How to “Look Under the Label”

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a women’s group at the 5th Annual Women Gaining Ground Conference presented by Women, Land & Legacy. There we were, many different women with many different backgrounds. Some in attendance were married with kids still living at home, while others were single and maybe still in school. And, there were women present who were wise with lots of valuable life experience. As I looked towards the audience and began my presentation, I pointed out a commonality that we all shared – we all eat!

I don’t know about you, but I try to eat three meals a day, with a snack in-between. As mothers and grandmothers, we feed not only ourselves, but our families too. Our families are the most important thing in the world to us, so we want to feed them the best and the healthiest options we can afford. A quick glance around any grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with many different messages. Grocery store aisles surround us with marketing messages including various food labels, that are trying to get our attention, capture our pocketbooks and claim that status of best and healthiest.

How marketing impacts food labeling

But what is the real story behind these labels? What do they mean? How can we sort out marketing speak from factual information that can have an impact on our health? The definition of marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” So, if food labels are marketing, what does this mean for us and how do they affect our decisions at the grocery store?

First, it’s important to recognize there are four types of food labels.

  1. Nutrition Facts labels: These are usually on the back or side of the packaging and are required by law on most packaged foods providing details of nutritional content.
  2. Health Claim labels: These describe the relationship between food and its health benefits or the reduced risk of a disease.
  3. Nutrient Content Claims labels: These are usually found on the front of the packaging and are voluntarily placed by food processing companies to help market their product.
  4. Farm Production Style labels: These describe the type of farming practices used, or not used in producing the food.

While looking at these labels, we should ask ourselves two questions. Is this label telling me something about the product? Or, is it using marketing tactics to convince me to buy the product? In researching the topic of food labeling, these two questions have challenged me to look at grocery shopping in a new way. When I pick up an item off of the shelf I have been asking myself, “Did the label tell me about an item or did the label sell me on an item?”

Labels that ‘tell you’ identify food with an objective, measurable difference from one package or brand to another. The “No Added Sugar” label is an ideal example. This claim can be measured in grams of sugar and verified using the Nutrition Facts Label which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Choosing a diet with foods low in added sugar has been scientifically proven to help people maintain a healthy weight.

Labels that ‘sell you’ separate foods that don’t actually contain a measurable difference in safety, nutrition or other factors. While these foods may be produced in different ways (eggs produced by chickens housed in cages verses hens in free-range housing) the end product provides the same levels of food safety, quality, and nutrition.

No HFCS, Non-GMO – No Matter the Label, it’s still Marketing

syrup

If a label reads, “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” what does that lead you to believe? Possibly that HFCS is bad? That you should pay more for a product that does not contain HFCS?actually no hfcs

 

Table sugar (typically sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose) is readily available to the cells in the body to produce energy. High fructose corn syrup is chemically very similar (usually 55% fructose and 42% glucose). So, the claim seems to be a marketing ploy. But, in general too much sugar of any kind (fructose, sucrose, glucose) in the diet is the problem, not necessarily the type of sugar.

nongmoproject

When a product is labeled “Non-GMO” what does that lead you to believe?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic when it comes to food and food labeling products in the United States. You would think GMOs have bombarded the produce section of the grocery store. You would think it is difficult to avoid GMO fruits and vegetables. But the reality is there are only ten approved varieties of GMO plants. Of those crops, only five could be found in the produce section. They are sweet corn, papaya, potatoes, squash, and the Arctic Apple. (The Arctic Apple won’t be widely available on store shelves for a few more years.

fruit

Now what about “organic”?

Are they grown differently? Are they healthier? Are they pesticide free?

 

 

actually organic

We can use an analogy to illustrate the difference between a conventional and an organic farm. If you had a tree that needed to be removed, then you would need a tool to cut it down. You could use an ax, a hand saw, a chain saw, or a larger tree cutting machine to get the job done. Each of these tools have pros and cons. Different people see different advantages and disadvantages of each tool and have a different opinion of which tool is “best” for the job.

In organic farming, the farmer only gets to use a limited set of tools. In the case of our tree maybe they just use the ax or the handsaw. Conventional farming has the choice of using a lot more tools including different pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology, etc. This is represented in our analogy by getting to use any or all of the four tools to cut down the tree. Farmers use different “tools” to grow crops and depending on what they use determines whether they are considered organic or conventional.

