People argue endlessly about food. What’s healthy? What’s safe? What’s sustainable? With so many dissenting voices competing for attention, it’s difficult to know what to believe.
What I find far more compelling than the dissension is the common ground. There’s a lot of it, if you’re looking.
We all want a variety of healthy, affordable food—enough to feed everyone. We want animals treated humanely. We want responsible, sustainable stewardship of the environment. Our big-picture values almost always align, even when our ideas about how to paint that big picture differ dramatically.
Common ground was foremost on my mind as I set off on another Food Farm Tour. This trip focused on the science behind the food supply with stops at Elanco Animal Health, the Monsanto Company, and Central Missouri Meat and Sausage.
Our three-day adventure was sponsored by Kansas Soybean Commission, Kansas Pork Association, and Kansas Farm Bureau. As always, the takeaway conclusions are 100% my own. Nobody knows what’s coming out of my mouth until it does (including me).
As we got underway, I gazed out the bus window pondering how difficult it is to merely opt out of food controversies. Consumer demand naturally dictates what farms produce—and increasingly, also how they produce it. If you’ve ever purposefully reached for the organic, factored GMO ingredients into shopping decisions, or bought a package marked “hormone-free” over one that wasn’t, you’ve effectively cast a vote in a food controversy.
The question isn’t whether or not we play a role. We eat, so we cannot help but play a role. The question is, are we well-informed in the role we play?
Our choices matter more than most realize. The population is growing: scientists anticipate we’ll need 60 percent more food by 2100. At a time when farmers and ranchers need more options than ever, market trends driven by food controversies can end up micromanaging the production process. If we don’t understand the full impact of the practices we advocate, we may be doing more harm than good in terms of those goals we hope to support.
Relying on common sense or general consensus is not enough. Agriculture is a high-tech, science-driven industry, whether we’re talking about large food processing operations or small, family farms. No one can intelligently speak about food controversies without taking into account the science that informs the decision-making process.
|Monsanto’s Climate Field View app compiles up-to-the-minute data from multiple sources. Soil profiles, rainfall data and yield maps form a cohesive picture to help farmers stay on top of their crops. The app utilizes satellite imagery with light spectrum analysis to uncover crop disease, allowing farmers to minimize chemical use by precisely targeting the specific areas that need attention.|
|Our tour group outside Elanco Animal Health. We had just dived deep into the topics of antibiotic use, hormone supplementation, consumer perceptions (and lunch).|
|Selfie inside the “Brazil room,” one of the hundreds of testing chambers at Monsanto. By emulating environmental conditions, scientists can test seed modifications and growing variables. Now I can say I’ve “virtually” been to Brazil.|
|GMOs are an integral part (but far from the only part) of what happens at Monsanto. Without GMOs, we’d require an additional 252,000 acres for food production in the United States alone, generating a proportional increase in greenhouse gases. (For more on the very big topic of GMOs, check out my non-scientist’s exploration of GMOs and associated safety concerns.)|
|Cory Hawkins, owner of Central Missouri Meat and Sausage, explains how they gently coax cows off trailers using fans to distribute a scent the cows will follow, before feeding and bedding them overnight to minimize stress. This animal-centric approach makes the entire process easier, more humane—and has the added benefit of producing better-tasting meat.|
The trickiest part of being a well-informed consumer is knowing when to seek out more information. In 2016, Elanco sponsored a global study, “The Truth About Food.” With more than 3,300 respondents in 11 countries, the study tracked consumer beliefs on topics that include some of today’s most prevalent food controversies. The results (discussed below) highlighted a significant divide between common beliefs and what the science has to say.
About 61 percent of people surveyed believed a “no added hormones” label means there are no hormones whatsoever present in the food. This is a misconception, because hormones occur naturally in animals. If you are eating animal products, you are consuming hormones. The label only indicates the animal didn’t receive supplemental hormones.
In reality, that label is more marketing than a meaningful distinction. Hormones are never used in poultry or pork production. For beef and milk, the hormone levels are nearly identical, whether or not the farm used supplements. In all cases, the hormone levels in animals given supplemental hormones are far lower than naturally-occurring hormone levels in hormone-rich food.
As an example, estrogen is sometimes used on the farm. A pregnant woman has about 3,415,000 nanograms of estrogen; a man has about 136,000 nanograms of estrogen: three ounces of cabbage has 2,000 nanograms estrogen. Three ounces of beef from a steer without supplemental hormones will have about 1.3 nanograms of estrogen. The steer who received supplemental growth hormones will have about 1.9 nanograms of estrogen. The differences are minuscule.
While people fear health complications from hormone supplements, all the hormones used in food production are closely regulated by the FDA. Multiple, scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed studies have not substantiated the fears (including no connections found to cancer and no impact on the age of puberty onset).
In addition to helping farmers produce more food, hormone use helps the environment. Without supplemental hormones, we’d need about 15 million more cattle each year to meet current demand. Producing more food with fewer resources helps mitigate the environmental impact of production and reduce the carbon footprint of ranching.
About a third of consumers reported believing an “antibiotic-free” label indicates the other products do contain antibiotics. That’s inaccurate, but it doesn’t matter much from a practical standpoint. Like hormone use, antibiotic use is tightly regulated and includes mandatory withdrawal times. Meat and milk are already tested for questionable levels of antibiotic residue before sale, with or without a sticker on the package.
