Is that GMO label really necessary?

July 30, 2015

Nutrition Labels1I’m an avid food label reader. When I’m shopping at the grocery store, I stop to look at the nutrition facts before I buy a food that’s new to me, and I check out the produce labels to see where the blueberries or the kiwis were grown.

Yet I’ve also noticed questionable labels popping up on food packaging that leave me feeling more confused than informed.

For example, my favorite brand of popcorn is labeled non-GMO, even though I know that there is no such thing as genetically modified popcorn. Same with the canned pineapple that’s also labeled non-GMO. Again, there’s no such thing as GMO pineapples.

You might be surprised to learn that there are only eight crops grown in the United States that are GMOs ( That means many of the non-GMO labels you see in the grocery store, with the exception of processed foods made from corn or soy ingredients, have never been a GMO food.

In reality, GMO labeling isn’t a nutrition, health or food safety issue. Leading scientists and world health organizations agree that GMO foods are safe to eat (

So the non-GMO labels I see in the grocery store aren’t about safety. They’re about marketing. It’s another way for food companies to try to capture your attention and separate their product from the competitors on the shelves.

groceryFood marketers have a history of taking advantage of consumer confusion. “Multi-grain” doesn’t necessarily mean that the bread is a good source of whole grains; almond milk is mostly water (

Unfortunately, many people fall for misleading food labels. Heck, even I’m guilty of this myself (

That may be why, in a recent survey, 80 percent of consumers say they believe foods containing DNA should be labeled ( Never mind that nearly all foods contain DNA because they come from living organisms.

I get that we all want to know more about where our food comes from. But don’t overlook the most important info on food packaging –- the nutrition facts.

And a quick tip: Use your smartphone to scan the QR codes you may see on produce stickers or food packages. I promise, you will be surprised what you’ll learn about how those blueberries were grown. (And no, blueberries aren’t GMOs.)

 By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.  

Viewing Iowa’s conservation progress from a bicycle seat

July 28, 2015

RAg1OK, I survived my first RAGBRAI. Last year I rode a few days, but this year I pedaled the entire route, some 462 miles from the Missouri River at Sioux City to the Mississippi River at Davenport. My leg muscles and a few other body parts are definitely still a little sore and I’m nursing a bit of a sunburn. But I’m glad I made the entire ride this year.

Riding RAGBRAI is just a great way to experience Iowa. Traveling slowly (my preferred pace) is a perfect way to check out the progress and health of the corn, soybeans and hay crops. You get a real feel of the small towns and larger cities along the route and see the pride in Iowa’s iconic communities, such as Storm Lake, Eldora and Mount Vernon. And, best of all, you experience hospitality of rural Iowans that you feel all along the way. At nearly every farm and in most small towns, cheerleaders of all ages encouraged the 20,000 plus riders to keep pumping along, no matter the heat, humidity or hills.

Riding RAGBRAI also gave me a good chance to get a first-hand look at Iowa farmers’ continuing work to improve water quality through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. Although the progress was probably lost on the majority of RAGBRAI riders who were focused on finding the best rhubarb pie on the route, it was very encouraging to me.

Rag2We rode past terraces, grassed waterways and other conservation structures designed to reduce nutrient and soil loss in the hilly country east of Sioux City. In the flatter center section of the state (an area that my aching legs very much appreciated) we cruised past a number of great looking wetlands, a critical tool for improving surface water quality, and more buffer strips than I could count. And when we got to the east, it was back to terraces and other structures that work well on hilly terrain to reduce nutrient loss.

Even though it was not visible, we pedaled past a farm near Webster City where I’d watched technicians install a bioreactor a few years ago to filter nitrates out of water coming from drainage systems. And south of Waterloo, we huffed past a saturated buffer demonstration project that I saw installed earlier this year, an innovative tool to keep the nutrients out of lakes and streams.

This fall, I know that a lot of fields we rode past will be planted with cover crops, as farmers work to keep nitrogen and other nutrients in place.

All in all farmers have invested more than $100 million in the initiative to improve water quality in the two short years since it launched. That’s no small change, even though naysayers, like Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe, snub their noses at it.

rag 4Progress, like my RAGBRAI ride, takes time. I wish more people took the time to get out and see what’s going on. It sure looked impressive from a bicycle seat.

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is News Services Manager at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.




Ditch the fear to eat (and live) healthy

July 13, 2015

blood pressureAfter years of ignoring doctors’ warnings, I finally agreed last month to start taking medication for high blood pressure.

In my case, high blood pressure is genetic. My dad was in his 20s when he was first prescribed medication to control his blood pressure. I remember how Dad complained about the side effects – how he had trouble waking up the mornings, how he didn’t like how it made him feel.

But the doctor “got real” with me, explaining that high blood pressure increases my risk of heart disease and stroke. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I had to get over my fear of taking medication.

So far, the side effects have been less scary than I imagined. I’m groggier than usual during the day. But other than that, I feel like my normal self, just with a calmer heart.

As is often true, my fears were misplaced. I was more afraid of the side effects than I was about the very real threat of a debilitating stroke if my high blood pressure went untreated.

I got to thinking about misplaced fears the other day when I stumbled upon the CommonGround Facebook page, where a dairy farmer ( explained why she doesn’t worry about hormones in milk.