By now, I am sure you have started thinking about how food labels impact consumer choices. Consumer choices directly impact the decisions farmers make in the production of our food. To learn more about food labeling and how food is grown visit www.iowaagliteracy.org where you will find this and other classroom lessons.

-Melanie

Locally Grown

It’s January and I just bought some locally grown lettuce. The grocer specifically labeled it as locally grown with a fancy sign making it look like it was better lettuce than the other stuff. So I saved the world! I just bought local which is surely better….right?

Well, not necessarily. It may come as a surprise, but if you are buying or eating locally grown food, it may not be food grown in your community. There is no set determination for the definition of locally grown. Locally grown products may have been grown at a local farm just up the road, in the same county as your farmers market, or possibly even within the same state. However, in other cases, locally grown produce may have come from 250, 400, or even 1,000 miles away from the point of purchase.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 defines locally grown as “being transported less than 400 miles within the state in which it is produced.” But retailers, states, farmer’s markets, and other organizations may use their own definition.

By the Food, Conservation and Energy Act definition,  if I was a farmer in Council Bluffs, Iowa (western side of the state) I could sell my produce in Bettendorf, Iowa (eastern side of the state) which is 310 miles away. Similarly, if I was a farmer in Hornbrook, California (extreme north) I could sell my produce in San Diego, California and call it local. But that is more than 800 miles distance to the south! Seattle, Washington which is two states away and north is closer to Hornbrook at only 480 miles away – but then my produce couldn’t be called local.

Specialization and Trade

There are a couple of theories behind local food. 1) It is better for our health, 2) it is better for the environment, and 3) it is better for the local economy. Let’s look at the environmental argument first.

“Economists have long recognized the welfare gains from specialization and trade. The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks. So California, with mild winters, warm summers, and fertile soils produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, on the other hand, produces 30 percent of the country’s russet potatoes because warm days and cool nights during the season, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for ideal growing conditions.” – Steve Sexton.

This is called comparative advantage. Ignoring the concept and the advantage means it will require more inputs to grow the same amount of food. This means more land will be used. More chemicals will be used. More carbon emissions will be spewed out into the atmosphere. There are a number of different models floating around on the internet, but they suggest that if we were to transition to a purely local production system in agriculture it would take between 25 percent and 50 percent more land to produce the same amount of food we produce today.

The other environmental concern is carbon emissions from transportation of food. But estimates suggest that only 11 percent of carbon emissions come from transportation. The bulk of carbon emissions in the food system – 83 percent – come from production. So while it would be nice to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation, we can make a bigger impact by improving technology on the farm and reduce emissions on the production side of the system.

Healthy Options

Local food is often associated with organically produced which is often associated with being the healthier option. But is it? This one is a bit more complicated to unravel. Local food is defined (yes, but earlier I said it wasn’t defined….stick with me here) by the distance it travels from where it was produced to where it was sold. By definition, that means it has nothing to do with the quality of the food or whether or not it is healthier.

What can have a larger impact on the health benefits of the food is what time of year it is grown and produced. For example, a tomato that is grown in the summer months with adequate rain and nutrients will likely develop more natural sugars, be packed with vitamins and minerals, and be very ‘healthy.’ By contrast, a hot-house tomato that is grown in the winter months with less daylight will not be as healthful. It won’t have had the same opportunity to develop those nutrients. BUT, the difference is small and really negligible. The most important part of a healthy diet is eating lots of variety of whole foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. Eat meat. Drink milk. Worry less about where the food came from and more about portion size and diversity of diet.

Many local food producers are small-scale farmers and many of those raise produce organically. There is an assumption that organically grown produce is raised without chemicals, but this isn’t necessarily true. Organic growers can still use pesticides. So if your goal is to reduce exposure to chemicals then buying local isn’t a sure thing. And buying organic isn’t a sure thing.

IMG_2105.JPGConsider this: nearly all apples contain detectable levels of pesticides. But, the presence of a chemical doesn’t equate to the presence of a risk. Fewer than 0.1% of apples tested have pesticide residue levels higher than the governmental limit. Even though most apples tested have detectable chemical residue, most were far below the permissible level. So the benefits of eating the apple and getting good nutrients outweigh the risk of chemical exposure.

