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Food is Screwed

September 28, 2012

Over the past several weeks there have been a smattering of stories about the sorry state of food and agriculture. And each one of these is a topic I’ve wanted to discuss further, but haven’t really had the time.

Then they all pile up, and the backlog becomes a little overwhelming. But the funny thing is that when looking at the slew of reports swirling around the collective consciousness of our tribe, one thing is abundantly clear.

Our “food” is totally screwed.

Today I’ll try to piece a bunch of it together without flying too far off the rails. But there are so many shenanigans at play in the food we eat, it drives me crazy.

Let’s start with corn.

Now I don’t want this to turn into a whole corn bashing escapade. Yes, there are problems with corn, but corn is also delicious. Just last night for dinner, I had locally grown biodynamic corn sauteed with local sausage made with ethically and sustainably raised meat. To bind the whole thing together, I used a broth from the corn cobs to make a loose organic polenta.

It feels like a long time ago that DerryX made some kind of bold and prescient statement that organic corn was more marketing than fact.

His claim has more truth to it than I would care to admit. Because, sadly, there is a lot of cross pollination and GMO pollution in the organic food supply. This is a much larger problem, but I still contend that it makes sense to try and support the farmers who are trying to do things the right way, even if they are unintentionally sabotaged by their neighbors and the prevailing winds.

I was recently sent a compelling infographic about corn, which you are welcome to check out here. It will help to give you a sense about just how much corn we grow and how much our dietary consumption of the stuff has risen over the years. Not because we’re eating more corn on the cob, but because it’s now just in everything.

Organic food was getting attacked earlier this month in the national news based on the results of a recent study conducted by Stanford University doctors. And the findings are ridiculous.

Organic food is no panacea. And if you think it is, you are fooling yourself. But if you don’t want pesticide runoff in our waters, you care about the health of farmers and field laborers, or you want eat food grown without GMO seeds then organic food is for you. And sometimes the best bet isn’t organic but the small local farmer who is as concerned with preserving the land for future generations as he is about selling people nutritious and delicious food.

But small local farmers can grow GMOs too.

As I was thinking about this topic back in August, I contacted the people at Battenkill Creamery and asked them some hard questions about the corn they use to feed their cows. This is the response I got from Yvonne Steiart in their marketing department:

Some of our corn is gmo and some is not. It is hard to find non-gmo cow seedcorn nowadays that is not modified in any way. We are currently researching new companies and brands of corn to further limit the amount of GMO corn we use.

And this is from the place that for the most part is doing everything right. Yvonne’s summary of how they treat their cows is impressive:

Our cows get a mix of grass-fed, corn, alfalfa, hay, and grains (we grow all of our own feed on our farm for the cows – there are no pesticides or insecticides used on our feed). We do not use artificial growth hormones, insecticides, or pesticides. Our cows go on pasture as well as in the barns….they have beds (foam cushioned “mattress” underneath canvas outer layer) to lay on and fans to keep them cool in the hot summer heat. They have a daily milking routine, which keeps consistency in their schedules….cows are creatures of habit and like doing the same thing day in and day out.

You know what Battenkill isn’t feeding to their cows? Gummy worms. Make that factory rejected gummy worms. Because with the summer’s drought, corn prices are through the roof. So large ranchers who have a lot of hungry bovine mouths to feed are cutting corners. They are finding deals on cheap sugary calories that the cows can convert to protein and fat.

I’m not an expert on ruminant physiology, but that just sounds like a terrible idea. Garbage in, garbage out. It’s not rocket science.

I also confess to not being an expert on rats or biology. But did you see those nasty pictures of the tumorous rats that had been fed a long term diet of GMOs? Apparently Russia is using this study as a pretext for blocking the importation of American corn. It’s a very clever move in this chilly political time between our countries.

If you want to read the whole study you can do so here.

Now, should any of this inspire you to reduce your consumption of GMO corn, good luck. Corn is in pretty much everything, and the majority of it is GMO. Seriously, you should check out this list. Or maybe you shouldn’t.

The good news is that Prop 37 looks like it’s going to pass in California. And the hope is that if GMO food labeling becomes a law in California, it will eventually spread to the rest of the country. I would like to say from there it would spread to the rest of the world, but the rest of the world already labels GMOs.

Don’t worry though. Food is screwed for other reasons too. We’ll explore some more of those in the weeks to come.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2012 9:02 am

    There is a lot of information about there and it is overwhelming. Thanks for putting this out there in a way that I could wrap my brain around.
    What I find troubling (in addition to what you have posted) is this: many families have neither the time nor $$$ to spend eating food that is not screwed. That’s the really sad thing. I see it all the time with the work I do with Capital District Community Gardens.

