Building Community At America's Table

Pesticides: Learning Or Building Bias?

written by Grant

We’ve been thinking and writing about scientific research relating to foods we eat. And here’s something interesting that happened to me in the last couple days.

As much as we’ve talked about bias when we think about which body of research we choose to believe, one thing that hasn’t come up is timing. We all understand the phenomenon where we prefer the version of a song we heard first as a teenager. Play some other artist’s version to us now and it’s just not the same, right? We have a strong bias for the first-heard.

Up to now I must admit I have done very little reading on the topic of pesticide residue on foods we eat. Why? Well, again, my defense mechanism against a complex food world is simplicity…or just dodge the issue. I buy organic, locally grown, integrated pest management fruits and vegetables and figure that’s the safest thing I can do.

So I’m telling you I have very little bias on the matter of grocery store produce and whether there is pesticide residue on it or not.

Then along comes this article from Steve Savage, a plant pathologist, on his Applied Mythology blog, shared with me by a thoughtful big ag farmer:

How The USDA Unwittingly Aids EWG’s Pesticide Disinformation Campaign

Savage makes these three points in the article:

  1. “…the data (ed: from the Agricultural Marketing Service arm of the USDA) demonstrates […] that pesticide residues are only present at very low levels, usually dramatically below the conservative “tolerances” set during the risk analysis by the EPA.”
  2. The press and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who publish the Dirty Dozen list each year proclaim loudly that our fruits and produce are pesticide-laden. No comment given in these announcements that the USDA research shows extremely low levels of pesticide residue.
  3. And how is the USDA partially to blame for this spread of misinformation? Savage says, “What USDA does not do is provide a summary version of the data that is easily digestible by ordinary readers, including typical members of the press.”

So here you have my first and primary exposure to the pesticide residue controversy. I don’t know much about Steve yet, but I have to say he makes very clear and believable points. And I’m almost with him on the idea that, hey, maybe extremely low quantities of pesticide are not harmful. The USDA studies this and deems it so. If I can believe the USDA, I can shop at the grocery store.

Next, I find this in my inbox from a thoughtful small ag farmer who writes for a big ag journal:

Cleaning Up the EWG’s Dirty Dozen

The article is written by Henry Miller and Jeff Stier. Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and directs its Risk Analysis Division. Miller’s bio reads, in part: “biomedical scientist; FDA drug regulator; and scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution” and he is a self-proclaimed debunker of the misunderstandings of science and research.

Their points, though presented in a slightly more strident tone than Savage’s, are clear and easy for me to get. Primarily they argue that the amounts of pesticide residue being found are too low to be concerned with and they are exaggerated by the EWG and others:

 “EWG’s 2010 list involved levels of pesticides 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose (the level of daily exposure likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime of chronic exposure)”

So three scientific minds reach me in these two articles and I have to say, I’m fairly persuaded. I understand there is pesticide residue, but that it is extremely low. There is even some natural pesticide that the plants themselves produce and some of these may be more harmful. The early exposure bias, like that favorite song I talked about earlier, is creeping in on me and I’m about ready to allow pesticide residues at USDA approved levels. It is very interesting for me to see this process in action in my mind.

So what does the EWG say about dosage? Nothing:

 “The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks but instead reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables. This approach best captures the uncertainties of the risks of pesticide exposure. Since researchers are constantly developing new insights into how pesticides act on living organisms, no one can say that concentrations of pesticides assumed today to be safe are, in fact, harmless.”

Hmmm. Emotional argument I would have taken hook, line and sinker before. Gotta say, not too convincing for the scientific-y mind, and this is found on their press release, a good place to be convincing if you ask me. Seems like the EWG needs to address the dosage question directly and that’s basically what Jon Hamilton reports on NPR: Why You Shouldn’t Panic About Pesticide In Produce.