A Boon to the Local Economy

While the premise of buying locally produced food falls short on the environmental factors and the health factors, it shines when considering the local economy. Studies have shown that small farms are more likely to earn a positive net farm income by selling locally. Other studies indicate there are nearly 32 jobs created for every $1 million in revenue generated by farms who are directly marketing their produce. This is compared to only 10.5 jobs per $1 million with large farms.

In our modern society, the number of farmers continues to decrease. As farms get larger and more efficient, the number of people it takes to grow food declines. Currently, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly involved in food production. But, local food can help increase the number of farmers. Local food sales receipts are upwards of $4.8 billion. These direct-to-consumer sales are great, but the real answer might lie in connecting small and mid-sized farms to large-scale food buyers.

nfsn-social-link-share.pngLocal producers can also benefit through programs like Farm to School. This national program is used in more than 42,000 of the roughly 100,000 school districts across the country. The premise is to connect local producers to local school districts providing the ingredients they need to produce up to 30.5 million school lunches every day. This is a great way of helping source local produce. There is an educational element to it so kids can learn about where their food comes from. But the primary benefit is giving priority to local producers.

Local food can also come in the form of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. This can be a fun way of getting to know your local farmers. All goods are locally produced and usually seasonally grown. It can be fun to get a box of lettuce and carrots one month and a box of turnips the next month! Anyone know any good recipes for turnips?!!!?

Ultimately, food choices are hard. Locally produced food is a nice idea. But it doesn’t always make sense. It can be a factor when you consider what produce to buy, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. And don’t confuse local with organic or other gimmicky descriptors. Just eat a well-balanced diet. Not too much, not too little.

-Will

The Problem with GMOs

As a lover of food, I like many of you have some opinions on genetically modified organisms or GMOs in our food supply. Are they a good thing? Is their safety still in question? As I see it, there are a couple problems with GMOs that will make it hard for Americans and others throughout the world come to a consensus on the issue.

dnaFirst and foremost, there is the problem of imprecise language. Genetic (genes, chromosomes, DNA). Modification (to change). When two parents come together, half of the chromosomes are transferred to the offspring from the female and half from the male. This means that the offspring has been changed. It is genetically different from either the mother or the father. Modification at the genetic level has happened. Throughout history this has happened millions of times in natural settings. Genetic modification is a way of nature. But when we hear the term GMO, we are usually talking about genetic engineering or when humans control what genes are transferred and exhibited in the resulting offspring. Genetic engineering typically happens in a controlled environment. In nature the 50% from the female and 50% from the male is very random. In genetic engineering the human guided result is more precise. Specific genes that have been studied and have known benefits are targeted. This human guidance can speed up nature and make plants and animals that can address a known problem.

Secondly, in the USDA classification of Organic, GMOs were tacked on kind of like a rider on a congressional bill. The USDA guidelines for organic crops certify that genetically modified organisms were not used. It might stand to reason that the organic certification was intended to eliminate the use of pesticides on crops. Many organic producers plant hybrid species. So the conversation is muddled. What the USDA Organic certification has done is lumped together two very different conversations – pesticide usage and GMOs. Marketers very cleverly position organic certified products touting how they are also GMO free and the two become synonymous in the eye of the public. This unfortunately pits two groups against each other and polarizes a battle that maybe should not be a fight at all. There is a place for organics in the marketplace and there are benefits to GMO crops. Why can’t we have both?

Time and time again I hear from teachers about the emphasis on reading and mathematics in elementary school. Science gets pushed to the back burner and sometimes is never addressed. This creates a lack of science literacy in our children that grow up to be uninformed consumers and decision makers. Science should be evidence based. We should arrive at conclusions about the world that we live in by examining the facts, conducting our own experiments and trials, and using the evidence that we collect. Wikipedia and Dr. Oz do not count as evidence. We should be critical thinkers. But when it comes to GMOs we sometimes turn off critical thinking to even understand the issue. The by now famous Jimmy Kimmel sketch is a perfect example of this. People he interviewed were adamantly opposed to GMOs. But when questioned, they didn’t even know what GMOs were. They should have based their thoughts about GMOs on evidence rather than on media hype.  

