I Want to Know: A Conversation About GMOs, Local Farming, and Nutrition

As a physician and father, I have become keenly aware of the debates surrounding modern nutrition, which has become, paradoxically, both a blessing and curse. No longer are we required to risk our safety as our ancestors did as hunters and gathers. Through improved sanitation and work-safety requirements, our foods are the safest they have ever been.

And then there are Twinkies.

I struggle with my son’s nutrition almost on a daily basis. I strive to serve him the safest and most nutritionally valued foods. My husband and I have started shopping at farmers’ markets more. We (mostly) eat locally bred meats. We (mostly) cook with eggs from free range chickens.*

*While I often go to the City Market’s weekend Farmers’ Market (http://thecitymarket.org/), there are many great Farmers’ Markets that are open weekdays/nights and the weekends. One Farmers’ Market that I love is “Bad Seed” (http://www.badseedkc.com/), an urban market in Downtown KC that is open on Friday nights. And my absolute favorite treasure in all of Kansas City – The Local Pig (http://thelocalpig.com/). The Local Pig is a wonderful little meat shop that also carries eggs, cheeses, and breads from local farmers and growers. I go there at least twice a week. You MUST try their Italian Meatballs – they are the best thing I have ever eaten. 

But, we aren’t perfect. My son eats things that he probably “shouldn’t”. I certainly have my “No”s, like juice, soda, french fries, and most fast food. But, is the guilt of him eating a hot dog worth it?

Fresh vs. processed. Non-organic vs. organic. Genetically modified organism (GMO) vs. Non-GMOs.  Fast food vs. home-cooked. What is a parent to do?

Recently, I had a wonderful conversation re: nutrition and farming with Jacqueline Smith, co-owner and farmer at Green Dirt Farm (http://www.greendirtfarm.com/). Providing meats, cheeses, and yogurt, Green Dirt Farm is…

“Set in the bluffs above the Missouri River Valley about 40 miles northwest of Kansas City, Missouri, the terrain of the farm is steep and rolling with beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Our lovely high pastures receive cool breezes in the summer, and low areas offer dense shade and meandering streams for blistering summer days. In winter, the trees offer shelter from freezing winds, and the hills provide our sheep the opportunity to soak up the sun’s warmth.”

I thought it would be helpful for you to hear her perspective on modern day nutrition. She and her wife are fascinating people. I am so lucky to know them, and I hope that you learn something about nutrition and incorporate it into your daily routine.

Copyright Green Dirt Farm

Green Dirt Farm – copyright Green Dirt Farm

Dr. Cattaneo: Tell us a little about your interest in sustainable/local farming.

Jacqueline Smith: I became interested in farming in my early twenties as a way to contribute to our food culture.  I was aware of the devastating impact industrial agriculture has on our culture and wanted to be a part of the ‘food revolution’, especially in areas of animal welfare, food safety and small family farms.

I co-own and operate Green Dirt Farm, which is a small-scale farmstead sheep dairy in Weston, Missouri.   We focus on growing grasses that our sheep eat to produce milk and 100% grass-fed meat.  The milk coming from our dairy is used on our farm to handcraft very small batches of sheep’s milk cheeses and yogurts.  We utilize strict grazing practices that build soil fertility, stop erosion, and allow our animals to live a good, humane life.   Also, our grazing system helps to produce flavors in our cheeses that can only found on our farm.

Dr. C: Tell us a little more about Green Dirt Farm. Specifically, how does Green Dirt Farm differ from conventional farms? 

JS: It’s hard to compare Green Dirt Farm to conventional farms because the only similarity is that we are both in the farming industry.  I can tell you what Green Dirt Farm does and you can assume that conventional farms do not do these things:

We do not use synthetic chemicals, hormones or unnecessary antibiotics.  We use antibiotics only when necessary to treat sick or injured animals.  We never use sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics or other growth promoters.  We also do not use pesticides or herbicides on our pastures.

We practice a management-intensive grazing system by moving our animals to new pastures every 24 grazing hours.  This protects our soil by building soil fertility through natural fertilization, encouraging indigenous plants to repopulate our pastures, and provides our sheep with the healthiest nutrition for their bodies.  Plus, it allows the sheep to be in outdoor open spaces and behave like sheep.  This practice also allows us to limit the use of fossil fuels because the sheep go to their food, rather than us bringing the food to them by truck and tractor.

We utilize renewable energy sources, including passive solar, active solar, wind electricity generations and solar hot water.  We have also used state-of-the-art efficiency in terms of insulation, water and electricity saving appliances, and a waste water treatment septic system that we installed.  These systems help to conserve resources and protect our watershed.

