Saturday, September 29, 2012

The GMO Labeling Debate

   The debate over whether genetically modified food should have to be labelled as such has heated up recently with Proposition 37 coming up for a vote in California.  Proposition 37 would require that all food sold in California as grocery (as opposed to restaurant food) be labelled as GMO if it either is a GMO crop or contains GMO crop ingredients.  If Prop 37 passes and survives the court challenges that would follow, then it will likely be the model that federal and other state GMO labelling laws would try to follow.
   It may sound like the kind of idea that farmers like us would be all for, but even though we're altogether opposed to GMO's, we think it's pretty ambiguous whether a law like Prop 37 would even be a good thing.  The thing that we find most troublesome about Prop 37 is that it effectively defines the fight against GMO's in terms that disregard most of the GMO crop acreage in the country.  There are currently only 8 GMO crops being grown commercially, although they include a few of the most widely grown crops.  Corn is the most planted crop in the US, and its leading use is for fuel ethanol. Its second leading use is animal feed.  Soybeans are similar. Cotton falls even further outside the Prop 37 definitions (although cottonseed oil is used as a food ingredient.)  Alfalfa is strictly an animal feed, so it falls entirely outside the Prop 37 definitions.  The other four crops are relatively minor: sugar beets (granulated sugar, etc.), rapeseed (canola), summer squash (zucchini/yellow squash), and papaya.  So our biggest concern is that Prop 37 gives GMO's a free ride for their most significant uses (particularly in terms of acreage): animal feed and non-food uses. Meanwhile we wonder what good the law might achieve.  People that care about the GMO take-over of our farms can easily find out what ingredients (i.e. the 8 crops we just listed) are GMO.  If they haven't even done that are they going to change their shopping habits when its on the label?  And if folks really cared about where their food came from or what went into growing it, then they probably aren't buying fossil fuel- and chemical-intensive, corporate-industrial food from supermarkets, whether it's GMO yet or not.  In other words, if they're already growing their own and buying from local farms that they know and trust, then the law can't help them any further.
   So that forces the question on us: what then should those of us opposed to GMO's do?  Here's something we wrote in answer to that question for another purpose:
   Insofar as we're opposed to GM crops, we think we should all be trying hard to get away from the whole commodity crop system. Relying on the commodity crops that haven't been genetically modified yet is perhaps better than nothing, but it's a hopeless strategy for the long-term (even the "medium-term.")  If we want to continue having non-GMO options, we think we need to take responsibility for starting to develop those markets and sources and growing methods/know-how, etc. now.
   What's most important to us are the issues of what -- if we understand the term correctly -- people are calling food sovereignty.  If farming communities in North Carolina can't control what they grow and how they grow it (and therefore also what they eat), then I think all the other kinds of problems (GMO's, chemical dependency, fossil fuel dependency, exploiting laborers, loss of farmland and soil erosion, etc.) are bound to follow, so we believe any real solution needs to start with wrestling control back from the global powers to which we've given control of our food supply.
   Those of us that would voice opposition to GMO's have developed a pretty good alternative model through farmers markets, CSA's, home gardens, etc. when it comes to in-season garden crops, but we think field crops are our neglected step-children.  There are something like 382 million acres of crops grown in the US.  Only 3.3 million of those acres are vegetables or 4.6 if you include Irish potatoes. We're always disappointed when customers come to us and suggest that they're going to fight the GMO tide by buying vegetables from us. If we're really going to make a difference in how the land in our communities is farmed -- and we think that's one very important way to look at things -- the other 99% (besides vegetables) is what really counts.  (Our numbers, by the way, came from more than one source, none of which we kept track of, but we're assuming they're nonetheless accurate enough to make the point we're making here.) Field corn, soybeans, and wheat apparently make up 198 of the 382 acres of cropland in the US.  Hay (59.9 mil) is right up there. (Land for hay is apparently counted with cropland, but grazing land isn't.)  Cotton is about 4 times as significant as all vegetables combined in terms of acreage.  Grain sorghum has a little over twice the acreage of all vegetables combined.  So the point we're trying to make is that we think the local-organic food movement should be giving a lot more attention to field crops.