There are nagging questions though:

  • Are the USDA’s standards, their “conservative tolerances”, low enough? How do we know?
  • What about accumulation or interaction of these pesticides in our bodies?
  • What about the effects of these pesticides on our environment? Although the EWG’s efforts with their Dirty Dozen list are clearly focused on consumer consumption, you can’t remove our planet’s health from the equation.
  • What about the effects of these pesticides on our farmworkers?
  • Is the USDA testing only applicable for average weight adults? If so, what about the impact on smaller body sizes, like, say, kids?

So you see the trajectory of my learning on this topic. Now I need your help. Chime in. What do you know about pesticides in our farming that would add to my learning? How do you feel reading this? Are you convinced one way or the other? Speak up!


30 responses

  1. Awesome read Grant!

    June 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

  2. As a trained research scientist, who left the university to take over my family’s farm, I appreciate the balance and thoughtfulness that went into this post. Having read your bio and checked out your blog, I don’t think we view the agricultural industry the same way nor do we buy our food the same way, but you’re writing with balance and nuance that is often lacking from what I come across on the web. On our farm, I would just like to share the anecdote that I see many species of birds that were never around when I was younger. The birds of prey have been found to be especially vulnerable to certain pesticides when used in their environment. When I look out when I’m in the field and see eagles, hawks, and vultures, I think to myself that as farmers we can’t be doing too many ill things to the environment if these birds are flourishing since they are more vulnerable. In fact this makes me proud. We still use pesticides primarily to kill weeds but we use fewer of them than in the past. Our corn and beans are all genetically modified resulting in no insecticides being sprayed on either crop. This has allowed us to use a minimum/no-tillage system that allows our soil to sequester carbon and keep the soil healthy. I don’t have much experience with fruit and vegetable production but nothing I have read has even given me pause about the food I eat. Keep up the good work.

    June 26, 2012 at 10:59 am

    • elliecm

      Thank, Brent.

      The birds is a great topic that I think we might try to get more info on from a bird-ologist! (I am not gonna attempt the spelling of the real term!) Thanks for bringing that up!

      I haven’t heard about “no insecticides” being a result of GMO. I thought that it meant that some are used, but less. Would you mind clarifying that you virtually use no insecticides and add in maybe the request of what inputs you do use, just as I am curious if it is “no insecticides” but “something else instead.” I think if it is neither, we need to know this as non GMO types!

      We are just learning about the soil this week and will definitely talk to our soil guy about tillage. I think this is huge to learn (frankly, I think my own soil is clumpy because of overworking it or wrongly working it).

      Thank you so much for weighing in! We need to make sure that both sides get represented and that, even more importantly, “our side” can learn what we can from people like you who are farming conventionally.

      (comment from Ellen)

      June 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

  3. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. My husband and I have been farming stone fruit organically since 1984. Prior to that, he actually did commercial spraying of (non-organic) compounds for other growers. The decision to go organic was based on the health and safety of our employees, as well as our family, and, I must admit, the premium prices for organic fruit. I agree that limiting the discussion to “pesticide loads” is an over-simplification of a very complex issue. There are many other important factors to consider as your questions suggest.

    June 26, 2012 at 11:27 am

    • elliecm

      Thanks, Nori. Another commenter, Linda, also brought up the personnel issue. It is something we need to look into heavily and get some facts!

      June 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm

  4. Hey Grant, excellent thoughts to ponder. My bio 4 Ur reference. Currently part owner/operator of small family farm/direct-market/winery/agri-tourism destination. Former Certified Crop Advisor and Custom Applicator, (I understand “modes of action”) Grad of Ohio State University (Ag. Ed.). I deal with these topics on a daily basis as we also vend at four farmers’ markets a week in summer and one winter market, we are located in NorthEast Ohio. This topic is really about “Choice” and its relationship to “limiting factors”. Why is “pesticide free” important one must first ask because if it is about “health” (most often the case) then for the VAST majority of the population there are choices made on an incremental daily basis that have a greater limiting factor on health than any practical amount of crop protection products that may or may not be found on food at any level.

