Agriculture Shock

The simple act of planting a seed and watching it grow has degraded
into bizarre synthetic agriculture based on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
More disturbing still are the so-called genetically modified “Frankenfoods” that
further distance fruits and vegetables from nature. But most distressing of all,
chemical agriculture’s crops may contain significantly less nutrition than you think.

By Eric Schneider

November 2007

 When thinking of agriculture, it’s easy to imagine the scene of a farmer in a sunlit field or Johnny Appleseed planting a future orchard. However romantic, these notions touch on the inherent simplicity of farming, which—at its most basic—involves people working with nature to produce food beyond their immediate needs. What doesn’t come to mind are planes dropping clouds of chemicals on an expanse of crops or scientists working to modify plant genes. But, increasingly, these are common aspects of modern agriculture.

 Natural farming methods served the world well for thousands of years. But while the Industrial Revolution brought about exponential innovation and vastly greater yields, in the last half of the 20th century even these strides seemed insufficient in the face of surging population and an insatiable desire for productivity above all else. This quest for ever-higher yields initially focused on deterring crop-eating animals and insects, ultimately leading to many decidedly non-organic tactics.

The elder statesmen of unnatural agricultural practices, chemical pesticides came into prominence during the 1940s. Though pesticides were generally quite effective in exterminating harmful insects, it was discovered that they also left behind compounds that poisoned the environment. This issue was publicly exposed in writer/biologist Rachel Carson’s renowned 1962 book, Silent Spring, which led to the widespread banning of the synthetic DDT and essentially jump-started the environmental movement. But pesticide use has continued (and even increased) since that time, resulting in depletion of nutrients in the soil—which, in turn, means less nutrients in crops—as well as chemical residues that remain in produce. While the Environ­mental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits on pesticides, the trace amounts allowed in many foods can still be linked directly to illnesses such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease. In a 2005 report published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a disturbing 73% of fresh fruit and vegetables tested showed detectable pesticide residues.

Frankenfood Future?
    Concern about pesticides not only brought about increased environmental awareness, it prompted a shift towards organic food, particularly in recent years. Generally overlapping with this period, however, has been the rise of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the result of scientists altering the structure of plants to obtain a specific immunity or trait rather than achieving that goal through external chemical application. While allegedly cutting down on the use of pesticides, this technology has made phrases such as “Frankenfoods” and “terminator seeds” part of the vocabulary of 21st-century agriculture.

 Introduced in 1994, the first commercially available genetically modified food, the Flavr Savr tomato, was only on the market for a few years before being shelved. Good thing, since (in addition to its debatably “improved” flavor) its main virtue was a surprisingly lengthy shelf life. Despite the Flavr Savr’s relatively quick demise—reportedly due to production costs, not health concerns—its approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had a lasting effect, paving the way for other GMOs in the form of corn, potatoes, soybeans and other genetically altered produce.

One of the most common GMOs is Bt corn, also known as transgenic maize, which has been altered to contain a bacterial toxin that kills the European corn borer caterpillar. While the added Bt toxin gene has been deemed “safe” in regards to human consumption, concerns still justifiably abound, given the significant (and rather sinister) change in the corn’s genetic makeup. The issues surrounding Bt corn—and, in fact, all GMOs—are complex and often very technical. Dr. Stephen Nottingham, a British-born biologist, attempts to explain the scenario as succinctly as possible in Eat Your Genes: How Genetically Modified Food Is Entering Our Diet (Zed Books) when conveying vocal European resistance to the altered crop. The concerns expressed were “1) a probable increased use in herbicides; 2) the continuous expression of Bt toxins leading to possible resistance in insects, which may make Bt sprays used by organic growers and in biological control programs less effective; 3) the use of the antibiotic ampicillin as a marker possibly transferring antibiotic resistance to micro-organisms in the gut; and 4) the possible allergenic effects of the new enzymes expressed in plants used as food. These concerns corresponded to those raised by environmental and consumer groups, although these groups were additionally concerned about the lack of segregation and labeling.”

 While this sort of jargon may immediately cause eyes to glaze over, what is truly shocking is that this all refers to corn, the simple grain that has been a staple in the diet of civilizations in the Americas (North, South and Latin) for thousands of years. Genetic modification has turned the straightforward process of growing a common crop into rocket science. Perhaps even more jarring is the fact that, as Nottingham puts it, this corn (and its many other GMO cousins) are available in stores—without any labeling. Though many groups have fought to pass legislation that would require the labeling of any commercially available genetically altered food, this has yet to happen, leaving big questions about the origins of many fresh and processed products found in grocery stores.