If an animal is sick, it’s humane to medicate. If an animal is likely to be exposed to illness, preventative treatment is a defendable choice. Stimulating growth (such as through impacting the balance of internal bacteria for heightened nutrition) is another way antibiotics allow farmers to produce more food using fewer resources.
People worry about animal antibiotic use creating a tolerance in humans, and that’s a reasonable concern. But there are ways to minimize risk. Right now, about 40 percent of the antibiotics given to animals are used for animals exclusively. This is one reason companies like Elanco focus on animal-only antibiotics, with delivery mechanisms specific to the animals’ biology. While this doesn’t entirely address tolerance concerns, it’s a step in that direction. Like everything else in agriculture, antibiotic use practices are continually evolving to reflect current needs and research.
People who purchase organic foods cited some compelling reasons: 82 percent wanted to avoid chemicals and pesticides; 75 percent felt organic food is safer; 68 percent chose organic to protect the environment and 67 percent believe organic is more nutritious.
Unfortunately, the facts about organic food make the choice a whole lot less obvious than these beliefs would indicate.
“Organic” is a term describing the production system, not the food itself. The seeds for an organic crop may have been organically produced, but usually aren’t due to the limited availability of organic seeds. The primary difference between organic and non-organic farming is what can be used on the crop.
The USDA certifies what qualifies for use in an organic system based on whether a chemical is naturally-derived (although some synthetic substances are allowed). Note that “natural” does not imply non-toxic or even less toxic than synthetic. There is absolutely no value judgment regarding safety inherent in this distinction.
So yes, organic farms do use chemicals and pesticides. To be clear, all farmers will default to natural strategies to manage pests first. Pesticides are a significant expense and thus used as the last line of defense, not the first. But there is no widely used farming system that does not utilize chemicals in some fashion.
It’s helpful to keep pesticide worries in perspective. Scientists can track smaller and smaller traces of pesticide residue as technology improves. What’s relevant isn’t whether current tools can detect any residue whatsoever, but rather whether any residue present is potentially harmful.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets limits for pesticide residues on produce, adding additional margins of safety for children, the elderly, or those who are otherwise sensitive. Given the current standards, the amount of produce a person would have to eat to have a detectable impact is physically unrealistic. I certainly won’t be consuming 455 servings of strawberries today! (See the Pesticide Calculator for more information.)
To make sure your produce is free from unwanted pesticide—or stray bacteria, or viruses or plain old dirt—wash it. It may sound too simple, but washing is the best way to keep anything that’s not food off your food, regardless of how the food was grown.
In terms of the environment, the overall benefit of organic methods is debatable. A single organic farm does use less fertilizer, herbicides, and energy than a similar conventional farm. But organic farming produces about 25 percent less. So the efficiency of conventional methods means it requires fewer resources per unit of food produced. Similarly, conventional livestock management requires fewer resources than organic systems for the same level of production, in addition to providing better control of specific variables impacting the animals’ health and well-being. Like most things in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to every approach.
Perhaps surprisingly, the jury is also still out on nutritional differences between organic and non-organic food. There is no strong evidence one is superior. There have been a few detectable nutritional differences attributable to the production system, but presumable advantages fall on both sides of the equation. More importantly, it’s not known if those differences have any impact whatsoever on human health. So, the nutritional winner remains undecided for now.
Where does this leave us?
I always encourage people to make the decisions they feel the best about. It’s far more important to eat plenty of fresh, healthy food than to fret over how it was produced.
If you feel better buying organic food, do that! If you prefer buying the cheapest food, do that! If you like buying from local farms, do that! Just let personal preferences and values guide you, as opposed to allowing fear or guilt to become the driving force behind your choices.
Despite what some say, being an informed consumer isn’t translatable to a bullet-point list of “buy this and don’t buy that.” Sounding scientific and being scientific are not equivalent.
Far too often, I see farmers and ranchers put in the impossible position of answering two, directly contradictory demands. People want plentiful and affordable food, but object to the specific practices that allow the efficiency required to provide it. People want animals treated humanely, but don’t trust those most knowledgeable and invested in the animals’ welfare to determine what that looks like. People want fewer chemicals used in food production, but shun the GMO technology that eliminates the need for some of those chemicals. People want to support their local farmers, but don’t ask those farmers what sort of support would be helpful. It must be incredibly frustrating.
Nonetheless, I’m optimistic. We don’t need all the answers to play a well-informed role in food controversies. We only need an openness to learning about the issues that matter to us individually, while exercising discernment in selecting sources of information. That’s very achievable.
In particular, it’s vital the agricultural community is consistently represented in our problem-solving conversations. It’s their choices in the fields along with our choices in the supermarket that must work in harmony to achieve our common-ground goals for a bright and well-fed future.
As long as we keep talking, we will keep making progress.
Special thanks to Jancey Hall, Jodi Oleen and Meagan Cramer for being such delightful hosts. Additional kudos for patience goes to all the helpful folks at Elanco, Monsanto and Central Missouri Meat for so kindly answering our endless questions.
Do you feel confident about your food choices?
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