    It is sort of like super sizing a meal at the drive thru then ordering a “Diet Coke” to go with it and then wondering why we are fat.

    We try to “IPM” all we can just for economic reasons but I have no illusions we could go “organic” and make a go of it in our climate given the consitant demands we have to sustain three families soley from our agricultural enterprise.

    Yes some people who are very focused and consistant about what they put in their bodies and follow a regular exercise program and for some with possible health related conditions there may be a benefit but that is practically a statistically insignificant portion of the overall population.

    Points you bring up about the “What if’s” are just that, what if? I have always felt I have never made a mistake given the the information that was presented/available to me at the time. Otherwise Iife would just be too hard. Bottom line is we as a society have voted with our dollars by making choices which allow for trade offs of lifestyle options that have never been avaliable en mass in the history of mankind. Yes we may find out different someday but the lightbulb used to really freak some people out back in the day too.

    Sorry I can’t be for focused and coherent on this topic but I gotta go finish planting pumkins and lunch break is over! 🙂

    June 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm

  5. I’m not very concerned about how pesticides affect me when I ingest them and I have no children to worry about. It’s a crap shoot whether or when my body will get triggered into cancer or some other health issue by something I eat/drink/breathe/absorb. Something will do me in some day, and since I don’t participate in high risk sports it’s most likely going to be cancer or a chronic disease.

    For me, the issues around pesticide use in conventional ag is the “collateral damage” done to the environment, to farm workers who may or may not be adequately prepared to work in fields with heavy pesticide residues, and to communities “downstream.” There are non-target plants, insects, and animals that are killed off whenever an herbicide/insecticide is applied. What happens to the overall environmental balance then? Are potential natural “allies” being killed off at the same time as the pests?

    Let’s get “scientific-y” about why pesticide development is such a great business: natural selection. A particular pesticide will rarely kill 100% of the intended target because of the natural diversity within the target population. So we’ve just selected for the segment of the population that has more natural resistance to the pesticide. We keep doing this over and over again with each new pesticide developed.

    Another option would be to get off the treadmill we’ve created and learn from natural processes and systems. It’s great to have a powerful chemical substance in your back pocket for when you really need it, but if you use it every single year then you’ve lost your advantage. Why not just figure out a way to work with natural selection and save the big guns for when you are desperate?

    June 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    • elliecm

      Linda. This is such a thoughtful response. And you bring up a good point. We’re hoping to set up a meal with a soil scientist soon that will answer some questions about collateral damage to environment from pesticide-based farming. We’ll certainly bring this to the table when we do! We’ll also be on the lookout for an expert to help navigate through the natural diversity and pesticides conversation. Thanks! Keep it coming!

      June 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

  6. Brent – I can’t thank you enough for determining that the two of us have different views on agriculture and then proceeding to comment so thoughtfully. In no way do I deny my views or biases, but I am very open to admitting they exist and exploring them. I may or may not come right back to each of them in the end, but the point for me is that I will have opened up to hear you and others in the process. And also, I want all participants in ag to feel like they can speak openly here, not just for me, but for other readers.

    Love to hear about the birds! Would also be interested to ask you a few other questions:

    – What are the pros/cons in your mind as you decide to plant GMO crops?
    – How do you determine soil health exactly?
    – And what do you say to Linda’s comments about pesticide use being selective? Any concerns there?

    June 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm

  7. Nori – First off, I wouldn’t ever apologize for choosing premium pricing as the reason you chose organic farming. And I would ask other farmers reading here, Why aren’t the premium prices tempting you more than they do?

    Would you please also tell us what inputs/sprays are allowed to organic fruit farmers? How do you manage pests and weeds exactly?

