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Food Dialogues: Iowa provided much discussion

By Jennifer Carrico

Beginning discussions about food is what people involved in agriculture like to see. While there are many different ways to grow food, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance wants to get the discussions started between everyone.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, in cooperation with the USFRA, hosted the Food Dialogues: Iowa on Nov. 19, on the Iowa State University campus in Ames, Iowa, to bring together farmers, ranchers, industry experts, scientists, media, and consumers for a dynamic discussion on today’s most pressing topics related to food and food production.

Award-winning Iowa journalist John Bachman moderated the panel that consisted of Iowa crop and livestock farmer Wayne Humphreys, University of Georgia crop and soil science professor Wayne Parrott, Iowa turkey farmer and CommonGround volunteer Katie Olthoff, Iowa organic farmer Larry Cleverley, crop researcher John Schillinger, and founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now! Dave Murphy. The group discussed Genetically Modified Organisms, organically grown food and local sourcing of foods.

The GMO discussion showed thoughts from both sides. Parrott said GMOs have been planted since 1994, with statistics about them since 1996.

“More than 350 million acres around the world are planted with seeds from GMO technology, with the data that has been compiled we can answer nearly any question anyone might have,” he said.

Murphy opposed the issue, “There is no real consensus that GMOs are safe. Companies aren’t conducting studies long enough to know if they are harmful to human health or not.”

Parrott added that the data shows no more of an increase in problems. “Chemicals have been used in agriculture since World War II and the use of GMOs has actually allowed us to decrease the use of pesticides on crops,” he said.

Schillinger owns a company that offers non-GMO seed varieties to farmers. He said the researchers have given the basic premise that genetic modification is good, but with the continual reintroduction of new genetics, he thinks problems will start to occur.

“There’s a lot of diversity in corn and soybean genetics. There is a lot we can do to increase the protein to make it a better product without genetically modifying,” he said. “I don’t believe GMOs are the answer to world hunger. I think we can use natural genetic variation.”

Iowa farmer Wayne Humphreys said he is cautious about new technology, yet he embraces it.

“With the use of triple stack corn genetics, we now use less pesticide, which is better for the environment,” he said. “All of the genetics of our crops is a very complex situation. We need to figure out how to feed the growing world now and in the future.”

The issue of labeling products of GMO production was discussed in depth.

Iowa turkey farmer Katie Olthoff said, “There is a lot that goes into labeling and it can be very confusing. I turn to professionals and scientists to get the needed answers,” she said. “For instance there are no hormones in turkeys, yet some is labeled hormone-free and costs more. That is the kind of labeling that I have a problem with.”

Cleverley is an organic farmer in central Iowa and said he thinks the consumer should know what they are eating and thus supports labeling.

“If GMOs are not a bad thing, then why isn’t it OK to label it?” he said.

Murphy also supports labeling of GMOs. He thinks too many companies and organizations are preventing the labeling from happening.

“You can talk about GMOs being safe, but if it is safe, then we need to label it,” said Murphy.

Olthoff said, “I don’t think labeling is the answer. Education is the key. Farmers and ranchers need to reach out to consumers about what we are doing. Labeling is not the be all and end all answer.”

Parrott pointed out that GMO is not an ingredient, it is a process. Products like high oleic soybeans and golden rice are the result of the GMO process. Both products are used extensively in the diets of people all around the world.

Cleverley thinks a national law for labeling is needed—one in which companies in all 50 states have to follow to make the logistics easier for the companies and the consumers.

“There are no long-term studies of GMOs on human health. If I want to consume non-GMO food, I should know I can,” Cleverley said. “I’m not here to tell anyone how to eat or how to farm. I know what I want to raise on my farm and what I want to eat—that is organic.”

Schillinger said in his business, GMO and non-GMO is an issue. “It is also an issue in other countries. There are many countries that have been stressing traceability for a long time. These people want to know where their food is from and how it is raised,” he said.

Parrott added that Mother Nature is the best genetic modifier available, and the ones that survive and work are because they work out in the fields.

Local foods

The panel agreed that it would be nice to be able to source local foods more in schools but also realized the difficulties of doing so based on growing seasons and budgets.

“In Iowa’s K-12 schools, about 6 percent of the food is locally sourced. At the Iowa State University dining hall, that number is 12 percent. I think it would be nice to get everything locally to feed our children, but it’s just not completely possible,” said Olthoff, a former teacher.

Cleverley agreed and said the schools have a hard time buying the supplies needed for their students. “While it would be nice for schools to be able to provide these options to students, it just isn’t possible.”

Farm size

Murphy said he moved back to Iowa several years ago to help prevent a factory farm from moving into his sister’s neighborhood.

Murphy’s comments hit a nerve with Olthoff. “I get so frustrated when people think small is good and big is bad. We have three large buildings of 20,000 birds each. We care for our animals and our neighbors,” she said. “On Thanksgiving, as we all enjoy our meals, my husband will be out doing chores and working in the barns to make sure our turkeys are cared for the same as he would any other day.”

She pointed out that 96 percent of farms are family farms where families work every day to take care of their land and their animals.

“It is our job as farmers to educate consumers about what we are doing even though, in our case, we are not selling directly to consumers,” Olthoff said. “When people use the term factory farm, it makes me a little angry because we are not a factory—we are caring for our farm, no matter what the size.”


Humphreys said he and his family make changes on their farm every year to be sure they are taking care of the land for future generations.

“We are currently building fences and adding cattle to our business because it is a needed viable commodity,” he said. “We build terraces, waterways and wetlands.

“We have a huge challenge as farmers, to care for the soil in a way to provide currently and for the future. And these challenges become bigger when dealing with landlords who don’t want to put in the funds needed to care for the land,” Humphreys said.

Olthoff agreed that the environment is important to them as well. “We use turkey manure on our farm ground, which is an excellent fertilizer and it allows us to recycle the waste from our barns,” she said. “We are also looking into adding a wind turbine to help reduce energy use.”

Cleverley said he wants to be able to continue to raise vegetables on his farm the way his grandfather did.

“As farmers, we all want to get along. Sometimes the corporations make it hard for us to do that,” he said.

“There is a place for all types of farmers and a place for all types of food. Thankfully, we have the choice to provide our families with the best, most nutritious food and still do that by following a budget,” Olthoff said.

For more information and a recording of the Food Dialogue: Iowa, visit

Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120 or by email at

Date: 12/02/2013


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