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A short discussion of “all natural”, non-GMO, organic and conventional feeds and feeding

When searching for healthy options to include in a diet or meal plan, it is very easy to be confused with the many terms used to describe the origin and handling of foodstuffs, including dietary protein sources. Since that is what our farm focuses on I thought it may be appropriate to attempt to clarify some terms.
These are, for the most part, my understanding of the terms. It would be prudent for a person to do some reading and come up with his/her own definitions.

Organic agriculture: Any of the practices or ingredients that are allowed, or none that are disallowed, by the National Organic Program (NOP).  The NOP is a federal government run program implemented by private organizations to farmers who voluntarily agree to the binding rules. Benefits are that it generally prevents most questionable chemical usage and virtually assures a “clean” food or feed source. Organic certfied beef does not mean it is 100% grass fed. Sustainable practices on a well operated organic farm justifiably make it a very attractive option for a farmer desiring to increase the value of products to be sold. Struggles in organic row crop production include the control of weeds and insects, so aesthetics of the marketable product sometimes come under scrutiny.

Genetically Modified Organism (GMO): Any of the latest biological micro-technology using transgenic mutation to improve a plant or animal’s single goal measured productivity. Basically taking genetic material from one organism and adding it to a different organism by means that would not occur in nature.  An easy example is what is referred to as Bt corn. In this example of plant modification through molecular technology, the DNA of interest placed into the corn genome is donated by Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium. It allows the corn plant to produce an endotoxin that is lethal to the larvae of the common corn pest, the European corn borer. In this manner, the corn plant becomes it's own insecticide producer and does not require spraying for this particular pest. The latest figures I could find have over 75% of corn planted being Bt corn.  Herbicide tolerant crops, i.e. round-up ready soybeans, make up most of the planted acres and many are “stacked” hybrids with multiple GMO implanted technologies. Most non-organic, major food crops utilize GMO technology to some extent.

 Conventional feeds and feeding: Crops and animals grown using any of the modern technologies to increase yield and profit potential.  Including, but not limited to, herbicides, insecticides, transgenic mutated seed (GMO’s) and growth regulators (in plants), hormonal implants and antibiotics (in livestock).  Simple enough. If it proves immediately economical, use it.

“All natural”: This one is all over the board in what it means. The FDA has no general definition of the term. In the meat processing industry it essentially means the product has not been subject to any unnatural additions once it has been slaughtered. It indicates nothing about the practices used in raising the animal to that point. According to one of the largest beef marketing companies in the US, they require no antibiotics or added hormones be used in the production of cattle placed in their “all natural” line. Conventionally raised corn, soybeans etc. (including herbicides, insecticides and GMO’s) can be used to feed those same cattle.

Our program:
We continue to use the term all natural in our description because, along with our assurance of 100% grass fed to finish for the cattle, and antibiotic and GMO free on the pork, no other term actually describes our protocols any better. Our cattle are never fed grain. They have access to fresh green grass/legume mix pasture for the majority of the year. When they have finished their last grazing pass in late fall, they are fed forages harvested from our fields during the spring flush of excess growth. These fields have no applications of herbicides or insecticides and receive no chemical fertilization.
The cattle and hogs are never fed or given any hormone injections or implants, never fed any feedstuffs containing genetically modified material  and are not treated with any insecticides. Since they thrive on a healthy diet, and live in a clean, green environment, they  have no need for antibiotics.

More on the Organic Label...

As with most good ideas, the group of all naturally produced, sustainable food proponents started small and grew to where it is today. At some point in that growth, less idealistic people saw it more as a way to make a buck than to provide healthy alternatives to our corporate, commodity food system. So with this impetus the Organic Food Production Act was passed in 1990 followed by the establishment of the National Organic Program (NOP)  by the federal government in 2002. The job of inspecting and certification is done by numerous (>50) independent certifying agencies in the United States.      


In general the NOP is a set of rules and regulations defining the production, handling, processing and sale of organically produced food. It disallows the use of substances they have deemed as potentially harmful such as pesticides, hormones and chemical fertilizers. The national list of allowed and prohibited substances is long and can be found on the NOP website. If a producer follows all the rules and is certified, they can then use the organic seal on their product for sale.


What the National Organic Program is not may be just as important. The organic seal is not a guarantee that the food product is local, family farm produced, pasture raised* or even produced in the U.S. Just like many of the everyday items we buy at the retail store, even organic food production has the ability to make use of cheaper foreign labor. Sometimes we don’t have a choice if the raw products are produced here, then sent to China to be manufactured before returning. But I am not comfortable with the gaps left in the food system when my edibles have no source verification or growing protocols are left to someone in a country I would have trouble finding on a map. 


The organic seal is a good tool to use as a starting point, but one may want to check out food options via farmers markets and web searches for local producers. If it is important at all to you to meet and know the people who actually raised and harvested what you eat, it may take more than just a 20 minute trip to the nearest retail super food giant. 


* The terminology used by NOP is “access to the outdoors”

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