OK, let’s play farmer’s dictionary real quick. Ready? Go!
Agriculture – that’s the act of growing or producing food or commodities. It’s the catchall phrase we use for anything having to do with plants, or animals that will become, an ingredient in a food, drug etc.
Heirloom seeds – are varieties that are open pollinated and over 100 years old. The seed from an heirloom fruit can be planted and will grow the same plant. This is how plant breeding was done for thousands of years, by selecting for traits that were desirable and keeping those year after year. Think Grandma’s handmade dresser, the one that keeps getting passed down.
Hybrid – hybridization is when you choose two parent plants and breed them through human manipulation of the pollen in order to create a specific trait. The offspring of this type of breeding is often sterile. In animals, a mule is a sterile cross between a donkey and a horse. Or of course the liger, which is a lion and tiger crossed.
Genetically Modified Organism (or GMOs) – this refers to any organism that on the genetic level has had new genes inserted into its genes to create a specific trait. Like adding a gene from a cold water fish into a tomato to make the tomato less cold sensitive. More common is the addition of genes that create chemical resistance in a plant so that the chemical doesn’t damage the plant but does damage the weeds or pests around it. GMOs can only be created in a laboratory.
Pesticide – a product, usually chemical, that kills unwanted bugs
Herbicide – a product, usually chemical, that kills unwanted plants or weeds.
Weeds – a plant whose use is not yet known, or is in the wrong place at the wrong time, or that thing you found in a bag in grandma’s dresser.
Whew, OK now that the lessons over let’s begin with the discussion. At the farmers market a lot of what I spend my day doing is customer education, and the reason for that is that eating has become so complicated. At my farm we don’t use any synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and only occasionally organic approved pesticides. We opt for a much more old-school approach to veggie growing. We focus on heirloom varieties because of the taste, and connection to those old breeds, but also because we can save the seeds and plant them again. As you might imagine, we eat A LOT of vegetables at the Lil’ Farm kitchen table.
But still, most of what we as humans eat is in the form of those bulk commodity crops of corn (syrup), wheat (bread), soybean and canola (oil). Corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa make up 83 percent of total crops in the U.S. at 259 million total combined acres. Now, it’s estimated that 70 percent of processed foods contain GMOs because they contain some form of those bulk commodity crops. So by my first grade teacher’s logic, if you are what you eat than I am a good bit of veggies, but also, unavoidably, lots of corn wheat and soy. And yes all you haters, whiskey is corn, so that’s still a true statement.
But George! Why oh why on earth are you boring us with definitions, and now a description of what you’re made of? Well, because the most popular GMO trait these days is one that makes crops resistant to a particular herbicide called Roundup Ready (Conveniently Roundup and it’s GMO-resistant seeds are both exclusively sold by Monsanto). Without this genetic resistance to Roundup, crops would be killed but instead they survive and all of the weeds around them die. Roundup is now by far the most widely used herbicide in America. So now we have GMO crops that make up the majority of our diet that are blanketed in Roundup glyphosate chemicals. In March of this year the World Health Organization stated that Roundup is “probably carcinogenic in humans.” That gives me pause. Because if you read the warning label on an herbicide, the thing you should not do is put it in your mouth. Let alone ingest it.
Which leads me to a couple more definitions.
Scary – eating a weed killer that is brought to you by the makers of DDT, and trusting that it’s safe.
Reckless – using the food system, and all the consumers of said food as a trial ground for new chemicals.
Lame – passing laws that forbid consumers from even knowing that they are consuming GMOs. Such as the one that just cleared the House.
George O’Neal runs Lil Farm in Timberlake and is a member of the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org