Consumers are becoming increasingly more concerned with not only who is growing their food, but the production practices used for growing it. With this trend, shoppers leap for labels like “no antibiotics” on ground beef, but few know that cattle are only given antibiotics when sick, and the animal cannot be slaughtered for 90 days (when antibiotics leave the system). Or consumers pay more for “no hormones added” labels on poultry or pork products when federal regulations already prohibit this. It is important for buyers to make informed food-purchasing decisions, and ultimately, identify fact from myth.
Fact or Myth? The majority of farms are factory farms.
MYTH. It’s true most consumers don’t know the farmer in the fields anymore, and this distance combined with the extensiveness of today’s agriculture industry are the primary reasons farms are assumed to be commercial in nature. “In Mississippi and across the U.S., over 96 percent of the farms are owned by families,” says Dr. Erick Larson, associate research and Extension professor at Mississippi State University (MSU). However, Mississippi is one of the few states where a significant portion of the population is still involved in agriculture. As a crop farmer whose family has been farming for multiple generations in Mississippi, Patrick Swindoll can attest, “It’s not some corporate farm whose boss is in New York City. It’s always family-based farms – that’s always been my experience.”
Fact or Myth? There’s not enough farmland to feed the world’s growing population.
FACT. Farming is dependent on land and water, both limited resources. “Due to urban sprawl, there is going to be less land available to produce food for the future. By 2050, food supply may have to be increased by up to 70 percent worldwide,” Larson says. “Most consumers are not aware of the issues associated with food supply and even food expenses,” like that the U.S. spends about $.07; or 6.4 percent out of every dollar on food, far less than the rest of the world. To combat food scarcity, farmers can choose to incorporate new technologies into their production systems, enhancing efficiency and reducing threats from weather and pests.
Larson gives this example: “A century ago, farmers planted about 8,000 corn plants per acre. Today, they plant about four times as many. What has changed over the years is more efficient utilization of natural resources and significantly better tolerance to environmental stress – all due to modern plant breeding.” Mississippi has witnessed this resourcefulness first-hand as “corn yields have rapidly increased up to record levels in 2014, exceeding even the state of Iowa [considered the epicenter of the Corn Belt],” he adds.
Fact or Myth? “Non-GMO” labels mean healthier and safer food.
MYTH. “With the anti-GMO perception by the public, food marketers have capitalized on labeling product as non-GMO, but it has little to do with product quality,” Larson says. “The process of trying to improve genetics has been going on for 10,000 years,” meaning that all foods consumed today are already the result of genetic improvement. While non-GMO labels do carry the assumption that biotechnology was not used to improve the breeding process, science doesn’t support that non-GMO foods are nutritionally superior or safer. “When conducting research that compares nutritional content of foods, it’s very difficult to control every variable that may have an impact on the result. Therefore, it is almost impossible to single out one variable that may be responsible for the observed difference,” says Dr. Brent Fountain, associate extension professor – Food Science, Nutrition, and Health Promotion, MSU. For example, variances in soil minerals will result in subtle changes to nutritional content of similar foods, whether GMOs or not.
As a farmer, Swindoll is also questioned about the safety of GMOs. In response, he opens his iPad with a list of scientific studies and says, “I’ve done my research. I’m perfectly comfortable with eating anything that comes from my field.”
Fact or Myth? Agricultural products produced by American farmers are safe and healthy.
FACT. “We have a safe food supply providing the American population with sufficient vitamins, minerals and other nutrients at a reasonable cost,” Fountain says. There are over 90 government bodies worldwide providing agricultural product regulations, plus three separate U.S. government agencies (USDA, EPA, FDA) overseeing food research and testing before products go mainstream.
If consumers have concerns, Larson recommends asking the opinions of farmers, scientists, experts and professionals in the field. Also, there’s a lot of misinformation online, so be prepared to filter. Lastly, meet local farmers like Swindoll and his family through farmers markets, and start a dialogue about what happens from field to plate. “What farmers grow in this country is safe,” Swindoll says. “The U.S. has some of the best standards in the world for food, and health standards are only getting better.”
Decoding the Label
Ever wonder what the labels on your food products really mean? Check out the helpful guide below to decipher grocery store labels. “100 PERCENT ORGANIC”
“100 percent organic” can be used to label any product that contains 100 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural). Most raw, unprocessed farm products can be designated “100 percent organic.” Likewise, many value-added farm products that have no added ingredients – such as grain flours, rolled oats, etc. – can also be labeled “100 percent organic.” “ORGANIC” “Organic” can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5 percent of the ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products that are not commercially available as organic and/ or nonagricultural products that are on the National List. “MADE WITH ORGANIC ” “Made with Organic ” can be used to label a product that contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water). There are a number of detailed constraints regarding the ingredients that comprise the nonorganic portion.
GMO vs. GE
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organism) occur through selective breeding when there is a need or interest in producing either a desired characteristic in a new combined species or remove an unwanted characteristic in a new species. Seedless watermelons would be an example of a GMO, because they have been bred to grow without the seed. GE (Genetic Engineering) is the term used to describe the high-tech engineering methods available today. For example, this could be introducing genes from one organism to another, which aren’t sexually compatible, or developing a seed that has herbicide and pesticide properties within the seed and plant. Golden Rice is an example of a GE crop because it has been genetically engineered to produce and accumulate Beta-carotene in the edible part of the grain. This creates added nutritional benefits such as combating Vitamin A Deficiency which can lead to blindness in children in developing countries.
Advantages of GMO and GE Crops
- Increase crop quality and yield.
- Reduce risk of threat associated with pests and diseases.
- Allow efficient use of land, water and resources.
- Reduce dependency on pesticides applied.
- Improve nutritional quality and even allergies can be addressed.
- Resistant to specific insects that eat the plant, so not all pests are affected (toxin is targeted).
- Eliminate need to make multiple insecticide applications.