science experiementScience is (or can be) boring. But it is also amazing! As someone who loves science, I freely admit that I could have never been a scientist. Science takes a lot of patience and is full of frustrations. Science requires meticulous attention to detail, observation, and the ability to perform the same experiment over and over again to confirm the results. The ‘Eureka moments’ of science are usually pretty rare. And when a breakthrough does happen (like a new genetic trait that can be engineered) it requires months or years of testing. Then the findings are submitted to a community of scientists to review and validate. Then the community of scientists conduct their own version of the experiments to verify the results. Then the scientific advancement has to be approved by government regulators for safety before it would ever come near the food supply. This long, arduous process loses its luster quickly. And as a general public we are less likely to understand or even care about all the hurdles that each scientific advancement had to go through before we hear about it.

Once a new biotechnology has made it through testing and all of the regulatory hurdles there are still a lot of people who will likely oppose it. Their opposition can sometimes be well founded and it is good that we have these questioning minds in our society. But sometimes a very loud, vocal opposition (that may not have evidenced based concerns) builds a large base of support. These vocal opponents often make such a stir that we are hesitant to speak up for the science in fear of being singled out. This spiral of silence creates a vacuum of truth. The only message that is being pushed out is the negative anti-science message. So whatever your thoughts on GMOs are, it is important to understand the science behind them so we can have a healthy debate and end the spiral of silence.

We’re human. Because of my humanness I am curious and have the right to be skeptical. I think this is healthy and that all of us should be skeptical. We should question everything around us. When a new GMO technology comes to the marketplace we should ask why. We should ask if it is safe. We should ask if it benefits us. Then we need to have an open mind to hear the answer and learn. Many GMO technologies allow farmers to spray less chemicals on their crops. I love the idea of less risk of ingesting pesticides. GMOs make that possible. And I also like the idea of my apples not turning brown immediately after I cut them. GMOs make this possible. As humans we have fears and we need to acknowledge those fears as legitimate. Often times understanding calms that fear. I’m still going to question the world around me because I want to understand.

Where do we go from here? Let’s start by talking about genetic engineering rather than GMOs and clearly define the issues at hand. Let’s separate the idea of GMOs from the idea of Organic. Let’s put a priority on teaching our children evidence based science. Let’s celebrate the scientific process and grant a small amount of trust to the scientific community for doing incredible research that improves our lives. Let’s stop the spiral of silence. Let’s keep our healthy skepticism AND approach each issue with an open mind. Are you up for the challenge?

-Will

New Year, New Relationship: Food

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The holidays are officially behind us and the new year ahead. As we come out of our festive coma, we look at the past year and reflect. We remember the good times, the bad times and everything we didn’t accomplish or did (you go-getter you!). We also remember the savory meals, the delectable desserts and satisfying sweets, and how many pounds we gained eating grandma’s fudge. We resolve to do things differently, the first being that we will never eat sweets again. Well, until we pass the nearest ice cream shop. (And then we will only get one scoop instead of two.) The second typical resolution usually revolves around body image; we are going to get thinner, be healthier, lose weight, eat better, go on a diet, etc. We start the new year, focusing on food, what we will eat, what we won’t, which foods are healthy, which aren’t, fatty or lean, and it goes on and on and on. With so many options it’s no wonder that when we decide to change ourselves we start with what nourishes our bodies.

78321160Our bodies are rather wonderful things. What a body does with food is astonishing – breaking down components (carbohydrates, proteins, fats) to usable amino acids and sugars. It’s amazing how our cells absorb those amino acids and simple sugars to make energy that keeps our bodies going. What we put into our bodies is really important, and that’s why we resolve to cut back on the ‘bad’ foods and increase the ‘good’ foods. But, which is which? If you have a piece of pizza with kale, chicken, light sauce, cheese, and fresh tomatoes is that bad? What about gluten-free spaghetti noodles with turkey sausage and a tomato 485913907sauce? Or, are canned fruits and veggies better for you than fresh? Or, are free-range organic eggs more nutritious than their non-organic caged counterparts? Talk about first world problems. But what does healthy really mean? ‘Healthy’ means to be in good health. ‘Health’ means “the condition of being well or free from disease”. So when you eat a single Twinkie as a treat, and don’t get sick, does that mean it’s healthy? Or you eat an entire bushel of fresh peaches and get the runs, does that mean it’s unhealthy?

