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The Wildly Misunderstood Buzzwords of Agriculture

Posted on September 17, 2014 at 8:00 AM by Iowa Corn

Food is important.  We have an intimate relationship with it at least three times a day.  But, going to the grocery store can be really confusing when you are trying to find healthy, delicious, nutritious and affordable ways to feed your family.

There are so many terms flying around that tout benefits or warn us of dangers.  Marketers have really muddied the waters of understanding and agriculture and food is not clear cut.

“To many consumers and some producers there are only two sides:  the organic/sustainable farms and the big agribusiness/corporations,” said Megan Brown.

“This false dichotomy that society has bought into has created problems.  Unfortunately, agriculture is not as simple as the buzzwords we use to describe it.  Organic doesn’t always equate to being more sustainable than conventional farming, and convention does not always equal mega corporation.  By reducing agriculture to buzzwords, we make an extremely complex and diverse industry appear simple—black and white—when there are actually thousands of shades of grey.”

There are many many many definitions and explanations of industry buzzwords.  Whether you are reading the latest news article online or walking down the aisle at the supermarket, here is our explanation and some of the terminology that you may be bombarded with.

GMOs or genetically modified organisms:  This refers to an organism (like plants and animals) that was modified or changed at the genetic level by altering its DNA.  This can and does happen naturally everyday with cross pollination of plants to promote more desirable traits or by breeding two animals together to produce offspring that are superior to either parent.  We have come to use the term to describe human involvement in the process of selecting those desired traits.  Because natural reproduction combines hundreds or thousands of genes there are still a lot of variables.  When we focus on ensuring a single trait in an offspring is dominant we rely on science to help isolate the gene in a laboratory setting.  Genes can be inserted from one plant or animal cell to another.  This is called genetic engineering and has resulted in many positive breakthroughs that have advanced food production.   The opposite of GMOs or genetically engineered foods would be those heirloom varieties of produce or wild species of plants, cattle, pigs or sheep.

Genetic engineering: When researchers and scientists make changes to the genes of a plant or animal to produce a desired result.  The opposite of genetic engineering could be considered natural selection.  See GMOs.

Heirloom: Refers to old varieties of plants that are still available because individuals have continued to grow them for many years.  This might typically mean that these plants haven’t been crossbred.  The opposite of heirloom varieties would be genetically modified varieties.

Organic: Generically the term organic refers to living things.  But, in food production we more commonly use the word to designate food that has been grown or made without the use of artificial or synthetic chemicals.  Many chemicals are made from plant based materials or naturally occurring minerals and so now many pesticides are considered to be organic.  Organic doesn’t mean that the crop wasn’t treated.  The USDA classification of organic includes the exclusion of GMO traits – specifically those that were engineered in a laboratory setting.  The opposite of organic is artificial or synthetic pesticides or chemicals.

Natural: USDA defines natural products as those being free of artificial ingredients, coloring ingredients, or chemical preservatives and minimally processed.  Products can be labeled as being made with all-natural ingredients provided a portion of the ingredients are natural, but not all ingredients have to be all-natural to earn that label.

Gluten:  Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.  Gluten is essential for the process of making bread and it is that protein that gives bread its texture and elasticity.  Breads and grains have long been a staple of human diets and continue to be an excellent source of energy.  A small percent of the population (between 1% and 2%) has celiac disease which is an intolerance to gluten.  Another small percentage (maybe up to 5%) have a wheat allergy or gluten sensitivity.  Grains that are gluten free include oats, millet, quinoa, rice, corn, sorghum, and buckwheat.

Biotechnology: The science of modifying living organism according to human purposes – genetic engineering. This technology has led the way toward vast improvements in crop production and efficiencies that offer multiple benefits including: higher crop yields, drought tolerant plants, increases in nutritional values, improved taste/appearance and the decreased need for inputs.

Pesticides: Also referred to as crop protection chemicals, pesticides include a number of different chemicals that we put on our crops.  Herbicides control and manage weed and plant species.  Insecticides control problem insect species. Fungicides manage fungus species that are detrimental to plant crops.  Pesticides can be both organic and artificial.  Pesticides help increase crop yields by reducing the amount of the crop that is damaged by these pests (weeds, insects, fungi).

Local:  In most instances people refer to local food as that food being grown in their own state or within a 100 to 150 mile radius of their city.  But, local is relative.  Local varies by product.  Local varies by location.  Buying local is great to support the local economy, but it doesn’t really mean anything about the quality of the product. Buying local may help reduce transportation costs and/or carbon emissions from transportation.  But, many food items have to be imported from international destinations. We don’t have the right climate to grow bananas in the U.S. and have to import them.  Because the U.S. only has a three to five month growing season many other fresh fruits and vegetables need to be imported in during the wither months.

Precision Agriculture: Precision agriculture is the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) in agricultural equipment to allow for more precise planting and application of chemicals. With advances in GPS, tractors can drive themselves to plant, furrow/cultivate and even harvest. Variable rate technology allows for different segments of the field to receive different levels of chemicals to be applied based on the nutrient level in the soil or other affecting factors.

Sustainable Agriculture: Preservation of resources through improved farm efficiencies. Some sustainable practices include: long-term crop rotations, returns to natural flooding cycles to replenish lost nutrients, low or no-tillage cultivation, modified irrigation systems vs. flood irrigation, and natural fertilizers.  Long term goals of sustainable farming might include: satisfying human food needs, enhancing environmental quality and the present natural resources, efficient use of nonrenewable resources, sustaining the economic viability of farm operations, and enhancing the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.  Many proponents of sustainable agriculture define it as practices that only promote the long term sustainability of the environment when in fact economic factors (costs) and societal factors (feeding a growing population) also need to be taken into consideration.

No-Till Agriculture: If tilling is the agricultural preparation of soil via digging, stirring, overturning, etc.; then no-till agriculture is the farming practice that does not break the soil, opting instead to seed directly on top of the soil. Where tilling helps to loosen and aerate the top layer of soil, facilitating crop planting, it can also cause nutrient loss and erosion, exacerbate fertilizer and chemical runoff, and reduce helpful organic matter within the soil. No-till practices help maintain carbon within the soil (as opposed to in the atmosphere) and increase the amount of water and organic matter in the land. Though no-till does reduces chemical runoff, tillage does destroy weeds and so many no-till-practicing farmers apply herbicides to control those weeds. Other terms for no-till farming include zero tillage, direct planting, and pasture cropping.

Conventional farming: Conventional farming describes any farming not dedicated to alternative methods and makes use of chemical plant protectants and chemical fertilizers to increase production yields. Convention farming works to maintain a controlled and uniform environment.  Alternatives to convention farming are organic or biodynamic.

Biodynamic farming: is a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic and natural development and treatment of soil, plants, and animals. Biodynamics relies on specific practices that guide the natural decomposition process without the use of outside materials. Farmers using this method think in terms of processes and forces, as opposed to substances and products.

These buzzwords are everywhere; your farmer’s market, grocery store, on packaging, and in the news.  If where your food comes from is important to you, you should have a good general understanding of farming practices and policies in the U.S.

So, did we get it right?  How do you use and define these terms?

Look for future definitions and explanations as we’ll focus on the food animal production in upcoming posts.

Will, Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

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