We Are What They Eat

The Future of Farming

We Are What They Eat

Tracy Frisch

WHEN JIM LARSON WAS FORCED TO SELL HIS 30 Yorkshire sows at auction in 2011, months after they abruptly lost their ability to reproduce, he decided to stop buying genetically engineered animal feed. Larson, who has bred pigs for 40 years and was expanding his herd for retirement income, said he eventually traced the pigs’ reproductive woes back to mycotoxin-tainted feed. Some researchers and farmers have linked intensive applications of the herbicide Roundup in feed crops to increased risk of such fungal contaminants. A type called vomitoxin can sicken or even kill animals, and at subclinical levels, its estrogen-mimicking properties interfere with reproduction.

Most corn and soy crops these days are genetically engineered to make them impervious to the effects of herbicides. Crops patented by Monsanto under the brand name Roundup Ready have been genetically manipulated to make them resistant to glyphosate, Roundup's active ingredient. Without this unnatural alteration of the plants’ genetic structure (mostly by the insertion of genetic material from completely different organisms, even animals), glyphosate, the world's top-selling weedkiller, crop plants from Roundup exposure would die right along with the weeds and any other non-protected plants.

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For farmers like Larson who choose not to give their animals genetically engineered (GE) feed, it isn’t easy to find affordable alternatives. GE crops today account for about 93 percent of the soybeans and 86 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. Besides being in short supply, non-GE crops are often intermingled with the engineered varieties at grain elevators and feed mills. Certified organic feed, by definition grown without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is a lot more costly.

After his sows became infertile, which Larson said threatened the future of his farming operation and left him deeply in debt, he ceased doing business with the local feed company that he had trusted for 30 years. After trying several other feed suppliers, Larson, who lives in White Creek, near New York's border with southern Vermont, went with feed from Elsworth Family Farm.

Elsworth Farm is unique among area feed producers in claiming to grow only non-GE corn and soybeans. Bill Elsworth says his family avoids genetic engineered seed because "We just don't care for it." With over 200 customers, the Elsworths have more demand than they can meet.

Other conventional farmers are giving up on GE crops. A September story in The New York Times, headlined “Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects Soil” detailed how some Iowa farmers have sworn off Roundup Ready crops because of damage to soil quality attributed to the herbicide glyphosate.

Elsworth agrees with this assessment. "Roundup is no good for the ground. It hardens it," he says. (As a fairly broad-spectrum biocide, glyphosate kills many species of soil microbes. Hard soil causes rainwater to run off instead of soaking in. Less soil moisture leads to more stressful growing conditions.) The negative effect of Roundup Ready crops that has garnered the most attention is the development of “superweeds” that are immune to herbicides. So far the problem seriously affects 60 million acres of U.S. cropland, driving farmers to concoct ever-stronger killer cocktails in a chemical war they’re destined to lose, critics say. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of biology could have anticipated that spraying Roundup over and over in fields of genetically engineered crops would select for weeds tolerant of the chemical. Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, comments, "I joke that the seed companies are evolution deniers."

Lately, to deal with superweeds, biotech companies, which own much of the seed industry, have been seeking approval for new, genetically altered crops designed to be sprayed with older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D and dicamba. Dupont filed one patent application for an engineered crop that would be resistant to seven herbicides.

Responding to a request from Monsanto, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently boosted the amount of glyphosate residues allowed on food and feed crops significantly. The new limits reflect elevated levels of the chemical from repeated applications, rather than new safety data.

In a recently published peer-reviewed Australian toxicology study, pigs fed a diet of bio-engineered corn and soy for almost their entire five-month lifespan were three times more likely to have severe stomach inflammation as the group fed an identical diet using non-GE crops. Females in the GMO group also had much heavier uteruses. A new pilot study testing breast milk of U.S. women for glyphosate found high levels in 3 out of 10 samples, even though the chemical is not supposed to bio-accumulate. The same study detected maximum glyphosate levels in urine ten times higher than those found in Europe.

For ever-increasing numbers of consumers, avoiding genetically engineered ingredients is emerging as a high priority. Their requests are spurring some farmers, processors and retailers to re-evaluate their use of GE crops.

Now it's time to start looking at companies selling dairy, meat and eggs that aren’t holding themselves to a higher standard.

At natural food stores and co-ops that cater to the region’s conscious eaters, the debate over GE feed for animals is being watched with a mixture of interest and frustration. About two years ago, Sunflower Natural Food Market in Woodstock began informally screening new products for GMO ingredients. In early 2013 the store embarked on the even bigger project of vetting products already on their shelves.

