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Food Dialogues stir debate on farm size, GMO labeling

Once you get past the buzzwords and name-calling, conventional and organic farmers have a similar agenda — to provide safe and nutritious food for their customers, Iowa turkey grower Katie Olthoff said last week during a 90-minute panel discussion on farming and consumer issues at Iowa State University.

"I think there’s a place for everybody. It’s when we start attacking each other when problems start," Olthoff said at "The Food Dialogues: Iowa," which brought together farmers and experts to discuss current issues such as labeling genetically modified (GMO) foods, organic farming and local sourcing of food. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and Iowa Corn Growers Association.

Olthoff said she appreciates the work of organic farmers and others who sell directly to consumers at farmers markets and other local venues. But she bristles when others label her family’s large turkey farm, which houses 60,000 birds, as a "factory farm" or suggest it doesn’t fit their definition of "sustainable."

"That’s disappointing to me that small is good and big is bad," said Olthoff. "I have a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). That’s a nasty word, but what happens in my turkey barns is not nasty. There are a lot of sustainable things we do on our farm. Organic is not the only sustainable method."

Farmer choice

It’s up to each farmer to choose how he or she wants to farm, said Larry Cleverley, a vegetable grower from Mingo who sells mostly at farmers markets in central Iowa.

"I’m not here to tell anyone how to eat. I’m not here to tell anyone how to farm," said Cleverley. "I’m here to tell people why I eat and farm the way I do."

Columbus Junction corn and soybean farmer Wayne Humphreys said GMO crops that contain genes to resist insect and weed pressure have made his farming practices more sustainable.

"I feel good about the triple-stack corn we plant because it definitely reduces the insecticides we use," he said.

John Schillinger, a researcher and non-GMO plant breeder, countered that while the basic premise of GMO crops is good, the technology can be "overdone." Plant breeders should focus more on improving protein and other nutrient content of crops, he argued.

"I think there’s a lot that can be done in non-GMO (breeding)," said Schillinger. "I don’t believe that GMO is the answer to feeding the world."

Labeling divide

The two sides also held diverging opinions on whether foods made from GMO crops should be labeled.

Cleverley and Dave Murphy, founder of advocacy group Food Democracy Now, argued that lab­els are needed to give consumers more information about how their food is grown.

"I have a basic right to know what’s in my food," said Murphy, whose group has advocated for GMO labeling laws through ballot initiatives in several states.

Cleverley said he also supports GMO food labeling, but questioned the practicality of Food Democracy Now’s state-by-state attack.

"The logistics of 50 different laws would be a nightmare for a food company," he admitted.

It’s important for food labels to include a list of ingredients to help consumers identify potential allergens, said Wayne Parrott, a crop and soil science professor at the University of Georgia. However, he pointed out, genetic modification is not an ingredient, but rather a process used to improve plant growth.

"For the most part, it’s non-detectable in food," he said.

Re­­quiring GMO labels on food products would drive up costs and wrongly imply lack of safety, Parrott added.

"These are the most studied food products of all time," he said. "With the wealth of data we have, we can answer just about any question anyone will have."

Talking with consumers

Consumers who want to learn about how their food is produced can learn more by talking to a farmer than by reading a label, offered Olthoff, who has two young children.

"Will a label tell me if a food is safe? I don’t think so," she said. "I think educating consumers is key to letting people know what is in their food. It’s not just slapping a label on something."

Food safety concerns and growing media coverage have sparked more questions than ever from consumers, said Cleverley, who has been selling at farmers markets for nearly two decades.

"The interest by consumers of where their food comes from has increased at an exponential rate," he said. "It’s remarkable. When we started in 1997, we rarely had a question about farming practices. Now they want to know the whole life history of the farm."

A recording of "The Food Dialogues: Iowa" is available on­­line at www.fooddialogues.com.