  2. September 28, 2012 9:36 am

    I think you’re close to understanding my point, but there’s a little more to it. You say that “small local farmers can grow GMOs too.” I know for a fact that Monsanto has legally taken measures to deter small farms (and large farms) from growing non-GMO strains. Just a cursory look over some media articles and documentaries provides a look the sad reality that has become for the farmers who have futilely tried to do the right thing over the last 30 years.

    I’m glad you agree, GMO corn is all around us; it’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.

    Labeling is a step in the right direction, but I think the benefits will be seen much farther downstream.

    For me, as far as fresh corn goes, if I’m walking around a farmers market, and I see something that looks good, or I see corn from a producer I know provides quality materials, that’s what I buy. Supporting local for the sake of supporting local when local people sell garbage isn’t at all useful. Supporting local growers and providers that take pride in their craft and are dedicated to providing something that is exceptional (as many — but not all –of the producers in Upstate NY do — we really do have some special ingredients here!) will help our food system by getting more people interested in this great stuff.

    Of course, none of this discussion originally had anything to do with supporting local farmers; we were talking about a box of corn taco shells from Trader Joes.

    • Tonia permalink
      September 28, 2012 9:51 am

      Nice point on the local. I agree.

    • September 29, 2012 11:31 am

      I completey agree about your point on local, and I think that can extend to more than just food. I mean, Garelick Farms is “local.” Arguably, more local (to me) than Battenkill or Meadowbrook. And while Garelick isn’t bad compared to some of the other mass-produced dairy, it isn’t what I think of when I think of “local.” I’m not sure that’s necessarily the right buzzword. We use the term “craft” when it comes to beer and spirits, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for dairy and produce. (I mean … “craft dairy barn”?)

  3. Tonia permalink
    September 28, 2012 9:47 am

    I don’t think it is about time or money, necessarily. I think it is our food culture, the way we approach food. Many people that I talk to just don’t care about the above. Both ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated,’ high income and lower income or whatever.

    Another interesting point that I think Dan was making, which I think I may have mentioned in the past is that, yes, I grow “organic” food, meaning I use organic fertilizer, I do not use any chemicals, etc. BUT, it’s only organic in that sense. I can’t control the runoff or pollution from my neighbors, the road I live on, my surrounding area. Contamination (chemical or in many farmers’ cases GMO crop).

    I do not know much about large scale farming as I only grow a large home garden. But, the answer seems to be to grow heirloom vegetables? The people at Bakers Creek and quite a few other heirloom seed companies I buy from seem to be doing just fine in that respect (& are quite active in the GMO / organic causes).

  4. Laura permalink
    September 28, 2012 11:45 am

    Hopefully I’m not reposting a link that you posted earlier. I can’t remember where I found it originally, but here’s a little more to think about in the Food is Screwed category: http://blogs.babble.com/family-kitchen/2012/09/23/10-foods-with-shocking-origins-and-10-ethical-everyday-alternatives/#tomatoes

  5. September 28, 2012 12:10 pm

    Daniel, thank you for writing about this topic, the more people that know, the more change can happen.

    Just want to share two great organizations the Co-op has partnered with to make gmo labeling mandatory… http://www.nongmoproject.org has its own verification system where companies sign up to get the seal, proudly displaying that their product is GMO-free, also a ton of great educational materials on the topic. At http://www.justlabelit.org individuals can make their voice heard by signing the petition to let the FDA know that they want GMO’s labeled, over 1 million signatures collected so far.

  6. September 29, 2012 11:35 am

    if you don’t want pesticide runoff in our waters, you care about the health of farmers and field laborers, or you want eat food grown without GMO seeds then organic food is for you. And sometimes the best bet isn’t organic but the small local farmer who is as concerned with preserving the land for future generations as he is about selling people nutritious and delicious food.

    This is primarily why I eat organic, and to that, try to stick to the small producers (see above – craft producers? :) ). I do get a lot of dry goods from Trader Joe’s, and will use it to fill in the gaps in a pinch. We’ve been moving more and more to local sourcing of our meat, though, when not Trader Joe’s, we do go to Cardona’s, as though it’s not, say, HWFC’s meat freezer, they do ethically source their meat, and they’re a small, family-owned business that is exactly the type of business I like seeing thrive in the community where I live and work.

    That is to say, as noted from this paragraph above, there are other things I consider when I purchase my food, and seeing the USDA “Organic” label is not the primary concern.

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