452591071With access to more information and a plethora of sources to get information from, deciding what you eat has become something of a hassle. Throw in economic status and household income and diets can drastically differ between people who live in the same city. Celebrities influence diets, doctors suggest a different diets and many have decided to eat like Neanderthals (know the Croods anyone?). Instead of trying to figure out what’s ‘healthy’ what’s ‘unhealthy’ and which diet will help you lose the most pounds, we should be developing a healthy relationship with food and understand how it affects our body. Maybe there is no such thing as ‘bad’ food. You can eat a variety of foods, considered healthy or unhealthy as long as you understand what it will do to you and for you. Everything in moderation. Those who have a good relationship with their food understand the balance one needs when managing diet.

Here are some tips to improving your relationship with food:

  • Know the difference between a treat and eating the entire pan of brownies (Too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing.)
  • Eat breakfast every single morning (This jump starts your metabolism and helps you burn calories throughout the day.)
  • Eat when you are hungry, but don’t over indulge (Listen to your body. If your stomach growls it means you are running on empty and need to refuel.)
  • Stop eating when you are full (Eat slower so you can better determine when you are full. You can also measure out portions. Tip: most portions should be smaller than you think.)
  • Eat in servings, don’t eat the ice cream straight from the container (Portion control is huge. Simple tricks like using a smaller bowl or plate can really help.)

475901949As we resolve to do better, be healthier and make this year the best it can be, don’t shy away from losing those pounds or eating better. Go out there, get active! Research your foods and decide what you feel is good for you. Go see a nutritionist. Get educated about your food and how it affects your body. Eat in moderation, but don’t forget to treat yourself occasionally. May this year be the year of food and smart eating.

– Rheba Yost is a guest blogger for IALF. She works in ag media and holds a degree in agriculture from Kansas State University.

 

4 Reasons To Care About Where Your Food Comes From

People today are becoming increasingly passionate about the food they eat and where it comes from. There are extreme examples of this everywhere.

Being passionate is a good thing! But, we live in a world of specialization in which we allow segments of the population to focus on one task (i.e. food production) so that the rest of us can be engaged in other pursuits. It is still important for all of us to understand food production and know where our food comes from.  Here are my top reasons you should care:

  1. blog-food_cycleKnowing where your food comes from bridges the gap between farm and fork. The United States has one of the world’s safest supply of food. But that food system relies entirely on trusting the people that were involved along the way. We have to trust the chef who prepares the food (if we aren’t eating at home). We have to trust the farmer who produced the food. We have to trust the grocery store who sold the food. And dare I say, we have to trust the corporations that might have been involved in processing or transporting that food. We have to trust that they have our safety as a top priority and that they care about the quality of the product that they are providing to us. At the end of the day they still need to make a profit and so we sometimes question their motives. But incredibly, each segment of the chain finds economies of scale and how to maintain the U.S. food supply as the cheapest in the world. As Americans become further removed from that process of farm to fork, that trust gap widens. So it is important for us all to know and understand the process that connects farmers to consumers.
  2. In the words of farmer and writer, Wendell Berry, “Every time you make a decision about food, you are farming by proxy.” We should care about what we are putting into our bodies. Health experts promote a varied diet that is balanced. We should be looking at ingredients lists. We should be concerned with our overall health and what is in our food. But, there is more than one way to crack an egg which means we should each be seeking out a diet and lifestyle that works for us as individuals. Organic might be a solution. Gluten-free might be a solution. Cage-free eggs might be a solution. But, none of those solutions should be implemented across the board as the silver bullet (gluten only affects less than 5% of the population). Only by being educated about the system and then understanding our own personal needs can we make informed decisions and farm by proxy.
  3. Anyone who has seen Food, Inc. might have a jaded view of agriculture. The media thrives on the hype of a food safety problem, the scandal of a corrupt corporation, and the fear of a newly discovered hazard. The negative of our food system gets far more air time than the positive. When was the last time you saw a news story covering the fact that more than 300 million Americans had three meals a day all produced by only 1% of that population? It isn’t news because it happens everyday. Movies like Farmland show the everyday farmers who are making the best possible decisions to put food on their tables and yours without the media sensation and hype. Is there room for improvement in agriculture production, yes. Do we still have a problem with food insecure people in America, yes. But the bottom line is that we are working hard to continually improve. Changing the system and production practices for the better.
  4. Food is a part of our culture AND a part of our economy. It is really hard to separate these in discussion because our culture is so emotionally driven. We want food to be safe and delicious. But, the economic discussion appeals to our logic. We want food to be affordable. Researchers utilize technology to address both of these issues and the conversation becomes murky. The safety of GMOs has been proven time and time again. But, fear of the unknown makes us continue to question them. Will we ever find the balance in the conversation?

