By Dave Bishop

from GeneWatch 29-1 | Jan-May 2016

"Hi, I'm calling to ask if you give farm tours?"

The caller typically continues with a list of concerns about the food their family is eating and how that food is being produced. "Do you use antibiotics if an animal gets sick? Do grass fed cattle get any grain? Can pesticides be washed off? You're organic, so you don't use GMOs, right?"

Each year over 2,000 visitors come to PrairiErth Farm to see for themselves how food can be grown without being drenched with toxins or confining animals into tiny spaces. We walk through the hoop houses and vegetable fields, then into the pastures where they can get a close-up look at the animals. Finally we'll collect a few samples of what's in season, talk with the interns about what life is like on an organic farm, and finish the nearly mile-long trek back to their car. Many will become regular customers.

A recent afternoon visit by a young physician and his family was typical. On the long walk back to the car he described the health issues his patients were experiencing and why he felt that many, if not most, were related to the foods they were eating. He observed that "food labels don't tell you anything about the pesticides that are used to grow something, or if GMO ingredients were used, so it's hard to hard to figure out what effects these things are having on human health." Americans are frustrated with a food system they no longer trust. Farmers are dependent on government subsidies to produce huge quantities of crops that large corporations use to make cheap "food-like" products for big profits. We've become disconnected from our food. Our food system has become disconnected from our health care system.

The industrial scale monocultures that produce those products depend on non-renewable resources - mined fertilizers and chemical pesticides - and genetically engineered organisms that produce more pesticides (Bt corn) or facilitate the use of pesticides ("RoundUp Ready").

Pesticides and pollen from the fields where these crops are cultivated drift onto neighboring farms and contaminate non-GMO and organic crops, reducing their value dramatically.

At today's prices, the value of a truckload (about 850 bushels) of organic corn is reduced from about $7,000 to less than $3,000 if GMO contamination is detected at the point of sale. A single load of soybeans instantly depreciates $10,000.

For the industrial producer of GMO crops in 2016, the profit margin has become too thin to be detected by bankers. In fact, it's in the red. At current prices and production costs, corn will lose fifty cents a bushel (or about $100 an acre) and soybeans may come in at a $2 per bushel loss (again, about $100 per acre). A typical 5,000 acre corn/soybean farm could end the year a half million in the red.

If that's not enough, the technology is failing as well. Weeds once killed by RoundUp, like Waterhemp or Marestail, have developed resistance to glyphosate. Sometimes called "superweeds," such resistant weeds now require more applications of more potent chemicals.  Insects like corn rootworms, once controlled by genetically modified Bt corn, are also developing resistance, meaning - yes - more applications of more insecticides. Farmers are led to believe the answer is to use even more toxic combinations of pesticides and novel genetics in order to defeat the enemy: nature. Meanwhile, the government props up this farming system with its subsidies, while environmental costs - such as pest resistance, cross-contamination, and pollution from chemical inputs and agricultural runoff - are borne by others.


Of course there are alternative ways to grow abundant, healthy and profitable crops. Techniques like crop diversity, the use of cover crops, and extended crop rotations - working with nature - continue to be effective at managing weed and pests, but are much harder for biotech and chemical companies to market. For farmers, it means questioning some long held assumptions and changing the way we've been thinking and operating over the past few decades. Moving away from GMOs isn't about rejecting technology, it's about selecting technologies that help us build soil and provide the ecosystem services - soil fertility, pest and disease control - that all crops require without the need for toxic chemicals.  By reintegrating livestock and increasing crop diversity we can improve agronomic sustainability while offering a more diverse product line to our customers.

Suppliers and buyers of the farms' raw materials have convinced farmers that success means higher yields at any cost. It's necessary to feed the world, which they would have us believe is entirely the responsibility of the American farmer. But if you look closely at the causes of hunger in the world, it's not about producing enough food.

The world produces enough food to feed everyone . . . The principal problem is that many people in the world still do not have sufficient income to purchase (or land to grow) enough food.

World Hunger Education Service, UN, "2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics"

Hunger is mostly about poverty and accessibility. In some parts of the world it's caused by war, ineffective governance, environmental despoliation, and human displacement (e.g. Iraq and Syria). Sometimes transportation and refrigeration problems keep food from getting to where it's needed. At least one third of the food produced globally simply goes to waste. One example of hunger not being what it seems is the Irish Potato Famine, 1845 to 1847, when nearly half of Ireland starved or emigrated when the potato crop failed. Sure seems like a food problem! But in fact during that time Ireland exported meats and grains to England in quantities  at least large enough to feed everyone in Ireland. So why did so many starve? Meats and grains were expensive; what most people could afford to buy were potatoes.

So how did GMOs get a pass on the label? Why should someone have to seek out a "non-GMO verified" or organic product just to get an accurately labeled food product? The silence on GMOs makes consumer confidence in the food system even harder to swallow. If GMOs are so safe, what's the big secret about what's in our food?

Consumers are paying attention. The biotech industries' persistent and expensive opposition to laws requiring labeling of their products has kept the issue on the public's radar. Shoppers are looking for identity preserved and organic foods and they're willing to pay for them. With their legal and political efforts to stop Vermont's GMO labeling law so far failing, food companies are beginning to respond to consumer demands and labeling their products nationwide whether required by law to do so or not.

I guess it's really no mystery why the biotech industry has been so derided for so long. In most of the 64 or so countries where GMO labeling is required, consumers have rejected those products. It's all about industry profit. Why agencies like the FDA and the USDA have been so eager to promote the interests biotech crop companies over those of others needs some explaining.

In farming, like in every other business, informed consumer choices drive change. If American consumers reject products with GMO on the label, farmers will produce the kind of foods they demand and are willing to pay for.  What consumers are demanding is nothing less than a new food paradigm. This paradigm is one of emerging local food systems, and will define the way Americans and people globally will feed ourselves in the 21st century. Sustainable farming systems will have no need for industrial scale monocultures hiding behind "ag-gag" laws, right-to-farm legislation, or secrecy about the farming technology itself. Local food systems will produce culturally appropriate foods close to home using many independent farmers, processors, and sellers who maintain close personal relationships with those they serve.

At PrairiErth Farm we're working with university researchers to develop diverse farming systems that improve the quality of our soils and produce healthy, profitable, and affordable crops without GMOs and their attendant pesticides. Efforts like the Open Source Seed Initiative, begun at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are making non-GMO seed available to farmers without patent restrictions, so farmers can save the seeds grown on their farms and develop local ecotypes. Small seed companies are forming to breed and supply modern versions of old heritage grains with superior taste and nutrition for local chefs, bakers, and cooperative grocery stores. Farms like ours are growing food for local markets and inviting customers to visit the farm, where they (and their kids) can participate in planting and harvesting the foods they share at their table. No transparency issues here.


Dave Bishop is owner of the PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Illinois, is President of the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Council, and a member of the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture's Sustainable Ag Committee.

PrairiErth Farm in central Illinois is a multigenerational 400-acre diversified organic farm producing corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, alfalfa, vegetable crops, beef, pork, eggs and honey. The farm provides the sole support for two families, three full time employees, numerous part time helpers from around the community and offers four full time internships from March through November.

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