I am a first-year student at Middlebury College, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Introduced to the concept of organic foods from an early age, I have grown up with values of natural, pesticide free, products and produce, and an interest in “health” food. Over the course of the past year, I have spent time working on four different family-owned farms in the United States, Germany, and Peru, and have experienced a personal change in perspective with the exposure to differing values and practices within each place. I have continuously changed my own eating practices based on knowledge from outside sources, as well as from personally-run eating experiments.
A Naked Lunch
On Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm I sat down to lunch at Middlebury College’s Proctor Dinning Hall. On my table was a bowl of brown rice and a cannellini bean stew topped with tamari, a plate of fresh salad made of spinach, carrots, celery, corn, edammame, cherry tomatoes, and green peppers (topped with sesame oil, nutritional yeast, and apple cider vinegar), and a glass of Monument Farm’s chocolate milk. This meal commenced my search to answer the questions: what foods served in the Proctor dinning hall contain GE material, and where does the food on my plate come from? I reached several limitations created by current labeling laws, and by the geographical distance between the food-production sites and myself. Thus, my study became increasingly focused on how much I could learn about my food from the actual food companies from which the items came. I sought to understand how much information these companies had made available regarding their methods of food production, and more specifically, their use of biotechnology. My search shed light on a portion of the different systems, processes, companies, and ideas that served as agents in the overall production of my food, and revealed several limitations that kept me from gaining an even greater understanding of its journey to my plate.
I began by exploring the lower level of the Proctor dinning hall, where the prep-kitchen and food-storage spaces are situated. I collected a list of labels from the cardboard boxes in which the vegetables had arrived to campus—which, from what I was told, is the only way that food services can trace the items to their original farm. I dissected the components of my hot food item and my raw vegetable salad into a list of ingredients, which I then began to match to sources from the boxes. This method, although complicated, allowed me to place the specific origin of each item.
I then researched the discourses provided by the various labels; I called head-quarters of individual companies and enquired about seed sources, I searched company websites for policies on GE foods, and I emailed supervisors in an effort to understand what information the companies had made available to costumers. I found that Dole, from which the dinning hall had received celery, was the only company that had provided information on their current practices regarding GE foods:
Dole Packaged Foods, LLC is opposed to Proposition 37 in California even though Dole does not grow, produce or market genetically engineered (GE) food products…(Dole LLC)
By calling Buurma, a manufacturer based in Florida, I was referred to their seed source, Seigers Seed in Michigan. An independent contractor for the company informed me that I had eaten one of two varieties: hybridized carrots, or open-pollination carrots, neither of which qualify as “biotech.” We also engaged in a discussion on the terminology of “GMOs”;
“Bio-tech,” or “genetic engineered” is better than “Genetically Modified Organisms.” The term “Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is really not accurate, because everything that has ever been bred has been genetically modified (An Independent Contractor of Seiger’s Seed)
With information on what the different companies (or representatives) were actually saying about GE foods, I then researched the foods that potentially contained GE material. I narrowed my search by targeting the ingredients on my list that are currently approved for the commercial sale of GE varieties in the United States. According to the “GM Approval Database,” provided by the ISAAA, GE genes potentially comprised the soybeans, and corn I had consumed as items in whole-form. As for processed foods, I found cornstarch as an ingredient in my chocolate milk, and soy in the Kikkoman Tamari I had dashed on my plate. Nothing was labeled organic; thus, it was not possible to rule out any of the above items as non-GE. As for the corn starch, I referred to the following: “because GE corn is not separated from conventional corn by mills and processors at harvest time, all corn-based food ingredients are very likely to have been made from a mixture of GE and non-GE corn varieties” (Media and Technology Services at Cornell University). I also looked to current statistics in order to weigh the chances of these foods being products of biotechnology. Based on USDA survey data, herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans comprised 93 percent of the total U.S. soybean acreage in 2012. Furthermore, “adoption of all biotech corn accounted for 88 percent of corn acreage in 2012” (USDA ERS – Data Products). Seeing as the soy and corn had been grown in the U.S., I concluded that the edamame, tamari, and corn were extremely likely to contain GE material.
