Talking to food consumers
AMES- in a world of genetically modified organisms, organic food and modern ag technology, nothing sparks a dynamic conversation about where food comes from and how it is produced like bringing farmers, scientists and advocacy leaders to the table.
Emotion ran high at times among the six panelists who participated in the Nov. 19 Food Dialogues: Iowa, hosted in Ames by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and the Iowa Corn Growers Association. During the 90-minute “Frank Discussion about Food,” the panelists explored the varying opinions of farmers, ranchers and industry leaders to help answer consumers’ questions about GMOs, local and organic foods, and everything in between.
Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, didn’t mince words, describing GMOs as an unsafe technology that’s unraveling in farmers’ fields.
“GMOs are associated with pesticide use, and all this can cause cancer and other health problems for people and the environment,” Murphy said. “The fact is that organic food can feed the world and is the right solution.”
Dr. Wayne Parrott, of the University of Georgia disagreed.
“We have zero evidence of a GMO causing so much as a rash,” said the professor of from the university’s Department of crop and soil sciences. “In fact, GMOs are the most studied foods in the history of mankind.
“We need both quality and quantity of food to feed the world, and GMOs need to be part of the solution.”
Farmers have been planting GMOs since 1994, and statistics have been kept on GMO crops since 1996, said Parrott, citing the 350 million acres of GMOs that have been planted worldwide by 17 million farmers in 30 countries.
“With this wealth of data, we can answer any question on GMOs.”
Great label debate
Murphy, who described his organization as a grassroots community dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects the natural environment and sustains farmers, said he’s concerned about the federal government’s regulatory process.
“Government officials take corporate science submitted to the agencies and approve it,” he said. “At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, we have a regulatory farce written by a biotech lobbyist.
“This has not protected America’s farmers or consumers.”
Murphy is a strong proponent of labeling foods containing GMOs, stressing that consumers are entitled to know what’s in their food.
“For some reason,” he said, “Monsanto has spent $100 million so far to defeat GMO labeling legislation in the United States and Canada.
“If GMOs aren’t bad, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Panelist Katie Olthoff took a different point of view.
“We have two little boys, and I want to ensure that the food we eat is safe,” said Olthoff, who raises turkeys with her husband, Bart Olthoff, near Stanhope. “I turn to scientists for the answers about whether GMOs are safe.”
Labels can be misleading. She cited labels that promote “hormone-free turkey,” even though no turkeys in the United States are raised with hormones. “I’m not sure a label for GMOs would give consumers useful information.”
Olthoff cited her involvement in Common Ground, a volunteer-driven organization created to educate consumers on the truth of American agriculture by opening lines of communication between women who grow food and women who buy it.
While these conversations on based on women’s personal experiences as farmers, Common Ground information also focuses on science and research. “We share information with consumers about what we do on our farm and why we do it,” Olthoff said.
Consumers’ interest in where their food comes from has grown exponentially since Larry Cleverley, of Mingo, started selling produce at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market in 1997.
“Back then,” Cleverley said, “we almost never got a question about our farming practices,” said Cleverley, an organic farmer.
“Now, people want to know a lot more about how their food is produced.”
When the panelists were asked how more locally-sourced foods might be included in Iowa’s school lunch programs, Cleverley pointed out the economic reality.
“Schools often don’t have the ability to pay small, local farmers like me the amount of money we need to make a living. Unfortunately, they often don’t have enough to buy supplies for the kids, much less lettuce from a local farmer.”
Olthoff encouraged the audience take a broader view of local foods.
“Our turkeys go to West Liberty Foods, which supplies up to 80 percent of the turkey that Subway restaurants use nationwide.
Iowa is also a leader in pork production, and many Iowa-grown soybeans and eggs are used to produce products like Hellman’s mayonnaise.”
Olthoff also challenged some of her fellow panelists who commented on factory farms.
“It disappoints me when people equate small with good and big with bad,” she said. “Although our farm is large, we don’t consider it a factory farm.
“It’s a family farm where we focus on animal care.
“When everyone else is enjoying their Thanksgiving turkey, my husband will be choring in the barn.
“There’s room for all of us”
Farmers are continually striving to find new solutions to ensure a safe, reliable food supply while protecting the environment, added Wayne Humphreys, a crop and livestock farmer from Columbus Junction in Louisa County. “We’re adding fences at our farm, because we’ve decided to raise more hay and feed more stock cows.
“My family has also built terraces and constructed wetlands on our property to help protect soil quality.”
On any farm, food production is a long, laborious process that requires many complex decisions and a focus on the future.
“We want to educate people that food just doesn’t magically appear at the grocery store or on their table,” said Cleverley, who is glad that people with different viewpoints are having spirited discussions about food and farming. “There’s plenty of room for both of us.”
For more information on the Food Dialogues: Iowa and to watch a video of the event, log onto www.fooddialogues.com.
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