GMO versus organic? Why not both?

May 31, 2016

plantedrowsCan somebody be both a backer of biotechnology in agriculture and a supporter of organic farming? I think so. In fact, I see myself as one.

I’m a pretty big backer of biotech agriculture. I’ve seen first-hand how by choosing to use genetically-modified crops, farmers in Iowa and around the world have been able to produce bigger and better harvests, with less adverse impact on the environment. And I think there’s immense promise in biotechnology for agriculture, especially in places of the world where food shortages and malnutrition are chronic.

On top of all that, study after study shows that foods made with biotech crops are safe for consumers and are not different from those developed with traditional plant breeding. The latest was from the National Academy of Sciences, which looked over reams of data and concluded that biotech crops are safe and provide many benefits for farmers and the environment.

Still, my strong support for biotech or GMOs doesn’t keep me from supporting organic agriculture.

farmersmarketverticalI know many Iowa farmers who choose to raise crops organic crops or forage on some, or all, of their land. It’s clear that some consumers prefer organic products and are willing to pay farmers more for them. The organic market is also important for many farmers, young and old, who are starting out without a lot of land and need the added income from the premium prices offered by organics.

The problem sprouts up when advocates of organic or conventional farming, trying to bolster their side, start to denigrate the other. There is no place for “farmer shaming,” as one of my correspondents aptly pointed out to me recently. It is unfair, unproductive and causes unfortunate divisions.

The bottom line: Iowa is a great farming state with plenty of room for all types of agriculture, whether that’s conventional, organic or one of the wide range of variables in between.

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

Getting beyond the ‘mom guilt’ over what my child eats

May 5, 2016

teresa1This Sunday, I will be celebrating Mother’s Day with a whole new perspective – as a first-time mom to an amazingly perfect little girl.

Back when I was a kid, my dad used to warn me not to get between a mama cow and her calf out in the pasture, because the cow will trample you. Now I know how the cow feels – overprotective to the extreme.

I’ve learned that “mom guilt” isn’t just a clever Instagram hashtag; it’s all too real. I can’t count how many times a day I google information on whether my baby is sleeping too much or not enough, whether it’s OK to give her a pacifier, if I’m putting her in the car seat correctly or whatever little worry that pops into my head.

And like every mom, one of those worries is whether she’s eating well and growing like she should.

When you’re a soon-to-be mom, a lot of formula companies send you samples and coupons in the mail. I was sent a free sample of a non-GMO (genetically modified) formula. And after our daughter was born, the hospital gave us more free samples of the same non-GMO formula, which I assume they got as a promotional gift from the company.

I know from talking to experts like Dr. Ruth MacDonald, professor chair of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, that there is no difference nutritionally between foods made with genetically modified corn and soy ingredients and those that are non-GMO. But there is a difference in price. The non-GMO formula is more expensive, and those formula costs add up quickly during the baby’s first year.

I’ve compared the labels on both the non-GMO and conventional baby formula, and they are nearly identical in nutritional content. So as long as it has the vitamins, protein, etc., that my baby needs, I’m comfortable feeding her the conventional formula as recommended by our pediatrician.

Yet I wonder if other moms pay the extra money for formula labeled “non-GMO” because of the mistaken belief that it’s healthier for their babies.

A few months back, I read in disbelief a New York Times article ( about one mom’s worries that organic formula wasn’t “organic” enough for her baby. She ended buying an expensive formula shipped in from Europe.

I understand all too well the endless worries and lost sleep when it comes to caring for our precious babies. But whether the formula is made with GMO ingredients is not one of them.

As long as the formula is proven safe, it is approved by our doctor and our baby girl is eating and growing like she should, I’m OK with my choice.

Instead, I’ll worry about what I can control, like keeping food safety in mind by refrigerating the formula properly and washing my hands before touching the baby’s food.

When we first brought baby home, I asked my own mom if I’ll ever stop worrying about my daughter. She told me that even when your daughters grow up, you never stop worrying. It melted my heart to hear her admit that.

So happy Mother’s Day and thanks to the moms and grandmas for all you do to care for your babies, throughout life and beyond. Like those calves out in the pasture, we will always be protected by our mamas.

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

Teaching ag today goes way beyond corn and cows

April 26, 2016

SE-Polk-jan-16,-20131   Do you know a high schooler who’s looking for a bit of career advice as high school graduation nears? Maybe a bright young man or woman who just isn’t quite sure what direction to pursue as they prepare to head off to college?

Well, I’ve got an interesting suggestion: How about studying to become a high school agriculture teacher?