We are an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) farm.  AWA audits and certifies family farms raising their animals humanely, outdoors on pasture or range.  Farmers who earn the AWA seal benefit from having a third-party verification of their high-welfare practices.  AWA farms allow animals to behave naturally and socialize freely.  On our farm, you will see animals living comfortably, with plenty of room to romp outside, eating the foods that are best for their bodies.

Dr. C: Green Dirt Farm products are not labeled organic. Why not?

JS: Green Dirt Farm is not a certified organic dairy.  There are 3 main reasons listed in order:

1.)  There are a lot of ethical challenges with organic standards for small dairy farms.  One of these issues is the prohibition of antibiotics as a treatment.   It is not a secret that antibiotics are overused in livestock production (mainly because it’s mixed in feeds and given to livestock as a preventive and not a treatment).  This practice is very common in feedlot situations and large confinement operations.  However, animals do get injured and sometimes end up sick, just like humans.  These animals must be treated sometimes with antibiotics.  The FDA monitors dairies for antibiotic residues in the milk and is very strict about its testing procedures.  Under the US organic standards, use of all antibiotics are prohibited – even if the animal is sick or injured.  If any animal is treated with an antibiotic the animal is prohibited from producing milk for human consumption for the rest of its life.  Organic dairies will often destroy an animal before incurring the increase cost of treating a sick animal.  These large organic farms tend to have animals that have shortened lives already, so it is more economical for the farmer to destroy the animal than to treat her and retire her or find an alternative situation for her.

2.)  Anthelmintic drugs are limited to the use of three drugs.  These drugs, like Ivermectin, kill dung beetles and earth worms which are vital to soil fertility.  Plus, limiting the treatment to only 3 drugs increases resistance to parasites on the farm.

3.) It’s simply cost prohibitive for small-scale dairies to become organic.  The cost of organic feed and hay would price our already high cost product even higher.

Dr. C: A recent study from Stanford found that organic foods offered no health benefit to consumers over conventionally raised foods. Michael Pollan, a well-known advocate in the sustainable farming movement, responded thusly in one article: “I think we’re kind of erecting a straw man and then knocking it down, the straw man being that the whole point of organic food is that it’s more nutritious  The whole point of organic food is that it’s more environmentally sustainable. That’s the stronger and easier case to make.” Do you agree? 

JS: An apple is an apple; they are nutritious for our bodies.  It’s more important to eat an apple than to avoid a conventionally grown apple.  However, organic foods do offer additional health benefits, although, as recent studies show, mostly indirectly, through our environment.  With that said, processed organic foods do not contain fillers, stabilizers, artificial colors and flavors or preservatives, which have all proven health risks.

As far as the environmental impact of conventional raised food vs. organically raised foods, I agree with the statement.  Organically raised foods do provide safer, cleaner food production for the environment.  Which directly contributes to safer, cleaner watersheds and soil systems that indirectly impact our health.

Dr. C: Describe what a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is. What are common GMOs with which humans can come in contact.

JS: A Genetically Modified Organism is an organism whose genes have been altered, normally by inserting genes from another organism to ‘turn off’ or ‘turn on’ desired genetic traits.  However, insertion is not the only form of genetically modifying an organism.  It can also involve destroying certain genes or changing the organism’s DNA code.  Genetically Modified Organisms are used for a wide range of things from pharmaceutical drugs, gene therapies, to agriculture – think new medicines or that prized tri-colored rose.

However, I think most people refer to the term “GMO” when talking about genetically modified food (that recently has had a lot of media coverage).  Genetically Modified Foods (GMO’s) have been genetically altered for faster, stronger, and more predictable growth.  Organisms from pigs to corn seeds have been altered this way.  Most commonly, the general population thinks of seeds when they hear the “GMO’s”.

GMO seeds have been altered to have a longer shelf life, be resistant to herbicides, stress and pest.  That sounds like a good thing…right?  However there is a lot of controversy around GMO’s mainly because once the GMO seed is planted, it has exposed the environment with its genetic material and all cross pollinating species are likely to be unintentionally contaminated by the GMO genes.  This leads to certain species having these artificial super genes out competing natural selection.  Plus, the leading agricultural seed producer, Monsanto, owns the intellectual property of the seed.  Courts have ruled in favor of Monsanto in cases regarding unintentionally cross contamination under intellectual property laws.  [That means] if your neighbor plants GMO corn that cross-pollinates with your non-GMO corn and your corn becomes contaminated with the genes from the GMO corn, you could be liable under the intellectual property laws.  With almost 85% of the corn planted in the US being GMO corn, it’s really hard not to have a contaminated field.

Also, under the intellectual property laws, farmers are not allowed to save seeds from crops year to year.  A tradition that has been in place since humans stopped hunting and gathering to settle down in the domesticated culture of farming.  This law applies to all farmers worldwide.  Even the most impoverished farmers in third world countries where buying seeds each year could mean a family goes hungry.