We each play a part in this debate. And there are things that we each can do everyday.  Here are a few things that you and your family can put into action.

  • edible historyLearn about some of the history that created our modern food system. I recommend An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage.
  • Meet a farmer.  Ask them why they do different things on their farm. It makes for a great family outing.
  • Tour an agribusiness or research company. They aren’t always open to the public for tours, but school groups and educational groups regularly take tours. Try to accompany one of them.
  • Buy things in season. This helps minimize transportation costs and can be healthier and more flavorful produce. Try this handy food miles calculator.
  • Take a cooking class and learn how to prepare more things at home.  This can be a lot of fun and you’ll have more ownership in what you eat.
  • Ask questions! The more you know, the better.

-Will

The Wildly Misunderstood Buzzwords of Agriculture

Food is important.  We have an intimate relationship with it at least three times a day.  But, going to the grocery store can be really confusing when you are trying to find healthy, delicious, nutritious and affordable ways to feed your family.

There are so many terms flying around that tout benefits or warn us of dangers.  Marketers have really muddied the waters of understanding and agriculture and food is not clear cut.

“To many consumers and some producers there are only two sides:  the organic/sustainable farms and the big agribusiness/corporations,” said Megan Brown.

“This false dichotomy that society has bought into has created problems.  Unfortunately, agriculture is not as simple as the buzzwords we use to describe it.  Organic doesn’t always equate to being more sustainable than conventional farming, and convention does not always equal mega corporation.  By reducing agriculture to buzzwords, we make an extremely complex and diverse industry appear simple—black and white—when there are actually thousands of shades of grey.”

There are many many many definitions and explanations of industry buzzwords.  Whether you are reading the latest news article online or walking down the aisle at the supermarket, here is our explanation and some of the terminology that you may be bombarded with.

applesGMOs or genetically modified organisms:  This refers to an organism (like plants and animals) that was modified or changed at the genetic level by altering its DNA.  This can and does happen naturally everyday with cross pollination of plants to promote more desirable traits or by breeding two animals together to produce offspring that are superior to either parent.  We have come to use the term to describe human involvement in the process of selecting those desired traits.  Because natural reproduction combines hundreds or thousands of genes there are still a lot of variables.  When we focus on ensuring a single trait in an offspring is dominant we rely on science to help isolate the gene in a laboratory setting.  Genes can be inserted from one plant or animal cell to another.  This is called genetic engineering and has resulted in many positive breakthroughs that have advanced food production.   The opposite of GMOs or genetically engineered foods would be those heirloom varieties of produce or wild species of plants, cattle, pigs or sheep.

Genetic engineering: When researchers and scientists make changes to the genes of a plant or animal to produce a desired result.  The opposite of genetic engineering could be considered natural selection.  See GMOs.

Heirloom: Refers to old varieties of plants that are still available because individuals have continued to grow them for many years.  This might typically mean that these plants haven’t been crossbred.  The opposite of heirloom varieties would be genetically modified varieties.

Organic: Generically the term organic refers to living things.  But, in food production we more commonly use the word to designate food that has been grown or made without the use of artificial or synthetic chemicals.  Many chemicals are made from plant based materials or naturally occurring minerals and so now many pesticides are considered to be organic.  Organic doesn’t mean that the crop wasn’t treated.  The USDA classification of organic includes the exclusion of GMO traits – specifically those that were engineered in a laboratory setting.  The opposite of organic is artificial or synthetic pesticides or chemicals.

