Farmer Sledge

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  • The ? of GMO

    A VERY COMMON QUESTION WE GET THESE DAYS: SINCE YOU ARE A GRASS-BASED, FAMILY FARM CONCERNED ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL AND HEALTH ISSUES, WHY DON’T WE USE NON-GMO GRAIN?

    Short answer: First and foremost, we want to support our local mill and surrounding grain producers. Second, non-GMO is not always an environmentally responsible option. Not only does non-local carry a greater fossil fuel dependency, many non-GMO grains are grown with a higher quantity or more potent pesticides and herbicides than GMO grain. Third, non-GMO can be price-prohibitive. The Organic option, which ensures a level of environmentally responsible methods as well as a non-GMO product, is often twice, if not three times, as expensive. Organic grain is not local and some of it is supplied from as far away as China. (story: imported grain) Since non-GMO grain would have to be delivered in bulk, we would have to invest in some serious storage infrastructure, which would not only be a huge upfront cost for us, but would end up sacrificing a significant amount of quality, which would in turn not provide our animals with optimum nutrition. This is due to the simple fact that once grains are milled their nutrition quality quickly deteriorates as it sits around waiting to be used. Fourth, while the research pointing to negative health aspects of GMO has been slow to gain credible consensus, we are much more convinced of the detrimental aspects of routine antibiotics and non-fish animal by-products in our feed, as well as the positive benefits of outdoor grass-based systems. With this in mind, we are not willing to sacrifice local infrastructure or environmental responsibility while hiking our prices for an issue that is not our top priority.

    THE ISSUE OF GMO FEED IN MORE DEPTH:

    Although our feed is freshly milled and free from any sort of medication, it is not GMO free. We feel this is the best option for our farm for issues of distance, price, storage, local economy, and other complicating factors. Though this explanation is quite lengthy and divided into separate headings, there is a flow of thought from start to finish.

    INTRO

    GRAIN VS. VEGETABLES: a sack of potatoes ≠ a sack of wheat

    LOCAL SOURCE: how local is local?

    A TRUE ALTERNATIVE?   green-washing the non-GMO

    ‘SUPER ORGANISMS’ & GMOs: Nature’s response

    A TALE OF TWO SYSTEMS

                    a. THE AGRO-INDUSTRIAL-COMPLEX

                    b. AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION

    THE CONSUMER’S HEALTH: in search of the illusive perfect food

    CONCLUSION

    LIST OF FEED OPTIONS (including what an ideal feed-grain operation might look like)

     

    INTRO

    The issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) has come a long way from its beginnings some 20 years ago. Today all corn and soy used for animal feed, unless otherwise stated, is nearly guaranteed to be genetically modified. It has taken decades, but we now see a huge rise in concern over the use of GMO’s. We at Weathertop Farm like the fact that we are taken to task by our customers about our use of regular feed for our animals. People are growing concerned about what they put in their bodies as well as the effect such food has on environment, economy and even gastronomy. However, the GMO issue is quite complicated and is not a separate issue to be addressed in a vacuum. Every year at the farm we revisit the GMO issue and debate the pros and cons among ourselves, so we thought it worthwhile to write up some of our thoughts, both as an explanation for our decision as well as an opportunity to give some framework and context to the issue in relation to animal husbandry as we see it.

    GRAIN VS. VEGETABLES: a sack of potatoes ≠ a sack of wheat

    To begin with, I want to stress that growing grain is a very different sort of process and operation from growing vegetables and fruit, especially as you try and scale it down for local use. One can grow vegetables intensively on a small amount of acreage, and, with excellent management and a commitment to sustainable practices, can produce not only a significant quantity, but a significant variety of produce of the highest quality. To meet the enormous quantities of grain that animals such as chickens consume, the scale of any operation that could actually make any sort of profit has to be a great deal larger and would require vast amounts of land, machinery, financial resources, and expertise. At this point in time, in contrast to corn and soy, the vast majority of vegetables are not genetically modified. Consequently to make the pledge to grow and sell non-GMO squash is a very different and a much more easily attained goal than to make the same claim for eggs or meat.

