Market Mythbusters

This past Sunday at the market I had a customer ask if my chickens were “heritage” or a “GMO Frankenbird.” I took a deep breath and spent the next few minutes in education mode as I recognized the inspiration for this week’s Dishing the Dirt post.

As a farmer, I tend to forget how far removed most people are from their foods’ production. Heck, when I bring baby goats and lambs to market most people don’t know the difference, even going as far as to believe one grows up to become the other!

While this post may be a bit lengthy, hopefully it will serve as a primer so Central Farm Markets shoppers can better understand modern agricultural practices used by vendors, the impact it has on our products and on your food choices.

GMO vs. Non-GMO

Currently, there are only ten genetically modified crops grown in the United States – corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, papayas, squash, canola, alfalfa, apples and sugar beet. While it’s true that some of these types of products appear at the markets, the chances of them being the GMO version are slim to none. Why?

First, GMO crops are predominantly used in large, industrial, mono-crop (one super big field) farms. Vendors at farm markets tend to be smaller diversified operations. Which leads to the second reason: diversification promotes a healthier ecosystem. GMOs have risen out of the need to fight blights, pests and support the use of chemicals, such as RoundUp Ready crops that can withstand being sprayed with a powerful herbicide that will kill everything but the crop plant. When a single crop is grown in one place over and over, the bugs and blight take over. Third, the producers who choose to vend at farmers markets are often here because of their beliefs in a holistic system of health, ecology, community and parity.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a GMO “Frankenchicken”, cow, pig or any other animal. Like dogs which have been bred for generations to express certain traits, such as wrinkles in a Shar Pei, livestock have been bred to express certain characteristics including size, rate of maturity, milk production, leanness, uniformity, etc. However, most GMO crops are grown for livestock feed. If you are worried about the effects of genetically modified organisms for personal or ecological reasons, the question to ask is “are GMO-feeds fed to the animals?”

Hormones

The truth is that cattle, alongside people and all other animals and plants, naturally produce hormones that are vital to growth, development and health. That’s why meat and plants can never be completely hormone-free. However, for the last thirty years cattle producers have been using synthetic estrogen implants in beef animals to promote faster growth. As with GMO crops, these products are often used by large feedlot operations and not hands-on farmers who tend daily to their own livestock which are direct-marketed. Due to the age required for implants and the length of time needed for the implants to work properly, they are not used in veal production.

Hormones will not make a chicken grow faster and larger or lay more eggs. Similarly, there are no hormones approved for use in pork production. If you see a label on poultry or pork products that claims, “No Hormones,” it is nothing more than slick marketers preying upon the fears of uninformed customers.

Antibiotics

This is another marketing scare tactic often printed on our foods’ labels. Yes, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a recognized issue. However, most consumers fail to understand that the bulk of antibiotics produced in this country are fed to livestock not to keep them healthy, but as a sub-therapeutic growth stimulant. Again, these practices are predominantly used in industrial production.

In Certified Organic products, absolutely no antibiotics can be used. In the event of illness or injury, naturopathic remedies and practices can be used if the animal is to remain on the farm. Some Certified Organic farmers choose to isolate and treat the animal, especially if it is a good producing milk cow or breeding animal, bringing it back to health prior to selling to a conventional (non-organic) farmer. The most common issues in which only therapeutic antibiotics are used are pneumonia, mastitis and abscesses, especially in the feet.

Farmers vary in their practices of antibiotic use. Some will only use topical applications, such as with foot rot, infected abrasions and for mastitis. Others will treat non-food chain livestock (breeding animals) for specific maladies when they arise. Some will choose to harvest or dispatch afflicted animals rather than treat them with antibiotics. The truth is no farmer wants to see their animals ill, injured and suffering.

In all the marketing claims, the ones stating there are no antibiotics in dairy products irk me the most. Just as the use of synthetic hormones in pork and poultry, there will never be antibiotics in milk. All milk is antibiotic-free. When milk is picked up at a farm by a tanker, a sample is taken. Another sample is taken at the processing plant from the entire tanker. If there is any trace of antibiotics, the entire tanker is dumped and there are strict regulatory consequences to the offending dairy. For small-scale dairies that bottle on-farm and/or produce farmstead products such as cheeses, yogurt and ice cream, the FDA requires testing of every batch bottled or used in value-added products for drug residue.

And yes, your kale and carrots are also antibiotic-free so there is no need to ask.

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