Natural: USDA defines natural products as those being free of artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives and minimally processed.  Products can be labeled as being made with all-natural ingredients provided a portion of the ingredients are natural, but not all ingredients have to be all-natural to earn that label.

breadGluten:  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.  Gluten is essential for the process of making bread and it is that protein that gives bread its texture and elasticity.  Breads and grains have long been a staple of human diets and continue to be an excellent source of energy.  A small percent of the population (between 1% and 2%) has celiac disease which is an intolerance to gluten.  Another small percentage (maybe up to 5%) have a wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity.  Grains that are gluten free include oats, millet, quinoa, rice, corn, sorghum, and buckwheat.

Biotechnology: The science of modifying living organism according to human purposes – genetic engineering. This technology has led the way toward vast improvements in crop production and efficiencies that offer multiple benefits including: higher crop yields, drought tolerant plants, increases in nutritional values, improved taste/appearance and the decreased need for inputs.

Pesticides: Also referred to as crop protection chemicals, pesticides include a number of different chemicals that we put on our crops.  Herbicides control and manage weed and plant species.  Insecticides control problem insect species. Fungicides manage fungus species that are detrimental to plant crops.  Pesticides can be both organic and artificial.  Pesticides help increase crop yields by reducing the amount of the crop that is damaged by these pests (weeds, insects, fungi).

Local:  In most instances people refer to local food as that food being grown in their own state or within a 100 to 150 mile radius of their city.  But, local is relative.  Local varies by product.  Local varies by location.  Buying local is great to support the local economy, but it doesn’t really mean anything about the quality of the product. Buying local may help reduce transportation costs and/or carbon emissions from transportation.  But, many food items have to be imported from international destinations. We don’t have the right climate to grow bananas in the U.S. and have to import them.  Because the U.S. only has a three to five month growing season many other fresh fruits and vegetables need to be imported in during the wither months.

Precision Agriculture: Precision agriculture is the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) in agricultural equipment to allow for more precise planting and application of chemicals. With advances in GPS, tractors can drive themselves to plant, furrow/cultivate and even harvest. Variable rate technology allows for different segments of the field to receive different levels of chemicals to be applied based on the nutrient level in the soil or other affecting factors.

sustainableSustainable Agriculture: Preservation of resources through improved farm efficiencies. Some sustainable practices include: long-term crop rotations, returns to natural flooding cycles to replenish lost nutrients, low or no-tillage cultivation, modified irrigation systems vs. flood irrigation, and natural fertilizers.  Long term goals of sustainable farming might include: satisfying human food needs, enhancing environmental quality and the present natural resources, efficient use of nonrenewable resources, sustaining the economic viability of farm operations, and enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.  Many proponents of sustainable agriculture define it as practices that only promote the long term sustainability of the environment when in fact economic factors (costs) and societal factors (feeding a growing population) also need to be taken into consideration.

No-Till Agriculture: If tilling is the agricultural preparation of soil via digging, stirring, overturning, etc.; then no-till agriculture is the farming practice that does not break the soil, opting instead to seed directly on top of the soil. Where tilling helps to loosen and aerate the top layer of soil, facilitating crop planting, it can also cause nutrient loss and erosion, exacerbate fertilizer and chemical runoff, and reduce helpful organic matter within the soil. No-till practices help maintain carbon within the soil (as opposed to in the atmosphere) and increase the amount of water and organic matter in the land. Though no-till does reduces chemical runoff, tillage does destroy weeds and so many no-till-practicing farmers apply herbicides to control those weeds. Other terms for no-till farming include zero tillage, direct planting, and pasture cropping.

Conventional farming: Conventional farming describes any farming not dedicated to alternative methods and makes use of chemical plant protectants and chemical fertilizers to increase production yields. Convention farming works to maintain a controlled and uniform environment.  Alternatives to convention farming are organic or biodynamic.

Biodynamic farming: is a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic and natural development and treatment of soil, plants, and animals. Biodynamics relies on specific practices that guide the natural decomposition process without the use of outside materials. Farmers using this method think in terms of processes and forces, as opposed to substances and products.

These buzzwords are everywhere; your farmer’s market, grocery store, on packaging, and in the news.  If where your food comes from is important to you, you should have a good general understanding of farming practices and policies in the U.S.

So, did we get it right?  How do you use and define these terms?

Look for future definitions and explanations as we’ll focus on the food animal production in upcoming posts.

-Will