    LOCAL SOURCE: how local is local?

    Our closest sources for non-GMO feed that might possibly have the quantities we would need for our animals are presently between 100-150 miles away. Much of their grain will also be from additional distances, predominantly from Pennsylvania. Immediately, the definition of local comes into play. One key element of stressing local is to address our culture’s addiction to oil. With conventional food having, on average, traveled thousands of miles to get to our plates, central Virginia and Pennsylvania are definitely an improvement. However, just a 20 miledrive from our farm is a family owned mill, one of the last remnants of local infrastructure supporting agriculture in the surrounding areas. Not only do we highly value the very personal connection we have with those that run Big Spring Mill, but they keep alive the dwindling grain growers in the area. Local soy is not an option as it is not grown in this region, but the mill is able to source at least 50% of their corn from farms within a 100 mile radius. When dealing with thousands of tons, this is an impressive contribution to the local economy. To make up the rest of their grain needs, Big Spring Mill does buy grain from as far as the Midwest and they make no distinction between non-GMO and GMO, mixing all their grain together. While this may deter some from buying their product, the local contribution they make to agriculture seems invaluable to us and is the single most important reason we are not willing to make the switch.

    A TRUE ALTERNATIVE? green-washing the non-GMO

    There are other reasons beyond the local issue that also give us pause in the GMO debate. Some of these relate back to the scale of grain growing that I mentioned earlier. The present public outcry against GMO’s has created a growing demand that is outpacing the supply within the marketplace, but the scale and equipment it takes to grow grain in any significant quantity means that those who are already set up to grow grain are the ones who are in the easiest position to meet this demand. While a demand for organic, non-GMO local vegetables can be relatively quickly provided by small farms, even ones that are starting up with minimal infrastructure, the same is not true for grains. This means that it is often the case that the farmers growing non-GMO grain are the same conventional GMO grain producers who have set apart a portion of their land to be designated for the non-GMO market; this is known as a split operation. (Split operations are also common among large-scale Organic operations.) Whereas the Organic label requires the use of non-GMO seed, there is no requirement for conventional non-GMO grain to follow any sort of organic protocol if it is not labeled as such. This is significant, not because we hold a grudge against such producers, but because such growers have a mindset and methods of growing food that do not share the values that are important to us as people involved in the sustainable movement.

    These days, ‘non-GMO’ being a byword, the average consumerassumes the label is accompanied by less pesticide, less herbicide, less synthetic fertilizer, seeds from a non-Monsanto source, and all around a more organic approach. However, unless the product is accompanied by the Organic label or you are personally familiar with the grain grower, there is absolutely no guarantee that any of this is true. This is a classic case of separating an issue within a vacuum. In fact, it may even be true that some of the practices by non-GMO growers are more detrimental to the environment than the regular GMO grain growers. Whereas there is a growing general hatred towards the Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, which is used in tangent with the genetically modified crops labeled Roundup Ready, it is not the most environmentally destructive herbicide in and of itself. As it has been explained to me, Roundup, an herbicide in the class of glyphosate, has relatively little direct soil activity and only kills any foliage above ground that has not been genetically modified to resist Roundup. Clearly no herbicide is benign, even to the soil, but we cannot forget that many of the older, more conventional herbicides were even more poisonous, directly killing bugs and seeds and the entire ecosystem below as well as above the soil in a nice euphemism called sterilization. This was one of the reasons why Roundup was originally touted as environmentally friendly. It’s all about what you are comparing yourself to. Even when claims are made concerning more pesticides being used, it is important to know if we are comparing glyphosate (foliage only) poisons or atrazine (soil sterilizing) poisons, or any of the other many categories. There is no question that there are detrimental environmental effects from the ubiquitous and constant use of glyphosate, but when weighing the options and operating in the real world, we are reduced to choosing the lesser of evils.