   So to talk about answers, we see two kinds of solutions.  One, obviously, is for the local-organic movement to take more responsibility for growing the field crops it consumes, for human consumption but especially for animal consumption (and then also non-food uses like with cotton.)  We'll come back to that.  The second kind of solution we see is finding ways to raise animals without depending (or depending so much) on field crops (on corn and wheat and soybeans and North Dakota peas and alfalfa pellets, etc.) for feeding our animals.  It seems to us the easiest answer on that front and one which is available enough already to customers that want to seek it out is grass-fed beef.
   On the other hand, if we wanted to go out and buy it, we wouldn't know of any North Carolina milk or cheese we could buy from comparably grass-fed cattle (or goats.)  And so far as we know including organic (certified or otherwise) grain feeds wouldn't open up any more options.  There may be an exception or two that we don't know about, but the rule seems to be that the small dairies making cheese are feeding conventional grain to their animals and the large, certified organic dairies producing liquid milk are depending substantially on organic grain (much of which, in addition to the hay, we'd guess isn't at all local) and then sending their milk out of state.  So when it comes to local-organic (certified or otherwise) dairy, we feel like there's a lot of catching up to do just to get to where we're at with grass-fed beef.  Replacing grain with grass does seem to us like the most realistic path to dairy food sovereignty in the face of GMO's, perhaps made more feasible by lower producing genetics, longer dry periods, more seasonal milking, and/or multiple species grazing.  Whatever the technical solutions, we don't mean to suggest, though, that the problem is fundamentally technical.  The fundamental reason for the absence of local, grass-fed dairy in North Carolina markets, we believe, is simply that farmers and consumers don't care enough to want to take on the inevitable expense and trouble.
   From a food sovereignty perspective it appears to us that things only get worse when we consider pork, poultry, or eggs.  At least pasture plays a significant part in the macro-nutrition equation of a lot of small-scale/unconventional (and even some conventional) dairy animals.  There are plenty of producers that pasture poultry or pork for reasons of animal welfare, etc., but little if any of the pastured pork or poultry movement seems to be doing anything to redefine the macro feed equations.  What we mean by that is that these producers are depending every bit as much, both in degree and quantity, on the same sorts of dry feed mixes as confinement producers.  It would be theoretically possible for farmers or communities to grow their own grains and oilseeds (and possibly even press oil and generate oilseed meal) and peas/beans to produce substitutes for the standard feed mixes, but we think that would more than likely demand a scale of production incompatible with the amount of pork/poultry the farmer could find any way to sell, especially when most customers don't ever take any concern for where the feed comes from (so long as they see the happy image of an animal in a natural-looking setting, if they're even educated enough to realize that chickens and hogs are being fed any purchased feeds at all.)  So the best hope we see would have to lend itself to a smaller scale of production, i.e. entry-level for a very marginal enterprise.  We think that would most likely need to be some kind of low-input, low-production, extensive acreage system.  We'd see relying heavily on extensive forage, possibly planted forages, but more likely forest floor kind of stuff (grubs, mast...) and maybe some crop gleaning.  We think just a simple grain feed (like straight corn) that a farmer could conceivably grow himself could then suffice to fill the gaps and make the whole system come together.  The chief challenge would be that a "pastured pork" producer could sell his pork or poultry so much cheaper -- we'd guess on the order of 1/2 to 1/3 the price -- if he just took advantage of the economies of scale that come with the large grain production systems.  (Those economies of scale have, of course, nothing to do with ecological economy.)  The main point here, though, is that accepting those dollar savings of the large-scale systems leaves us without any footing to resist the GMO tide.
   No matter how much the kind of strategies we've been discussing can reduce our consumption of GMO field crops, we're still surely going to depend on field crops at least for supplementing our animals, and we're also going to want to consume field crops directly (i.e. human consumption), so there's still the hugely significant, terribly neglected question of actually growing local-organic (certified or not) field crops.  Suggestions that we can "close the local food loop by feeding locally milled, organic grain" -- and such comments seem commonplace, as do the even weaker assertions that simply feeding any kind of feed to local farm animals offers a real alternative agriculture -- say to us that we as the local-organic movement haven't even looked at the huge hole in our "local food loop," let alone begun the huge task of closing it.  ("Locally milled"?  That's nice, but is that as deep as our local agriculture goes before we happily abandon responsibility to the global economy?  Can't we, if we're really any kind of local food movement, at least aspire to have some community control of the actual agriculture, of soils and photosynthesis?)