    June 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    • Many inputs/sprays are allowed, but few are chosen (at least on our farm). First, you need to identify your primary pests. Then, you look to see if there is a natural predator present. In the past we have purchased beneficial insects to increase the predator population. There are also options such as pheromone strips that are hung on the trees to attract “bad” insects. BTs (look it up) are used for Peach Twig Borer. Approved oil is used for Scale. Wettable Sulfur (an organic compound) is for Blossom Blight. Timing is everything. All spraying is done in the fall and winter. Nothing goes on after petal fall or once the fruit has emerged. As to your question of why more farmers don’t go organic, it may be because of the learning curve or the risk factor. Organic farmers cannot reach for that “big gun” that Linda mentions because we would lose our organic certification. That’s why we try to diversify as much as possible. Hope that answers your questions.

      June 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    • I forgot to answer the weed control question. We use mowing and cultivation to control weeds. Our main concern, again, is the health and safety of our employees. Weeds can cause rashes and/or a tripping hazard when working in the field.

      June 27, 2012 at 12:27 pm

  8. Michael

    In regards to selectivity being a result of pesticides, it is worth noting the use of the grouping system used. Each pesticide is categorized into a certain group based on its active ingredients and method of use (primarily systemic or contact) The idea behind this is to diversify your pesticide use to reduce resistance and increase effectiveness.

    In regards to beneficial organisms, most growers will try to apply their pesticides at a time where said organisms are at the lowest risk of exposure.


    June 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm

  9. Bill – Thanks for being a voice in the conversation!

    Regarding “choice”, I do think our society needs and deserves choice and I fully realize that many people make poor choices in their food selection. At the end of the day, education and knowledge-spreading may help many of them, even if our food system were to remain identical to what we have now.

    But here’s what concerns me about the “choice” thing. Our society has allowed large business interests and poor government decisions to create a system whereby we have a huge quantity of corn-based foods that are very cheap and low in nutrient density. It is called junk food and fast food for a reason. Of course people are going to choose that supersized meal and drink when they look at the price. We, society, have allowed over time that such a system exists. Our tax dollars pay for farm subsidies and health and emergency health care that supports this cheap food economy. Yes, there is technically a choice there, but it is a false choice in the sense that people buying that huge coke are not paying all the external costs (including environmental costs) associated with it. I am perfectly willing to live and let live and if people make poor food choices, fine, but I don’t like business interests influencing government toward making these poor food choices so easy.

    June 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  10. Linda – Fascinating to hear from you. I admit to being surprised that you don’t worry how the things you eat affect your health, but of course I totally respect that.

    And as Ellen says, we love getting pointed at the natural selection issue. We’ll explore that more and I hope farmers reading here will comment on it as well. Thanks!

    June 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm

  11. Grant, I guess my response sounded a bit flippant, but I really meant it to be a reflection of practicality and to add a point to the discussion; not everyone is concerned about pesticides because of their personal health. As you know, I grow food in my backyard, just like you. I do it as organically as possible, but there are so many things I have no control over, such as: when the city decided to spray pesticides at night to control West Nile Virus a few years ago; the lead, particulates, and heavy metals (spewed by trucks, cars, buses, light industry, utility companies, etc.) that have gradually settled into the soil of my backyard over many years (I do use mostly raised beds and started with “clean” soil, but that was nearly 10 years ago), and whatever my neighbors may be doing nearby that drifts into my yard. I am relaxed about whether or not I buy organic foodstuffs partly for this reason. My body tissues reflect 45 years of being exposed to pollution, chlorinated and fluoridated water, pesticides, etc. I can’t afford to buy everything organic, either, so maybe this is just a way that I rationalize it to myself.

    And I will echo what so many others have said: way to go on holding a well-rounded discussion!! Nice to see people from all sorts of backgrounds adding perspective here!

    June 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    • Linda, I didn’t read it as flippant at all, just a very unexpected perspective. I understand your point entirely. Your garden pollution sketch is very real and you have a healthy attitude toward it – obviously we’re not going to eliminate ALL contaminants from our food. I do think though that we have to try to eliminate as many as possible and then, as you say, find a way to be comfortable with those that squeak by. If we don’t try at all though…

      And love your call to farmers about multiple crop varieties. Hope they weigh in!