Equally troublesome is the advent of terminator seeds, which are actually designed to restrict GMOs from unwanted proliferation out in the field. This is accomplished by forcing sterility on the plants grown from these seeds, making the altered genes easier to contain and control. As with genetically modified organisms, the bleak, sci-fi-like lingo is hard to miss, and only furthered by the seeds’ other names—genetic use restriction technologies (or, charmingly enough, GURT) and “suicide seeds.”

A Community Answer
    There is an increasingly popular alternative to chemical-based farming—community supported agriculture (CSA). This concept not only provides members with farm-fresh food, it allows for a more personal connection with farmers. As Local Harvest, one of the most renowned organizations of its kind, states, “CSA is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters which provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Supporters cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest.” With these shareholder contributions, “the farm provides, to the best of its abil­ity, a healthy supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season.”

 Located near the town of Tripoli in northeastern Iowa, the Genuine Faux Farm, owned and operated by Rob and Tammy Faux, is a prime example of the CSA model. While Tammy is employed by nearby Wartburg College in Waverly as a social work professor, and Rob sometimes works there as an adjunct computer science professor, they remain extremely dedicated to the farm, which grew out of a love of gardening. Now in its fourth year, the farm started small, but has expanded to meet the needs and interests of the community. Rob Faux explains, “Our goal was to have eight [shareholders] the first year, and then 20, and then 40 this year. And we did have 42 this year.”

 In addition to the subscription service that they provide to shareholders, Faux and his wife also sell their produce at local farmers’ markets, which double as distribution centers for their members. Faux notes, “The markets have been good. It’s starting to get stressful because with the number of people that we have at the markets now, it’s getting harder to pack the truck. But that’s a good problem.”

The growing interest and involvement in CSAs doesn’t necessarily stem from one specific reason, however. “We actually did a survey last winter after our second season,” Faux points out, “and asked [our customers] questions about what was important to them. Most people said, ‘We don’t care if you’re organically certified. We trust you, and we know who you are, and you’re local. And we like that.’” He continues, “With local growers, you have a face on the farmer. You can come to me and say, ‘I didn’t like that’ or ‘I did like that’ or ‘Would you grow this?’ or ‘Could you give me more of those?’ You can’t do that easily with a grocery store.” Adding to this, Faux observes that “most of our customers have a bit of an altruistic streak in them. They believe that local foods should be supported. Even if they don’t end up eating all of the produce. . .they’re still going to [be involved], because they think this is the right thing to do.”

The further appeal of CSAs becomes apparent when considering specific farming practices. In the case of the Genuine Faux Farm, many of its methods are refreshingly old-fashioned. Faux states, “We actually don’t use any sprays at this point in time. We use a different pest management approach called ‘companion planting.’ For example, we plant beans and potatoes next to each other. The beans help to repel the potato beetles, and the bean beetles don’t like potatoes. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have any [pests], but it maintains the crops at a level where you can continue to harvest, and you won’t have huge losses.”

Of course, in this era of biotech agriculture, and even on a farm that takes great care to focus on organic practices, GMOs are still an issue, though ideally one that’s (literally) far, far away.

“The farmer who does most of the growing around us has not grown—and will not grow—genetically modified seeds, because we’ve asked him not to,” Faux states. “It just goes against the way we think things should be to use genetic modification or terminator seeds.” To hit the point home, Faux explains, “If I grew a particular pepper this year, and I want to save its seeds, then I can grow that pepper again next year. I have a distinct problem with plants that are grown that will produce seeds that are sterile. That is part of the motivation for the seed companies—they want to increase your reliance on them.”

The local aspect of CSAs also comes into play when one considers customer expectation and travel time. “People have learned over time that a tomato should be round and red with no blemishes whatsoever, otherwise it is a bad tomato,” Faux points out. “So what do people hybridize their tomatoes to be? Round and red with no blemishes—but they forget about taste. And then they have to ship. If tomatoes are going to go an average of 1,500 miles [a shocking, but true, statistic for most produce in the United States], they have to be hybridized so that they stay round and red without getting blemished, soft, or dented on their trip to wherever they’re going. So we end up with things that don’t have a great amount of taste, yet they look beautiful. If you grow it [locally], and you let it stay on the vine until its ripe, it’s going to get the most taste that it can get, and it’s going to get the most nutrients that it can get.”

   Clearly cherishing his hands-on connection to the earth, Faux admits that running a CSA has become a calling that he can’t ignore: “I think this is where we need to be going. There are just too many possible things that can happen with our current food chain that we’ve built for ourselves, and they’re not good.”

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