Teaching ag these days, as I’ve discovered talking with a lot of folks in the profession, is a very interesting and rewarding occupation.

Ag teachers today shepherd students through subjects that go way, way beyond learning about crops and livestock. In ag-related classes students learn about the latest in genetics and biotechnology. They immerse themselves in knowledge about water quality and other environmental subjects sure to be big in the coming years. They explore local food systems, as well as learn about food production all over the world. And they experiment with cutting edge technology, like drones and remote controlled vehicles and other high-tech machines.

Sibley-Ocheyedan-FFA-Class1And there’s something else that’s great about studying to be an ag teacher: there are jobs in this field after graduation, plenty of them.

The demand for agriculture teachers in Iowa, and around the Midwest, is very strong and getting stronger. That’s because school districts have seen a surge in high schoolers interested in ag-related fields that dovetail nicely with the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and schools are adding classes to meet that demand.

As Joshua Remington executive director of the Iowa FFA foundation put it, “We have school districts in the state now that would like to start agriculture education programs, but they just can’t because they can’t find a teacher.”

And it’s not just rural school districts that are beefing up their ag education programs. Iowa’s urban centers are also seeing the value in offering ag classes. In the Des Moines metro area, for example, suburban districts, such as Waukee and Dowling Catholic, have already added agricultural studies programs, while the urban Des Moines district now employs two agriculture teachers at its Central Campus magnet program.  Other metro area schools have expressed interest in adding an ag teacher, Remington said, if they could find a teacher.

Boone-FFA-1APR-10,-20131Add it all up, it’s a cool career choice with a very good chance for a job at the end. I’m way too old to know the latest lingo among high schoolers in 2016, but back in my day we called that a “slam dunk.”

By Dirck Steimel. Dirck is the News Services manager and Spokesman editor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

Iowa Envirothon showcases tomorrow’s innovators today

April 18, 2016

Marshalltown1Back when I was a student, I relished the opportunity for a class field trip to leave the school campus to see something new and different. Each trip was an adventure and provided a learning experience that couldn’t be replicated in the classroom.  It also meant a day without quizzes, tests and homework.

Last week, students from a dozen high schools across the state gathered at Springbrook State Park in Guthrie Center for the 20th Annual Iowa Envirothon.  The Iowa Envirothon, sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau since its start in 1996, isn’t your average field trip.  The Iowa Envirothon, put on by the Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI), is a team competition for high school students which extensively tests their knowledge of natural resources and critical environmental issues.

For the 15 high school teams that competed this year, the Envirothon wasn’t the kind of field trip I remember taking in school; this one included vigorous written tests of environmental knowledge, critical thinking, hands-on investigations, teamwork, and the always intimidating, public speaking portion, including an oral presentation in front of numerous judges. The students’ hands-on investigation and team exercises were designed to answer questions from five categories: Aquatics, Forestry, Soils, Wildlife, and Current Environmental Issues.  Volunteers with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and several other organizations provided guidance to students during the competition.

In Iowa, we are blessed with naturally fertile soils which provide some of the best farmland in the world, yet challenges remain as farmers and other landowners continuously work to improve soil health and water quality while being stewards of the land. How to address and tackle environmental challenges in the state has been a focus of many committed stakeholders and is an important issue for many Iowans.  Having a program that provides an opportunity for high school students to gain awareness and get involved at a young age is encouraging for our future!

St. AnsgarIt was refreshing to meet dozens of solution-seeking youth, who have a shared interest in conservation and continuous improvement of the land, and gives me a great deal of optimism for the future. The dialogue at the Envirothon was civil, forwarding thinking, and focused on collaboration, unlike the finger pointing and contentious legal battles, brought by those from previous generations, who could stand to learn a thing or two from these kids!

While chatting with students passing from one station to the next, I wanted to learn more about what drives them and find the source of their passion for the environment. Several students live on a farm or in rural Iowa and have an inherent passion for the land.  Others excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum and were encouraged by a teacher to participate in the competition.

Many students have plans to study environmental science in college and envision a future working with the land in some capacity, either as a farmer, researcher, or another hands-on ag-related profession. Regardless of what career path these students choose, the future is bright with this next generation of problem solvers.

After seeing the students embrace and excel in STEM-based curriculum and point to collaboration as the driver of continued environmental improvement, I left the State Park with a firm belief in the optimism and conviction for the future generation; these kids will play an integral role finding solutions for challenges we face. The future is bright.

By Andrew Wheeler. Andrew is public relations coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.

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