    ‘SUPER ORGANISMS’ & GMOs: Nature’s response

    The quantity of herbicides and pesticides used leads right into the issue of ‘superbugs’ and ‘super-weeds’. I believe it is important to remind people that genetically modifying plants themselves is not what leads to resistant bugs and weeds. What leads to epidemics of resistance is the method of growing grain, which requires mass amounts of poisons as well as fertilizers. It is because the Roundup system worked well that it quickly became the standard and has been used in unprecedented quantities across the country. I am not an expert, but I believe that any poison used so prolifically and repeatedly, without discretion, would result in resistant organisms. It is simply a response of Nature to the modern methods of agriculture, not a unique trait of GMO’s. So what I find lacking in a simplistic approach to the issues, is that a demand for non-GMO grain without a demand to change the methods, is not much of a gain, and in fact can blind us to other sustainability issues that can be just as, or at times even more important, than genetic modification. If nothing else, I hope I can get across that the issue is not quite as clear-cut as some may have us believe.

    A TALE OF TWO SYSTEMS:

    a. THE AGRO-INDUSTRIAL-COMPLEX

    I find it an interesting cultural phenomenon that GMO’s are where ‘green’ proponents seem to be drawing the line. A nerve has been struck and the emotional fervor invested in the issue has taken me by surprise. What does not take me by surprise is the development of GMO crops and the fact that multinational companies and government regulation agencies are willing to ‘experiment’ on a vast population with minimal thought to ‘safety’. Since WWII we have been dumping chemicals into our ecosystem at unprecedented rates. Sure, we no longer spray DDT in our streets, but there are thousands of unregulated or poorly regulated chemicals (many of them much more potent than glyphosate) not only in our food and our soil, but polluting our air and water as well. Has not this disregard for health and nature, in the form of ‘experiments’, been the norm? And it is not just agriculture. There are systemic issues revolving around carbon emission, plastic, rare minerals used in our cell phones, mountaintop removal, and a whole host of other issues that enrich a relatively few at the expense of both other people and nature herself. In light of all this, GMOs are the logical icing on the agro-industrial-complex cake; a small cog that fits perfectly in the agendas of multinational corporations whose goal is to make money while giving little thought to the destruction of the environment, the health of the consumer, or how their unconstitutional claim to intellectual property of life disempowers farmers as well as entire populations overseas who have less means to fight the agro-industrial-complex than we do here in America. What I am getting at is that I don’t see the strategic advantage of making GMO’s the single most important litmus test when it is only a relatively small part of a large system. Even if GMO’s were banned, the multinational corporations would quickly adapt and their systems would be fully intact maintaining their monopoly infamous for their disregard of the environment, health of the consumer, and disenfranchisement of farmers.

                    b. AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION

    The existing system may have its catastrophic faults, but it is the system in place and consequently feeds the vast, vast majority of our population. While it is imperative to build an alternative system, one that is not riddled with hidden and not so hidden costs, the task is quite daunting. Even without the pressure of impending environmental, economic, and social disasters, the task of constructing a food system that can compete with the present one shored up by decades of government subsidies and corporate success, borders on the impossible. Too few people realize the extent of scale needed for sustainable agriculture to become a viable alternative, and just as few feel the urgency. Such exponential growth as needed, coupled with the time factor of impending energy crises, vital resource crises, and global warming crises, makes it impossible for a young agricultural alternative system to meet everyone’s criteria of an environmentally and socially responsible system.

    How does one maintain integrity in the face of such tensions? As I see it, integrity is upheld by understanding that an agricultural endeavor is more than just a sum of its parts; more than just a sum of its issues. Part of a sustainable system’s distinction, is the acknowledgement of viewing the system as a web of interrelating parts that work synergistically and which are difficult to separate into different, individual categories. For a grass-based operation, the pasture is the center ‘hub’ of the web. This is our energy source; one of nature’s solar panels, whose long term efficiency should be a model for us as a society. Around this hub we literally rotate our animals. Feed-wise, some of our animals, like chickens, only get a portion of their needs from the grass and bugs, while others, namely ruminants, can be 100% grass-fed. However, figuratively, the hub is surrounded by other strands of the web: environment issues, energy issues, health issues, local economic issues, animal welfare issues, farmer welfare issues, as well as health and gastronomic issues. And while a grass-based system makes huge leaps towards a more socially and environmentally responsible system, we the farmers, are the first to say that our system is far from perfect. Such an alternative system is a constant diplomatic give and take of literally hundreds of issues all trying to settle into place to keep the farm an intact and living whole. We have issues of breeds and genetic diversity, distance, feed quality, infrastructure, scale, to name just a few—all being juggled against our need to be financially viable in order to continue farming.