Through my process of continuously calling manufacturers and seed companies, I realized that the mystery of my food related to a displacement I felt from the actual sites of production. I travelled to Monument farms to learn about the glass of milk I had consumed, and to understand the unique level of knowledge I could gain from visiting a local-producer. I met with Jon Rooney, the head of processing, who gave me an overview of the company’s history: Jon’s grandparents founded Monument around the year of 1930; it began as a dairy of fifteen to twenty cows, and steadily grew to hold 473 cows on the farm. Despite its growth, Monument is still considered a local dairy. Ron explained that, “local is a logistic…we have to keep things as simple as possible.” Monument is, however, continuously growing; Jon expressed a need to “achieve always slightly greater economies,” to “grow in a controlled manner,” in order upkeep financial sustainability.
Upon the farm’s 2,400 acres of land, Jon also grows feed for the cows, which consists of hay, alfalfa, and corn. He explained, “I always try first to buy non-GMO or non-GE,” but when “there’s no non-GE available, then we do what we need to do.” Jon grows no GE alfalfa, and what he considers very little GE corn.
We never wanted to market our products based upon what we weren’t using to produce the milk, we’d much prefer that people buy it because it’s really high quality, and it tastes really good, and its about as local as you can get (Jon Rooney, Monument Farms)
He sees the term “GMO” as blown out of proportion; “there is so little rational viewing of the subject.”
I saw a solution to the displacement from my food in the possibility of sourcing more local products on campus. If Middlebury students could visit the sources of their food as I did at Monument, they could know more about the products in the dinning hall—specifically, how they are produced. However, a call to Mathew Biette, the director of dinning services at Middlebury, revealed that Dining Services receives produce through two different distribution companies—from which food is imported from all areas of the United States. During the summertime, however, they use local farms that have produce readily available in the quantities needed. When trying to source from smaller local farms, Biette refers to two questions: “Do they have enough?” and, “Can they keep it up?”
These questions necessitate a scaling of how much is needed to serve the community. For example, an average household might consume one to five pounds of carrots over the course of a given week; Middlebury College, by comparison, consumes a fifty-pound bag of carrots, sixteen times a week. More than a matter of season and quantity, the desire to locally source produce is also challenged by the surrounding environment of Vermont: “It’s a question of what can grow and what can’t grow” (Matthew Biette, Middlebury Dinning Services). Biette explained that sourcing local produce is a challenge not nearly as related to cost, as it is to supply; it depends on what the local farmers can provide.
At the start of my meal, I sought to figuratively undress my salad—to ask how it truly came to exist. I initially utilized the production companies as direct sources of information, which proved limited and thus, distinctly partial. However, with a method founded on principles of political ecology, I approached each of my sources as partial contributions to a collective understanding of my plate. My research led me to look at my meal in terms of the different places and scales it represented; it brought me to seek knowledge from sources as close as Middlebury itself, to distant seed companies spread out across the United States. I learned to acknowledge the different circumstances, which impeded my findings—the limitations created by space, and by the strained communication with producers themselves. Therefore, at the conclusion of this study, I am increasingly aware of what I do not know about my food. I have engaged in an exploration of the different ways of knowing about my plate, and in response to limitations currently at play, I’ve come to consider solutions to change these barriers of understanding.
Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge. “USDA ERS – Data Products.” USDA ERS – Data Products. USDA, 05 July 2012. Web. 06 May 2013. This provided statistics from 2012 on the production of GE corn and soy within the United States
Howell, Chris. “From Farm to Plate.” Http://geography.middlebury.edu/. Middlebury College, 2008. Web. 05 May 2013. Created by a Middlebury student, this map illustrates the origins of food products used for specific dinning hall meals.
“ISAAA’s GM Approval Database.” Http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/. ISAAA, 2013. Web. 03 May 2013. This provides a list of the GM crops currently approved for commercial approval in the US.
PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University. “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.” USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. USDA, 2013. Web. 06 May 2013. Referenced by Matthew Biette, this map illustrates the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. It is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones.
Media and Technology Services at Cornell University. “Genetically Engineered Foods: Corn.” Https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/. Cornell University, 2002. Web. 06 May 2013.This is article #2 in a series from Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Genetically Engineered Organisms Public Issues Education (GEO-PIE) Project. It provided information about processed corn products in relation to GE material.
Full list of the Political Ecology of GMOs annotated sources from all papers
“Dole Homepage.” Dole: Prop 37. http://www.dole.com/. Web. 06 May 2013.
Matthew Biette, Middlebury Dinning Services; May 02, 2013; Telephone conversation.
Jon Rooney, Head of processing at Monument Farms; April 26, 2013; Interview.
Blake, Independent Contractor for Seiger’s Seed; April 10 and April 15, 2013; Email Conversation.
Ron Dragon, Middlebury Dinning Services; April 13 2013; Tour of Dinning Facilities.