   There are, of course, some genuine alternative efforts being made in North Carolina toward local-organic grain, at least for human consumption.  We're too far away to know much about the rice grown in Chatham County last year, but we read about it, and that's remarkable.  We know there are slightly larger things happening with local-organic corn and wheat and soybeans (and not just a byproduct of global-organic.)  There seems to be potential with malting barley, if efforts haven't begun in North Carolina already.  We think the fight against GMO's demands that we particularly embrace efforts to grow heirloom varieties of these crops.  And we think it demands that consumers learn how to use more of the crops that can be and are being grown locally with whatever the local processing limitations are.
   One upside of the small scale we would say is necessitated by local-organic field crops is that large backyard growers should have it within their means to do a lot of what would otherwise have to be left to larger farms.  A 50 foot square garden space could produce a bushel or two of wheat (60-120 pounds) for a family and be harvested, threshed, and winnowed by hand, ready to grind, in an afternoon.  It's an encouraging sign that a second edition of Gene Logsdon's book, Small-Scale Grain Raising, just came out.  We think it's quite conceivable, for example, to keep a few laying hens on a large backyard scale with just hand-harvested field corn, as much forage as possible, plus kitchen byproducts and whatever else can be locally scavenged for feed.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bacon, You asked the question above would a person change their shopping habits because of a label.I believe from the people I have spoken with it would make a differance. The reason being is that Joe Consumer has no idea what GMO is. I have even talked to local doctors and nurses and tell them to go online because their not going to believe a hick farmer like me. One girl now sends stuff that scares me. Not only will they start asking what GMO is it will force industry make available nonGMO products. Then with that knowledge they might become more concerned with the larger crops. Sometimes we just need a chance to learn but thats hard to do without the right subject.

Eric & Melissa Brown said...

Let's take you as an example since you're still anonymous. You obviously know a lot more about GMO's than Joe Consumer, but how has that knowledge changed what you buy any? I'm guessing you never buy papaya, sweet corn, or summer squash in the store, do you? I'm guessing you don't ever eat the first and you grow all your own of the last two, which you did even before you knew these were potentially GMO crops. As far as what you buy for your animals (corn, soybean meal, and alfalfa, if you ever buy any alfalfa), you continue to buy these things even knowing they're GMO, because there's no good/easy alternative, right? I know you continue to buy GMO-fed meats, because I've eaten GMO-fed hot dogs and burgers at your house (which proposals like Prop 37 wouldn't have labeled anyway.) As for cotton, surely you don't make any effort to buy non-GMO cotton clothing. (I don't either.) That's not to say that either of us is content with the situation, but a GMO label (which, again, proposals like Prop 37 never came close to requiring for clothing) wouldn't affect what we buy, especially in the absence of any easy alternative. What about sugar and canola or soybean oil? I'm guessing what is or isn't GMO doesn't affect those purchases for you either, i.e. the choices you make for sugar and oil are the same choices you would make if those crops had never been genetically modified, which is to guess that you still use GMO sugar and GMO canolo/soybean oil. In summary, does your knowledge of what's GMO make a difference in any of the things you buy and use? I'm guessing not. I suspect the general knowledge of GMO's helps motivate you to become more self-sufficient, but you don't need a label for that. So if the knowledge of which particular food items are GMO makes no difference (or very little) in what you buy and eat as a farmer that has read more than enough about GMO's to know how "scary" they are (as you said), wouldn't it make even less difference for Joe Consumer? I see labels most of all leading to complacency with the 98% of GMO crop acres that label proposals like Prop 37 exempt from labeling requirements. Further I think it's more likely that GMO labels will build comfort with all the GMO products Joe Consumer is going to find himself continuing to buy anyway. While there would be some marginal advantages, I definitely don't see labels leading to Joe "asking what GMO is" and "forcing industry to make available nonGMO products," and I have yet to hear any proponents of laws like Prop 37 paint any of the details of how that might happen.