    So when the issue of GMO’s is addressed, we can’t simply say GMO=bad therefore take it out of our system. Any addition or change to the system, especially one so difficult to attain, is going to occupy a very distinct space within the ‘web’ of our farm, and potentially shove others out. So if we see that incorporating non-GMO’s into our operation is going to raise prices significantly as well as negatively impact the local infrastructure so dear to us, we must weigh the options. And when you factor in that non-GMO grain is often raised on operations that are not very different from the status quo, this gives us even further pause. The next time you buy meat or eggs from a farm feeding non-GMO feed, do yourself a favor and ask the farmer if they know what kind of system the grain was raised in. What types of herbicides and pesticides were used? Where was the seed originally bought? Is the grain grown as a mono-crop, or do the farmers practice crop rotation as well as animal grazing on their fields? Are synthetic fertilizers used? What sort of distances does this grain travel to get to the dealer and then to the farm? Like I have said, these issues aren’t within a vacuum, separate from each other. And if you are satisfied with the answers, then by all means, buy the product.

    THE CONSUMER’S HEALTH: in search of the illusive perfect food

    So if you have gotten this far, you are likely wondering why I haven’t yet addressed the health aspects to the consumer. Two reasons: first and foremost, because this is the area where I feel like I can speak with the least amount of authority. And second, because this is where the rubber meets the road for most and I am very wary of rocking the boat when such emotional fervor is usually accompanied by both sides of the GMO issue. Putting aside all the systemic issues of intellectual property, increased usage of poisons, and a whole host of environmental, economic and social issues, I personally don’t see much conclusive evidence showing that consumption of GMO’s is directly detrimental to our health. I have looked in detail at some of the more famous studies, particularly that of Seralini with rats and the more recent Carman/Vlieger study with hogs. I say this knowing I risk a very strong backlash from many of my sustainable food allies, but the science in the research does not hold up to close scrutiny and I believe it detrimental to our alternative food movement to use these studies as debate points. I personally, particularly as a hog raiser, would not put my reputation on the line for such research. The key to putting things in perspective, I believe, can be found in the wording of the studies that claim GMO food is safe for health and environment. Over and over one finds the phrase ‘AS safe as conventional food’. The unfortunate reality is that very, very little of our food does not have some detrimental consequences either directly or indirectly. If we go looking for these consequences, we will find them in any food system. In light of that, I believe it is a matter of choosing which evils we are personally willing to live with and which ones we will attempt to avoid.

    Does it bother me that introducing genetically modified food into our lives is, in effect, an experiment on our population? Yes, but though I am unhappy about it, I have grown accustomed to living with this morally gray aspect in just about every facet of our society. In addition, this genetic modification experiment has been going on for two decades already and we have not delineated direct correlation of GMO to the general un-health. The data is still rolling in, but our epidemic of obesity and diabetes has a clear relation to our glut of high fructose corn syrup and sugar, as well as the accompanying Omega 3 issues and such. There is a very strong argument that government subsidies of corn are far more responsible for our health epidemics than the consumption of GMO’s. (Upcoming documentary) In fact, we know for sure that aside from GMO’s, numerous aspects of modern agriculture, as practiced today, are responsible for a whole host of health issues from blue babies, to antibiotic resistant viruses, to e. coli outbreaks, etc… This is not to even mention the health of ecosystems being devastated, whether within the soil, in our waterways, or in the dead zones along our coasts. When we place the GMO and health issue alongside all these scientifically established disasters, I personally feel the GMO issue distracts from these more vital systemic problems.