Mother Earth's Storehouse, a homegrown chain of three health food stores, finalized a mission statement on GMO products in March. "Our customer base is very excited,” says Mother Earth’s Kingston store manager, Kristin Villielm. If a product contains—or comes from animals that were fed—"high-risk ingredients such as soy, corn or canola," they’re demanding proof that it's GMO-free. Otherwise they stop selling it. Some producers, like Murray's Chicken, seem to be responding to market signals. "We discontinued selling it but now there's a non-GMO verified seal on their meat, so we're buying it again," Villielm says.

Villielm’s reference is to the prominent non-GMO seal that has begun to appear on some food product labels. For its voluntary labeling program, the Non-GMO Project conducts a rigorous verification process, which includes testing. The organization allows minimal levels of contamination with genetically engineered materials — up to 0.1 percent in seed, 0.5 percent in food and 0.9 percent in feed. The number of verified products currently exceeds 16,500. Last June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the Non-GMO Project Verified seal for meat and egg products. (Meat and eggs cannot be tested for GMOs, so the animal feed is.)

"Now it's time to start looking at companies selling dairy, meat and eggs that aren’t holding themselves to a higher standard," says Sunflower's purchasing manager Andrew Shober. From his perspective, animal products are "the toughest challenge" apart from supplements. Most feed comes from multiple sources. So does milk, except at farmstead creameries.

But for the producer on the farm, there are different challenges. In the Hudson Valley change has been slow. Farmer after farmer reiterated that they just couldn't find a supply of non-GMO feed for their livestock in the local marketplace — even if they wanted it.

One obvious place to look would be among certified organic farms. National organic standards prohibit the use of genetically engineered crops. In the Hudson Valley, organic farms grow little in the way of crops destined for animal feed. One exception is Lightning Tree Farm in Millbrook. Not surprisingly, the farm draws customers for its poultry feed from as far away as Long Island and Massachusetts.

But Lightning Tree only cultivates a couple hundred acres a year, and for the sake of biodiversity and soil health, farmer Alton Earnhart maintains a complex, eight-year rotation, alternating crops like oats, wheat, corn and clover hay in a given field. So, unlike many conventional farmers who don't rotate at all, Lightning Tree is not cranking out massive amounts of any single commodity.

Another strategy for rejecting GMOs is to go to 100 percent grass-fed production. While that's suitable for ruminants like cattle and sheep, pigs and poultry can't live on a diet of pasture alone.

With farmers' market customers pushing him to find an alternative to GE feed for his farm animals, Rob Kitchen, of Pigasso Farm in Copake, looked into organic. But rather than add $37,000 to his annual feed bill, he discarded the idea. Similarly, Mark Doyle, of Fishkill Farms, where a thousand hens produce eggs, and Elizabeth Ryan, a partner at Knoll Krest Farm in Clinton Corners, which keeps up to 10,000 layers, don't think buying organic feed is economically feasible.

"I know that if our profit margin on eggs is tiny, there's not a great deal of price elasticity on the demand side," Doyle, Fishkill Farms’ business manager explains. "Higher prices paid to the farmer would fix a lot of things," agrees Ryan, who has introduced a line of egg pastas to add value to Knoll Crest’s eggs.

Northwind Farms' Rich Biezynski would prefer not to feed any GMOs to the thousands of birds, from chickens to quail, raised on the farm. Yet, he admits, "If I have to buy corn, nine times out of ten, it's GMO." The Tivoli farmer grows some feed corn, oats and barley. Ten years ago he could find a broad selection of hybrids in non-GE form, but now he's resigned to asking, "What's available?" rather than being able to choose well-adapted varieties. Other farmers—even a university agronomist—confirm Biezynski’s difficulty.

Dave Pruiksma, manager of the Hoosac Valley Farmers Exchange in Schaghticoke, near Troy, explains that, because the seed companies largely are owned by multinational biotechnology companies, they stand to make more money by selling their own, patented seeds developed with gene-splicing technology. To give customers real choices, Pruiksma recently replaced his corn seed supplier and contracted with Doeblers, a small Pennsylvania company that sells closely related hybrids in conventional, organic and GE versions.

There are more eaters than farmers now, and the eaters have become the leading proponents of the next wave of farm innovation.

But even if he could be self-sufficient using non-GE feed, Biezynski stresses there are other hurdles. Soybeans require roasting or heat pressing before being fed to most types of livestock. Also, someone has to process and mix the feed (which he did when he kept a much smaller number of birds in the 1980s, when he said all bagged feed contained antibiotics.)

Making a decision he says was “purely business,” Langdon Hurst Farm owner John Langdon last year entered the non-GMO niche market by growing whole and cracked non-GE corn. Langdon, who gave up dairy farming in 2009 "for lifestyle reasons," confirms, "We have some clients and we're trying to service them." The Copake farm grows 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans. Only a small fraction of the corn is non-GE, and he admits that he wouldn’t even try growing soybeans without Roundup Ready seed. Still, Langdon has not seen a rush to buy non-GE seed. "People all say they want to buy non-GMO,” he remarks, “but when you get down to it, they're price driven.”