      June 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm

  12. Oh, just one more thing that I’d *love* hear about from farmers who grow the big commodity crops (corn and soybeans). Has anyone tried to simulate natural diversity in the fields? For example, what would be the challenges with seeding a field of corn with several varieties? Some may be better than others at surviving an attack by corn borers, or getting through a drought, or being resistent to a blight. What makes this unfeasible? Is it because of the equipment needed? Sourcing seed? Varying harvest times? Variations in the end product that commodity buyers don’t like? I’m very curious as to what sort of studies may have gone into this. So much is written by organic proponents about increasing crop diversity, but it seems to usually mean planting many different kinds of crops, not different varieties of the same crop. Or maybe I just am not reading the right things.

    June 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  13. Some many questions to answer, I hope I get them all grouped near each other, so it doesn’t sound like I’m rambling and hopefully its not the length of a blog post.

    I’ll start with different varieties. To be quite honest, there isn’t that much difference between varieties of the major commodity crops. Some may have more tolerance than others, but the gradation of difference isn’t enough to make it worth planting multiple varieties. The biggest issue with planting multiple varieties is that if they don’t pollinate at the same time there is a risk on incomplete pollination because plants that aren’t pollinating get in the way collect that pollen and you’ll end up with ears or pods that aren’t full and that’s a missed opportunity. Planting two different crops would require equipment that doesn’t exist to sort the grain apart or have it picked by hand and then I might as well grow fruits and vegetables where the price would allow me to pay employees to pick it for me.

    We don’t spray insecticides on our corn and beans. If there were to be an unusual pest present that would warrant spraying, we would consider it, but in general we don’t like spray anything we don’t have to (most farmers don’t). Every time we spray it costs money, and every field is scouted to make sure it really needed to be sprayed with in our case herbicide. The only insecticide used is a seed treatment that protects the seed and newly germinated roots from grubs and root worms. This is pretty standard throughout the industry. We might be able to get untreated seed, but it is unusual for non-organic varieties. The granular coating should not leech through the environment into ground water and should stay near the seed and since it’s underground, it doesn’t travel in the air to untargeted insects. Insecticide selectivity is one good reason for us to keep the use of pesticides down. I agree it’s counterproductive to spray aphids in soybeans if it also kills lady bugs that eat the aphids too. It’s part of the reason that gmo plants that do not contain a gene for insect feeding resistance are grown at usually 20% of the field population (the actual level depends on what the EPA and FDA determine works based upon chemistry, mode of action, and the research used for approval). The intended result is that a population of the target insects still exists but at a lower population that won’t due as much economic damage.

    There are a number of people who still grow non-gmo plants including a good friend of the family and my father in law. The family friend doesn’t think that the gmo plants protect enough yield to warrant the increased price of the seed. My father-in-law likes to get the premium that non-gmo corn and soybeans get when they are sold to buyers in Japan. The Japanese have seen too many Godzilla films to accept gmo’s. For every farmer, they must balance the economics and what they feel comfortable growing when they consider plants gmo crops. For us, it’s been gmo. Since this debate is going to heat up with the proposed label law in California, two additional things to consider. If you want to avoid gmo’s, don’t eat anything made from corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets (including table sugar half in this country is made from cane sugar, the other half from beets), zucchini (20% of the market is gmo), and papayas (University of Hawaii and farmers developed that product on their own) or buy organic. There also might be a Canadian apple on market soon that doesn’t brown when cut. I have no problem eating what I grow so consuming gmo’s doesn’t bother me but I don’t think labels are necessary if you know those facts. Second item, agent orange corn is thrown around a lot. It is resistant to the herbicide 2,4D (two four dee) and was used in a cocktail with other compounds at an abnormally high level as a defoliant. It is currently used as a safe herbicide in corn production when plants smaller, but it makes a great headline because of the history with agent orange. None of the chemicals we use on our farm require anything more than gloves to handle them.