    As writer and poet, Sandra Steingraber has phrased it, we are all living downstream. With the plethora of chemicals, pollutants and carcinogenic material ending up in our air, our food, and our drinking water, it is actually remarkable how little glyphosate or even the genetically modified DNA has shown up in our systems considering its ubiquitous use. Perhaps atrazine, PCB’s, grain subsidies, routine antibiotic use, to name but a few of the plethora of known problems are simply too old hat and boring for us to spend our time and energy on. In my opinion, to actually confront any of these issues without addressing the faulty and destructive systems that keep generating such problems is like fighting the proverbial hydra. Chop off one head and two more will grow in its place.

    CONCLUSION

    The last thing I want is for someone glancing over these thoughts to walk away with the assumption that Weathertop Farm thinks GMO’s are perfectly fine. I trust our customers have a good sense of the complexities of the issues of our day. The fact that I put more emphasis on other ‘green’ issues than on GMO’s is as much a strategic choiceas anything else. Sustainable agriculture is an attempt to start, maintain, and grow an alternative system that is both saner in its environmental, social and economic responsibilities, and less destructive than the systems in place today. We, as an entire planet, are headed for crises of global impact. Food and water will be at the heart of it all. The hidden costs of modern agricultural systems are already catching up to us, and unless we have other systems in place that have been tried and proven effective, we will suffer a great deal in the inevitable transition. Time is running out and we must choose our battles all the more wisely.

    Finally, I wish to say that I consider myself open-minded and am happy to learn more about any of these issues, as long as the discourse is levelheaded and respectful. I am saddened by the tone of the arguments one finds these days in the public square, and consequently have written these thoughts with a great deal of trepidation. In the end, we are all on the same boat, the same planet. The crises are here at our doorstep and we cannot afford to lose our heads.

     

    LIST OF FEED OPTIONS

    In the search for sources of feed there are typically 4 general categories of feed to choose from:

    1. Conventionally-grown pre-mixed feed: available at your local farm store or mill, already packaged. Sometimes this feed is medicated and often contains a small amount of animal by-products.

    2. Conventionally-grown feed that is custom-mixed: this is what we use here at Weathertop, we take a recipe down to the mill and they custom-blend the feed for us by the ton. That way we ensure that the feed does not contain any medications, antibiotics, or animal by-products that we do not want, and instead we can add nutrients & minerals according to our recipe.

    3. Non-GMO conventionally-grown feed: this is feed mixed from non-GMO feed grains (non-GMO corn, non-GMO soy, etc.), but otherwise are grown conventionally and may have significantly higher levels of pesticide & herbicide levels than the GMO-conventional grains. Our closest sources for non-GMO in large quantities tend to come from Pennsylvania or Ohio. This option tends to be somewhere between 25%-30% more expensive than what we get at our mill.

    4. Certified organic feed: feed made from organically-grown grains (by definition these are non-GMO as organic standards prohibit their use, and should have only USDA organic–approved chemicals used in their cultivation). The extension office at Virginia Tech published a paper in 2009 (VTex2009) about Organic-feed grain markets. They explain how “the U.S. imports 8 times more organic grain than it produces.” 80% of imported grain comes from China, some of this is organic grain. Not only is the organic option the very opposite of local, but it can be 2 or 3 times as expensive as what we get at our local mill.

    5. Above and beyond: We have never grown grain ourselves, but we have heard of a few operations that we find impressive and approach the ideal. Typically non-GMO, but not necessarily labeled Organic, these environmentally responsible operations inevitably include rotations of crops, some even include a rotation where the land is grazed by animals, and the herbicides or pesticides are used at a very minimum, and when used, are also rotated. These operations are typically focused more on encouraging the natural health of the soils than the bottom line. However, though they may not make as much money for their grain, because the land is used in different and compatible ways, it can be used for other sources of revenue such as other cash crops or even meat. Find us a source nearby like this and we will gladly use their grain.