While all milk contains naturally occurring hormones, the farmer noted that most milk hormones are destroyed in the pasteurization process.

milk-carton1What surprised me, however, was that one of the commenters asked if people who choose to drink raw, unpasteurized milk should worry about the hormone levels in milk.

“Raw milk” is indeed dangerous, but not because of hormones. Unpasteurized milk can carry bacteria that cause serious food-borne illness.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the food-borne illness statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC reports that between 2007-2012, there were more than 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations from consuming raw milk.

Yet from what I could find, there weren’t any reported illnesses caused by hormones in milk. In fact, the hormone levels in milk and dairy products are extremely low, as you can see in this infographic (

Like my misplaced fear over taking medication, sometimes we focus too much on the unlikely risks from the foods we eat – whether it’s hormones in milk or genetically modified (GMO) ingredients – even though scientists confirm their safety (

We all have the same goal: To live our best, healthiest life. But it doesn’t have to be complicated.

Eat your vegetables, lean meats and dairy. Go for a walk. Listen to your doctor. And relax, already. Worrying less really is the best medicine.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.  


Farming is really easy, at least in a video game

July 9, 2015

farmingsimulator15-02jpg-0d2c6c_640w  Last week I climbed the stairs in our suburban Des Moines home to the sound of an idling tractor. I found out my husband had purchased a farming simulation game and was deciding which seeds to plant on his farm.  He chose sugar beets, barley and potatoes.

As an Iowa farmer’s daughter and someone who regularly visits farms and talks to farmers about their crops and livestock, I had a lot of questions about my husband’s farm.

I wondered why he chose those crops for a field in Iowa.

“Well, your options are wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, potatoes, barley, and corn,” he said.

“Is this in Iowa?” I wondered.

“No, it’s not a certain location,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, rolling my eyes.

I began to explain to him that location matters when determining which crops farmers decide to grow.

“Well I just decide based on the prices offered at the market,” he said.

While farmers to an extent base their decisions on which crops to grow based on market prices, farmers are limited in their choices of which crops will grow well in Iowa’s climate. And they have to think about their farming practices, crop rotation and protecting the environment.

“Rain doesn’t affect the crops in the game, I just can’t combine during the rain,” he explained.

farmingsimulator15-04jpg-0d2c6d_640wWell, that’s half true, I thought. Farmers stay out of the fields during the rain so they don’t get stuck and cut deep tracks in their fields. But rain has a big impact on crops in Iowa. Ask the farmers with crops in fields near river bottoms and they’ll tell you how much of their fields have to be replanted due to high waters.

But my husband was way past the point in making his decision, he had already purchased cattle to raise on the farm and he was already applying fertilizer to his crops.

“How do you know how much fertilizer to apply, did you do a soil test?” I asked.

“No, the game just tells me when to stop and start adding it,” he said.

“Oh,” I replied, rolling my eyes again.

I explained to him that a soil test helps farmers understand the makeup of their soil so they can determine how much fertilizer is actually needed. Too little or too much fertilizer affects crops, I told him. And farmers are always working to reduce the loss of nutrients, or fertilizer, into streams and rivers by using just the right amount of fertilizer at just the right time only in the areas needed.

But again, it was too late for my advice or my “real world” examples. It was a different season in the game—no fences to mend, rocks to pick up, no conservation practices to implement or maintain—and he was already harvesting.

“Farming is easy,” he said, choosing which grain wagon would catch the grain as he harvested his fields.

“Talk to my dad and brother (both farmers) about farming—I’ll let you tell them it’s easy,” I said.

He just smiled and shrugged. At least he knows farming isn’t quite so easy in real life.

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is commodities writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Celebrating our independence

July 2, 2015

Jared Brouwer, left, and Trevor Rule

Have a happy and safe Independence Day!

From the Iowa Farm Bureau





Market sheep contestants share tips at the Butler County Fair.

Photo by Gary Fandel.


Teaching about nutrition and connecting to the farm

July 1, 2015

There’s a certainly a bumper crop of misinformation floating around in social media about food safety, healthy eating and modern farming practices. And I recently got to talk with folks who see it first-hand: Iowa’s Family and Consumer Science (FCS) teachers.

At the recent Iowa FCS Educators Conference, I was asked to discuss Farm Bureau’s new Iowa Dish e-newsletter (—serving-up-a-taste-of-iowa-farm-fare) for foodies and to share a few tips on how to keep up with food trends.

The FCS educators told me that everything they teach about food in their classrooms connects back to the farm.

teacher1Yet many students today, even in rural Iowa, don’t know a lot about their food – how to cook it, how to shop for it and how it gets from the farm to the plate, they said.

The FCS teachers explained that they spend a lot of time teaching students about nutrition basics and how to prepare healthy meals at home. And the first thing they teach students is proper food safety.

The FCS teachers told me that they sometimes bring up current food topics in class. However, like many of us, they don’t always feel comfortable discussing controversial topics, such as genetically modified (GMO) foods or organic farming, because they don’t know where to turn for information.

I encouraged the teachers to check out the Best Food Facts ( website, which offers a wealth of information from the experts about food issues in the news.

And to keep up on current food issues, I encourage everyone to keep following (and commenting on) our Farm Fresh blog, where we cover timely topics on food and farming.

Also, feel free to ask a local farmer what he or she thinks about something you’ve seen or heard about your food. After all, farmers are foodies, just like the rest of us, and they are the true experts about agriculture.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is senior features writer for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.





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