    We evaluate soil health by sampling the soil, having experts evaluate it, and the art of just looking at it (sometimes it’s more of an art than science). If you were to grow through and till most of our soil it would come up as a fine powder with some clumps held together by undecayed roots. Soil types affect the success of no till/minimum tillage systems and for us we need frost in the ground over the winter to work up soil compaction from equipment since we don’t have tillage to break up soil compaction. The lack of tillage prevents us from using it as a method to control weeds, so we are more dependent on herbicides to control them. Also, the first years of adopting a no-till system there were decreases in yields (in the early nineties) but it has come up to the level of tillage farms.

    Ellen, to break up your clumpy soil you could try a cover crop over the winter. I think the best option would be a grass like annual ryegrass planted in the early fall. It will probably regrow depending the winter in the spring, so you’ll have to figure out how to get rid of it. The easiest way would be to go get some roundup and spray it in about April when it starts to green up before it gets too tall and is harder to control. Cover crops are traditionally seen as an organic production practice that is gaining more traction in conventional agriculture and I think is going to be an important method adopted by no-tillers in the future. In organic production systems, they use a roller crimper to kill the grass.

    June 27, 2012 at 10:33 am

    • elliecm

      Dude. Did you really just suggest I spray Roundup on my food garden?

      June 27, 2012 at 11:39 am

  14. Brent, I do appreciate your taking so much time to respond fully to questions. Thanks! There’s much to learn in there and it’s a busy day, so I’ll reread and fully digest your comment later, but in the meantime:

    Ellen and I garden year-round, so most of our beds cannot accommodate a grass in the “off season”. Maybe that is our problem, but we have garlic in most of our exposed winter beds and the rest is under a hoop house giving us greens when everyone else is facing only root crops! 🙂

    That said, even if we were to consider planting a grass, I think you definitely misunderstand us if you think we’d spray it with Roundup in the spring. That strikes me as a disproportionate action given the “problem”. Facing clumping soil, you’d really suggest cover crop and then Roundup for a garden?! Seems like the manual equivalent of a roller crimper might be a little more in keeping with our way of working.

    Sorry for saying so, but this is the kind of thing that worries many consumers about ag practices, that the go-to solution is always a toxic chemical.

    You’re welcome to your opinions and practices and I’m very glad you’ve shared, but I can’t buy into this one. I’m curious how other readers here feel about this idea? Anyone?

    June 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm

  15. Brent P

    I’m sorry if I offended you that comment. Based on your background, I never for one second thought that you would use roundup and shouldn’t have included that in the post. I see now that the cover crop solution wouldn’t for your situation. Having said all that, I would be lying if I wasn’t extremely frustrated and disappointed with your response.

    I spent a lot of time going through your comments and writing responses to them and that one line, which i should’ve edited out because it didn’t fit your cultural practices, was all you cared about. Roundup has no biological activity in people it affects an enzyme unique to aromatic amino acid synthesis in plants (stupid things you learn in graduate school). I wish you both good luck on what you want to accomplish with your project and I understand we all share the goal of eating nutritious food that we want to eat.

    June 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    • elliecm

      BRENT! 1) sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I have been getting my butt kicked at work (the glamorous life of owning your own business).

      No, it wasn’t offensive. Funny to me, to be sure, especially since Grant and I border on “nutjob” when it comes to our food (though I totally am eating “crap” right now since I can’t even think of cooking anything real… I am actually microwaving dinners!!!!!). But I am sorry I frustrated and disappointed you and I can totally see why I did. I am sorry. Seriously, and hope that it doesn’t stop you from coming back.

      We’re both gonna make mistakes in the conversation — let’s remember that we are just being human and give each other some leeway.

