Monday, May 26, 2014

Vegetable flowers - saving seed in the garden









Avoiding the real GMO's

    There seem to be several common misconceptions about GMO's (genetically modified organisms) that lead people to suspect GMO's where there aren't any and in the process to distract them from where there really are GMO's.  You may not know that there are currently "only" 8 GMO crops in commercial production: corn, soybeans, canola (rapeseed), cotton, papaya, summer squash, sugar beets, and alfalfa.  And despite all the talk about disease and drought resistance and nutrition... the superficially noble causes GMO proponents tout, in actuality the single GMO trait that defines most of these crops is merely herbicide resistance, meaning these crops have been genetically modified such that they can be sprayed with more chemicals -- there are good reasons that the companies selling the agricultural chemicals are the same ones genetically modifying crops to go with them -- specifically chemical herbicides (weed killers) that would normally kill the crop, too.  Of course, new GMO's are in the works -- GMO salmon will be available in stores soon, and it will be the first GMO animal you can eat -- so simply avoiding the GMO list is going to get more and more limiting, and we don't mean to recommend that as a path forward. But before we talk about alternatives we want to deal with some of the misconceptions of where we are now.
   The first big misconception is that GMO's have much to do with produce (yet).  The 8 GMO crops are mostly major field (as opposed to garden/horticultural) crops and they take up a huge percentage of crop acreage, but when it comes to the fruit and vegetables you might buy locally, there's not much on that list except for sweet corn (which is just a tiny percentage of all the corn grown for animal feed, corn syrup, fuel ethanol, etc.) and summer squash. Seeking out or supporting a farmer that sells non-GMO tomatoes or green beans or cucumbers or watermelons or apples is (at least for now) like seeking out and supporting a brand of bottled water that advertizes that it's low carb, which is to say it's technically true but it accomplishes nothing except to distract you from why you're really getting fat.
   If you really want to get the GMO's out of your diet -- we'll ignore GMO non-food products like biofuels for now -- you should look first to the animal products you consume.  Meat and poultry and dairy and eggs and farm-raised fish account for the lion's share of GMO food.  If it's not either (1) wild caught (as in fish), (2) all-grass-fed (which as far as what's presently on the market is limited almost entirely to beef), or (3) one of the very few actually USDA organic-fed animal products, then it's almost always made of GMO feed.  Supermarkets like Whole Foods seem especially prone to mislead customers on this point.  Even the employees at the meat counters of supermarkets like Whole Foods don't seem to understand that most of what's in their cases is made of GMO's.  If an animal product isn't specifically labeled (1) wild caught, (2) all-grass-fed, or (3) USDA certified organic (even assuming the whole supply chain has dealt honestly and the product is labeled accurately), it's almost certainly made of GMO feed, and all the anti-GMO public relations material and all those non-GMO labels all over the rest of the store are serving to distract you (like non-GMO labels on bottled water) and give you a completely false sense of the GMO reality.
   Animal products from farmers' markets and other local, direct-market sources, unless they fall into one of those same three exceptions, are likewise mostly made of GMO feed.  Direct-market farmers that have or express any kind of organic leanings almost never grow GMO crops of any sort, whether as food or feed, but these same farmers often do buy GMO feed and other products grown on other farms to use on their farms and to feed their animals.  These farmers don't use GMO's in these ways because they're any less opposed to GMO's than you probably are; they use GMO's for the same reasons you'd probably use GMO's if you were trying to produce the same products: because it's mostly impossible to be vertically integrated (i.e. to grow everything your animals eat) and make a living at the same time, especially when hardly any customers are prepared to pay significantly more for comprehensive integrity than for superficial window dressing and misleading advertising.
   For a grain farmer it actually wouldn't be that much harder to grow non-GMO crops, but the trouble is that we've abandoned local control of all grain farming.  The grain farmer's trouble wouldn't so much be growing the crop as finding buyers for eleven million pounds of grain grown any other way than the absolute cheapest way possible, and in today's context that means GMO's.  In other words, all the remaining grain farmers -- unless you count our attempt to resurrect local markets beginning with cornmeal and grits, which, frankly, haven't been very popular -- are completely dependent on selling to global markets, and it's those global markets instead of local farmers or consumers that effectively decide how grain is grown here.  Abandoning local control of grain farming might not have seemed so bad at first, but now that we've lost sight and understanding of where our food is coming from the collateral damage and abuses (like GMO's) are really stacking up.  So the only option that's left and what is so much harder (and getting harder yet as we get further and further from the working knowledge and the small farms and locally suitable seeds for grain crops, etc.) is simply farming outside of the mainstream at a marginal scale.  However, farming at a marginal scale is the only real answer to food sovereignty (which means being able to choose what we eat instead of letting global markets directed by ag-chemical-pharma-biotech companies make all those choices for us.)  To the extent that it exists at all, the market for homegrown alternatives is much too small (and getting smaller the longer we wait) for farmers to employ the labor-saving machinery for growing and harvesting and processing the grain crops that generally make animal products so historically cheap.  Even the biggest farmers at local farmers' markets selling GMO-fed chicken and eggs from GMO-fed hens and pork from GMO-fed swine and cheese from GMO-fed cattle or goats... even these farmers aren't coming close to the scale (the millions of pounds of grain) that even the smallest end of today's grain production machinery dictates.  The same challenges apply to the major GMO non-animal products: granulated sugar (from GMO sugar beets), corn syrup, fats (vegetable oil, cottonseed oil, shortening, etc.), and other soybean products.  There's no simple, homegrown alternative to these foods for the consumer buying them or the farmer wanting to produce them, but there are solutions to these dilemmas beyond just avoiding the pervasive and growing number of GMO's.  The real solutions demand a level of consumer involvement and commitment that mostly just hasn't come together.
   We're not trying to single anyone out as the guilty party.  We think the problem is simply that even the local food system is much too fractured.  The solution we're hopeful for is for farmers and their customers to form much deeper partnerships where customers trust farmers to grow like they would if they were growing for themselves, not just vegetables, and not just vegetables and superficially local animal products (made of purchased, commodity feeds), but replacements and substitutes for the foods that farmers' market customers (and most farmers) currently take for granted they're going to buy from the corporate food system: grain products and other dry goods, everyday sweeteners (including pre-sweetened prepared foods like ice cream or chocolate), canned, frozen, dried, and stored produce, fruit like apples and bananas and oranges, etc. Of course, farmers can only grow for customers the way they grow for themselves if farmers actually do grow for themselves and if customers are willing to choose and eat and preserve and prepare foods the way farmers do for themselves, accepting limitations and letting those limitations lead, among other things, to new ways of eating, etc.  The way things are now, consumers pay farmers to do things (like producing GMO products) they don't want, and farmers do things they don't believe in and would rather not do, and the reason is that farmers are selling to the marketplace instead of specific consumers.  As long as farmers are forced to compete in a marketplace where consumers aren't invested enough in any farm to understand and support real alternatives consumers will find very little in the way of real alternatives.  In other words, farmers can't make a living doing things that inevitably add to their costs (whether that be growing without GMO's, etc. or simply growing on a locally accessible scale at all) when the market can't recognize and appreciate the differences.  The path we'd like to recommend is to connect deeply enough with specific local farmers that share your core food/farming values and that you can get to know well enough to trust to transform your food choices.  If that sounds really challenging and complex, and you need an easy answer, here's your alternative: go to the supermarket, buy whatever the ag-chemical-biotech-pharma companies and their servants in the government teach you to want (including, prominently of late, GMO's), and trust that that system is the best guardian of your interests and values.