone, or that the sweet potato is a known example of a naturally occuring transgenic crop, let alone other techniques like UV light induced mutations that would not be covered by a labeling standard like Vermont’s.

Open Source Food

How would this work? I’d imagine something like MSDS sheets would need to be provided by each participant in the supply chain from the chemical suppliers all the way down to the packager. Each actor would need to make this information available through an open repository like arXiv, with digital object identifiers for ease of reference.

What you would wind up with, for the final product, is a hierarchical chain of data that would allow the distributor to label their product with whatever consumer-relevant information is required by law, without having to worry about independent validation of the entire supply chain (since this would be a universal mandatory reporting requirement that the USDA would be in charge of enforcing).

Each step of the supply chain below the distributor would just add their own specific data to the chain before them, like so:

  • Packager: information on type of packaging materials and process conditions, reference to product DOIs
  • Manufacturer: information on processing conditions, references to DOIs of all separate ingredients and additives used
  • Raw good distributor: type and typical term of storage; DOIs on single-source goods, or lists of DOIs on mixed or multi-source goods
  • Farmer: farming practices, DOIs of all seeds, fertilizers and pesticides used
  • Agricultural suppliers: MSDS sheets for chemicals, cultivar information for seeds

This may seem to be an unfair burden to small producers, but the reality is that the largest burden will fall on seed and chemical companies like Monsanto, who will have to make the source documentation available. From there, small farmers can simply copy-and-paste the DOI references in their own documentation, adding in notes on their own particular practices.

Admittedly they likely feel there are better things to do with their time than write documentation, but like the software industry, I feel that the better documentation and transparency will pay major dividends in the end. As the old saying goes, sunlight disinfects.

How does this seem from a practicality standpoint? Am I missing anything?

Moving Forward

Restoring trust in our food system is an important step. Once we get past the fear of GMOs, other possibilities open up. Bacillus thuringiensis is an important pesticide used widely in organic farming. But the adoption of the specific genome responsible for its insect-repellent effect in Bt corn has the entire organic industry up in arms. Why should organic farmers be against a strain of corn that uses lower levels of the same exact pesticide to achieve protection against insects? In Backchannel, Ferris Jabr makes the argument that we could accomplish so much more if organic growers adopted genetic technology rather than rejecting it.

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