      I am ffffasaaaaascinated by your comment “Roundup has no biological activity in people it affects an enzyme unique to aromatic amino acid synthesis in plants (stupid things you learn in graduate school).” because I have no idea what it means but it seems like something I want to learn (not for my own garden, but so I can be less stupid myself.) We’re going to Monsanto for meal in early august. Maybe you could give us some questions to ask like this one so we can learn?????!!!!

      July 14, 2012 at 8:29 am

  16. Brent, I very much appreciate the follow up and your honesty about being frustrated and disappointed. Works both ways – I was frustrated and offended by the Roundup suggestion and as I mentioned, it was the “hot button” issue in your comment that I wanted to respond to just then. I am swamped today and need to read your dense and thoughtful comments more carefully later and mean to respond to them and likely ask follow up questions – in the meantime, thank you very much for them! I do appreciate the time you’ve taken and I am waiting until I can give them appropriate time on my end.

    June 27, 2012 at 3:14 pm

  17. Zucchini! I didn’t know that was a GMO product. Does that include both green & yellow squashes? I assume just the green ones typically labeled “zucchini”, however since moving to Chicago I have occasionally heard the phrase “yellow zucchini”, so I’m curious.

    I’m also curious, Brent, if you know of people who are not following the guidelines about planting non-resistant/non-GMO sections of land? These practices are, as far as I’ve read, largely what people are blaming for weed and insects evolving resistance to the -cide in question in a variety of organisms. I don’t expect you to name names (especially if you “know” rather than “know of”), but I’m curious. If you don’t know/know of anyone, do you have any other ideas for what’s going on? Including, “it’s very overblown – read here.”

    I’m sure I have more questions, but this is the first chance I’ve had to get at One Hundred Meals in any depth for over a week, so I need to go do some more reading.

    Thanks, all!

    June 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm

  18. Brent – Getting back to your post with comments and questions.

    First off, you give a very clear answer to the idea Linda suggested of various corn crops planted together. I get why that wouldn’t work well. She did have another question about pesticide/herbicide use leading to us “selecting” the hardiest weeds and bugs for survival – any thoughts on that?

    I’m really glad to hear you work hard to spray as little as possible! Thank you.

    You mention this idea that there is a guideline to plant ~ 20% non-GMO among your GMO crop. I confess this was new to me, so thanks for explaining it. I take it this is just that, a guideline, not a requirement? And can you follow up on Natasha’s question regarding this…essentially asking whether you think this guideline is usually met or not?

    Regarding the farmer’s choice to grow GMO or not. I was curious earlier about your own reasoning. You describe reasons your father-in-law and family friend plant non-GMO. Why are their arguments not persuasive for you personally? Just curious why you choose what you choose. it’s great that you’re thoughtful about all this, so I wonder how you come to the conclusion you have.

    You mention cover crops – do you use this method? And if so, how do you get rid of it in the spring? And if you had to guesstimate, what percentage of conventional farmers currently use cover crops? I know where I live, I rarely see anything but dirt in the fields in the winter, but wonder about your experience.

    Again, you engaged, which we love, so your “reward” for that is more questions. Sorry if it’s tedious, but we’re curious and want other readers to get answers too. Thanks for any help and support you can spare the time to give.

    One last thought that occurred to me as I reread your comments. This may seem really obvious, but maybe it needs to be said. People like me (whatever that means!) point our anger at farmers because they’re spraying this or doing that. I know you do have choices but in your defense, you are also simply using the tools that are allowed you. Our regulators and government agencies and seed companies and such all place tools at your disposal and you use them. Why should we blame you for that?

    Just an interesting new perspective I’m going to chew on for a while.

    June 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm

  19. Wonderful conversation! I can’t express my joy when I finally had time to come to Grant’s blog to comment and I saw all these wonderful, thought provoking comments.

    As a conventional cotton grower, I can weigh in on a couple of items.

