Non-GMO, Conventional & Organic: What Do They Mean?

You are what you eat. We live by this old adage. We started our farm based on the principles that we have that define what we eat. For beef animals this is an easy choice: they eat grass and only grass. Ruminants and their complex stomach system are designed to be take the complex cellulose of grass and process it into energy and eventually delicious grass-fed beef. Most of us, however, do not have such a sophisticated digestive system and so we must rely on various sources of sustenance. Maybe someday there will be a 100% grass diet for us humans?

Our Organic Pastured Chicken and Pasture Raised Pork, which we feed Organic Feed, also rely on various sources of nutrition. We make every effort to raise our chickens and pigs on pasture, which gives them not only the health benefits of fresh pasture, air and sunlight but also an important supplement to their diet. It is important to understand that the pasture is a supplement to their diet, not their entire diet. We figure that 30%-40% of our chickens and pigs diets come from the pasture, including bugs, grass and roots. Thus at least 60% of their diet comes from a grain ration that we purchase. For us, it is not as simple as raising the animals in the best way possible, we must also consider where they get their food as well. If our purpose is to “regenerate” or “sustain” or generally improve the land we work with to produce food, then we MUST consider the growing practices of the grain we use to feed those animals. So what do all the different labels mean?

Inherently labels are confusing because the label is only as good as the farmer interpreting the label’s guidelines or standards. Above all labels is working directly with a producers or grain grower so you can understand the management choices they make. We have not yet established such a relationship and so we get our grain from Green Mountain Feeds, who buy millions of tons of grain from growers all around the country and continent. And so we rely on the labelling and standards to define the growing practices of the grain farmers we do not know.

We have many choices about the “names” and “labels” we can put on the grain we feed. You may have heard such terms as “all natural”, “antibiotic free” and “non-GMO.” When we ran out of pork at the beginning of the pandemic we searched high and low to find a pork producer who feeds organic feed and raises pork on pasture. We found John at Windy Meadows Farm who raises good, healthy pork on pasture and feeds non-GMO feed. We now are proud to offer our Pastured Pork that is fed only Organic Grain. So what’s the difference between Organic, non-GMO and Conventional (or the lack of a label)?

Simply put: non-GMO just means that a non-genetically modified crop seed was planted and harvested. So what does this mean about how the crop was grown?

We asked a few questions in our end of the year survey and as a starting point I’d like to pose that question to you now and review what the survey results yielded. The question was phrased as a series of statements to rate as “I agree”, “I disagree” or “I don’t know”. Take a look at the graph below, a picture speaks a thousand words.

There is one answer that I would like to highlight: the vast majority of respondents said they disagreed that “more chemicals were used in non-GMO production than conventional”. In hindsight I could have phrased this question more clearly, nevertheless it confirms the common conception that non-GMO as a label is a “step up” or an improvement over “conventional” grain production practices not just the type of seed used. For me there are two main management decisions that a grain farmer makes that are important: what do they do to protect and build soil and what chemicals are applied to the crop. To my knowledge there is little labelling and standards created around the conservation of soil, so that category will fall under “knowing your farmer”. Chemical use is much easier to regulate and is what I will focus on here. So let’s look at how and when chemicals are used in crop production:

In a typical chicken or pig grain ration corn is about 40% of the mix by weight (followed by soy). To simplify the exploration of non-GMO vs conventional let’s consider the chemical use in corn production. According to a USDA study done in 2016 the vast majority of chemicals applied to corn crops were Herbicides (97% as shown in the graph above), of those herbicides the top 4 chemicals are listed as well: Atrazine, Glyphosate potassium salt, Glyphosate isopropylamine salt and Acetochlor. Atrazine and Acetoclor are conventional herbicides with all the nasties that come with their use. Glyphosates are a general category of herbicide better known as RoundUp. These are all harmful chemicals and it makes me shiver to think of the millions of pounds applied in just 1 year (158.7 million pounds of these chemicals over 94 million acres in one growing season)

Nevertheless, some of the first GMO seeds produced were corn and soy seeds that produced a plant that was resistant to Glyphosate herbicides, also known as RoundUp Ready Corn and Soy. These GMO crops allowed farmers to reduce their use of the herbicide by spraying the chemicals after the corn crop had germinated and sprouted leaves. There is much debate over this issue, but for me it comes down to this simple breakdown:

If you’re growing non-GMO corn it just means you’re spraying pre-emergence Atrazine or Acetoclor

and

If you’re growing GMO corn it means you’re likely spraying Glyphosate

Either choice involves the application of harmful herbicide chemicals.

Which is worse? I don’t know. There are certainly bio-ethical concerns surrounding genetically modifying organisms, but that seems a small issue compared to the hundreds of millions of tons of herbicide chemicals applied every year in this country. For me I’d rather have Organic Grain that we know has had no herbicides, no pesticides and no fungicides sprayed on the crop or ground. There are many choices out there now for pasture raised chicken and pork, for the health of the soil we ask how was the grain produced that feeds our chicken and pork.

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