In the US, GMO crops are commonly found in corn, soybeans, and wheat.  However it’s creeping into a wealth of other crops.  Consumers come into contact with GMOs with every product made from GMO corn (for example).  Corn is used in almost everything from fuel, sheetrock, toothpaste, juice, meat, creamer, ketchup – the list goes on and on.  Almost everything on the shelves at the grocery store contains corn and it likely contains GMO corn.

Dr. C: The current research suggests that humans can safely ingest GMOs. What is your opinion on this? 

JS: Although the research suggests this, it cannot prove or disprove that GMOs are any more harmful than conventionally grown food.  There hasn’t been enough research done to understand the long-term consequences of GMOs in our food system.  Does this mean that we need to be fearful of GMOs as a potential heath risk?  Probably not.  Is it good to give consumers the option to purchase GMO or non-GMO for their families through a labeling program?  Yes.

Dr. C: Currently, foods are not labeled as containing GMOs. If a family wanted to avoid GMOs, how could they find this information?

JS: Without labeling, it is hard to know what products contain GMOs.  However, you can buy 100% organic food.  The USDA organic certification regulations prohibit use of GMOs, so if it says organic, it is GMO free.  Avoid conventional processed foods.  You can shop at farmers’ markets because most GMOs are grown in large industrial agriculture.  Learn to read the PLU number on whole foods.  If it’s a 5 digit number beginning with an 8, it’s a GMO.  Eat grass-fed meat and dairy.

Dr. C: Eating foods from local, sustainable farms can be expensive and time-consuming. What advice would you give to a family concerning this type of nutrition? 

JS: Most farmers’ markets utilize the Beans and Greens program (http://beansandgreens.org/) that gives double value with SNAP when used at farmers’ markets.

Like many families, I create a meal budget every week.  I have to for many reasons, one being financially motivated, the other, time.  We live about 30 minutes from the nearest grocery store and the nearest farmers’ market is even farther.  I simply can’t run to the store whenever I need something.   I found that creating a meal plan saves me a tremendous amount of money each week.  We hardly need to throw food out anymore because I know pretty much when and what we are going to eat each day.  Many of the meals we create are simple and quick and require less than 20 minutes to make.

Going to farmers’ markets is a great family activity to do together.  Plus, there are often kids booths set up at the farmers’ markets with special activities geared toward kids. There are farmers’ markets opened in Kansas City nearly every day, so it no longer needs to be a Saturday day errand.  However, if going to farmers markets won’t fit into your schedule, you can arrange to receive a Community Support Agriculture or CSA share from a local farmer.  It requires an up front cost, however, they will supply you with a weekly box of beautiful freshly grown fruit, vegetables and sometimes cheese and meat every week for the entire season.  Some will even deliver it to your door.

You can purchase meat from a farmer, too.  Many will sell custom cuts that you can freeze and use all year.  Having easy access to healthy meats in your own freezer helps when time is not abundant.

If the up front cost of a CSA is too expensive, you can shop at Hen House and purchase their weekly CSA grab bag that features local food.  Or just shop at Hen House or local grocery chains and scout out local produce, meats and dairy that come from our area.  As local food increases in demand, it is easier to find local food in the grocery store.

Cooking dinner together from time-to-time can be a fun family activity.  It teaches children important information from math and reading skills to following directions, the art of conversation, to just simply spending time together.  But on those busy nights when you just need to make something healthy and fast there are a ton of very quick, healthy recipes online that require hardly any time to prepare.  Especially if you already have the healthy food waiting for you in your kitchen.

Dr. C: Thank you so much for your time and dedication, Jacqueline! 

Green Dirt Farm recently was awarded first prize at the American Cheese Society competition in Wisconsin for their Dirt Lover and Fresh Plain sheep cheeses. They also won two second places and a third for their Fresh Rosemary cheese, Just Plain Yogurt, and Fresh Garlic and Peppercorn cheese, respectively.

They are active participants in their community and support local restaurants/chefs by hosting dinner parties at their barn. They also offer farm tours (what kid wouldn’t love that!). You can find their products at local farmers’ markets and Hen House Markets.

What are your thoughts on nutrition, organic foods, GMOs? Do you have any guilt for the foods your child eats?


It Can Happen to YOU!

On June 21, 2013, I posted the following status update to the Priority Care Pediatrics’s Facebook page: ANYONE can leave their child in the back of their car…so please make sure the car is empty before you leave it unattended, … Continue reading

Why all the Pertussis?

By now I’m sure you have heard that pertussis (whooping cough) has reached concerning levels in the Kansas City area. The United States will see the most pertussis cases in a half century. Already NINE people have died from this … Continue reading