    -Growing GMO cotton does eliminate pesticides most years. There are still times when an outbreak of some pest occurs that requires a spraying, but as long as those isolated problems don’t pop up, our cotton field can now come to harvest without pesticides. On the years when something does require a spraying, it is once or twice, compared to many more before the GMO cotton was available. My husband was on a trip to Brazil in March where he got to tour many different cotton operations. They spray up to 13 times a year on their cotton because they are not using GMO cotton. That is first hand from the Brazilian farmers themselves. If we have a normally dry year down here, we won’t spray a single pesticide on our fields. A wet May can cause an outbreak of fleahoppers that takes one application.

    -Cover crops that are planted in the fall then terminated in the very early spring are becoming very common place out here. It keeps the soil from blowing in the terrible spring winds. Many farmers plant right into the dead crop matter with planters that don’t break the soil back up. They use rolling, sharp disks that cut a path for the seed, leaving the cover crop residue and the soil undisturbed. They even stip till this method, only planting strips of a cover crop in between the rows that will be planted. Many different conservation methods of this type are being used. Rotation crops are planted and the residue left in the field, using the new type of planters that don’t disturb it.

    As Grant knows, I buy all my food from the grocery store. I buy Grown in the USA. I trust the methods and products used in American agriculture, not so for me with other countries at this time.

    July 2, 2012 at 10:32 am

  20. Nate K

    I have been introduced to your blog and “one hundred meals” conversation through justfarmers, and I must say that I have been impressed by your openness in general to listening and learning about different viewpoints in ag. I’ve been reading back into your back issues of blogs while awaiting your next one, so I realize I am coming into this conversation after it appears to have ended.

    In my response to your reaction to Brent’s idea of using Round-up to kill off a garden cover crop, I think that it merits an exploration of why that might be done, at least from my experience.
    For a little background, my family operates a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin, the majority of our cropping (corn, soybeans and alfalfa to provide feed for the cows) is done in a no-till manner. We have found round-up ready soybeans to be a good fit in that system, offering us an option for weed control that we wouldn’t otherwise have. In having some weed troubles in our family vegetable garden one year, we decided to take a lesson from our field crops and try a “no-till” approach. Winter comes too early in our region for most cover crops to fit after corn or soybeans, but the dynamics of a vegetable garden are a little different.
    We planted a cover crop of rye in the late summer, after most of the vegetables were done for the season, and as Brent mentioned, sprayed it with round-up in the early spring. We considered using black plastic to kill back the rye, but based on past experiences it is hard for plants in our climate to catch up with moisture for the year if those first spring rains are deflected by plastic (and I feel that rain water tends to be a better source of moisture than the well water, something about the minerals or gases incorporated into it). Roto-tilling a garden often seems to expose as many seeds to the surface for germination as sprouts that it tills under (not to mention multiplying the issue with creeping charlie or quackgrass), so that was a temporary solution at best, most years. With those in mind, we sprayed off the rye prior to planting and then dug through the sod to plant our seeds and plants. The dead sod from the rye held back many of the other annual weeds from germinating in the first place, but still allowed the moisture through to the vegetables. It was something that worked for us.

    The reaction to Brent’s comment exemplifies the feeling that many people in “conventional ag” get when we attempt to offer explanations of why we do things the way we do on our farms. We feel attacked for the methods that we have found to be the best fit for our farm, often without people asking questions to learn more. Your blog post itself was about the idea that possibly pesticide residue was not as big of an issue as some made it up to be, and that you were investigating the idea further. With that in mind, I can understand why Brent felt that his suggestion was valid. It is up to any gardener to decide what they do in their garden, just as it is up to a farmer what they decide to do in the fields. If you (as the consumer of your garden produce) are not comfortable with a practice, don’t utilize it.

    I look forward to the continued dialogue from your blog, and the discussion generated for it. I think that consumers and producers from all viewpoints can learn a lot from an open-minded discussion, and I think that this project will be a great forum for that!

    July 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm

  21. Grant,
    Thanks for taking my input seriously. I would be happy to communicate with you on these issues and with anyone else as well. you are welcome to email me at

    July 25, 2012 at 1:53 am

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