Like Elsworth Farm, Bruno Farms Custom Feeds in Ghent has attracted a wide following, especially among livestock farms catering to the local food movement. A big selling point is that all of its corn and soybeans, and most of its oats, come from farms within a 30-mile radius. The small, family business is better able to serve the small, local farms than, say, a global grain corporation like Cargill. Yet, Bruno's supplies only GE corn and soybeans, and owner Stephen Bruno says he could not imagine farming any other way. "I have to have weed control—if I don’t, we have nothing," he asserts.

Bruno's customers include Knoll Krest Farm, "a very big, small chicken farm" with a reputation for rejecting the tenets of industrial agriculture. (After returning from World War II, late owner Bob Messerich is said to have stood up at a Cornell poultry meeting to declare that God did not intend a chicken to live in a cage. Bucking another trend, the farm avoided antibiotic-laced feed.) In line with Knoll Krest values, partner Elizabeth Ryan, who also owns the certified organic Breezy Hill Orchard, describes the GMO issue as "a constant source of consternation." An outspoken champion of local, Ryan nonetheless buys feed from Bruno, calling him "the last man standing" and "an antidote to Cargill."

Lately, however, Bruno says the issue of GE crops has begun to heat up. The huge Whole Foods market chain told two of his customers to phase out feed made from engineered crops or the market would have them label their products as coming from animals fed GMOs. Though the upscale supermarket chain won’t require labeling of GE foods until 2018, its directive already has prompted farmers around the country to seek out non-GE feed.

"Because we sell to Whole Foods and Wegman's [the Rochester-based supermarket chain], we'll probably have to move in a non-GMO direction,” says Old Chatham Sheepherding Company owner Tom Clark. Though he believes GMO crops are the key to improving agricultural productivity, Whole Foods’ move is “a new challenge and something we have to deal with," he admits. At Coach Farm in Pine Plains, farm manager DaNay Spurge purchases the feed for 800 dairy goats from Cargill and Bruno Farms. Like Old Chatham's owner, she is convinced GE crops are a necessary tool in the modern farmer's arsenal and are needed to feed the world. "Everybody's on this big [anti-]GMO kick," Spurge says. "It's nothing that's going to affect animals in any way." She also doubts that alternatives would be viable. "We're stuck in it now. To get everyone off of GMO feeds, you'd have nothing left."

In response to customer questions about genetically engineered feed, Fishkill Farm is investigating alternatives to the Blue Seal layer mash it buys for its chickens. The mass-market feed, which indisputably contains GE corn and soy, "is affordable, and the hens like it," Doyle says. But, he stresses, "As farmers, our whole business is marketing what our customers want."

Rather than settling for an identical crop "in a different format," Doyle, who has been instrumental in reinventing Fishkill Farm as an ecological, direct-market operation, would prefer "smarter" crop choices. In the past, he grew small grains—but no corn—for his own livestock, in part because he "didn't like what corn did to the soil." As a possible piece of the solution, he mentioned hydroponic fodder systems some farmers use to efficiently sprout grains and beans for livestock. Sprouting boosts vitamins and makes nutrients easier to assimilate. Turning seeds into live food also stretches the feed budget.

Elsewhere, farmers are thinking along similar lines. In the Ithaca area, The Piggery has come up with substitutes for corn and soy. Farmer Brad Marshall is happy with the mixed crop of triticale (a wheat-rye cross), field peas and clover that a partner farmer grows for The Piggery’s certified organic pastured swine. A grain initiative about to start on the new “farm hub” at the former Gill Farm, near Kingston, holds promise for stimulating more non-GMO cropping in the Hudson Valley. There, Cornell University will experiment with different varieties of small grains and heritage corn for millers, bakers and distillers. "There is potential for spent distillery grain to be used as chicken feed," notes Brooke Pickering-Cole, director of community relations for the Local Economics Project, the group launching the farm hub.

Doyle expects that the GMO feed question will become a defining issue that splits the egg and poultry market into two tracks. "Producers that are not organic or non-GMO will have to hold down their prices," he says. In his mind, the dynamic is straightforward: "There are more eaters than farmers now, and the eaters have become the leading proponents of the next wave of farm innovation."

As for GE crops being more productive and the antidote to world hunger, think again. At the Center for Food Safety, Hanson notes that biotech companies have engineered their transgenic constructs into top-yielding varieties, which they own. "If we really wanted to feed the world,” he says, “we would not be using 40 percent of genetically modified corn to make ethanol."

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