Farms Finest: Are silent farmlands the canary in the coal mine?

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times
A once proud and productive Midwest farm now stands eerily silent.
Farms Finest |

The size of private donations given to universities by big agribusiness is astounding. From grant money to construction of research labs and even the funding of actual positions, corporate influence is firmly rooted in this once sacred world.

Where do we go to find unbiased information on food-related subjects today? The Internet serves up endless opinions, each with their own version of the truth. The grocery store is a mind-numbing circus of marketing skills that would make P.T. Barnum jealous. Then, topping off the whole mix, are the ringleaders in politics and government. Consumers are captive customers left to make choices based on the latest headline or product package.

Welcome to the world of the modern farmer, where nature and nostalgic farm scenes play a very small supporting role. Producing an ear of corn, side of bacon or bowl of oats has turned into a triathlon race of research, production and marketing.

No position in this world is more powerful than owning seed. Keys to the plant kingdom, these tiny packages of life are the wellhead for all food.

Before cereal, pasta or carrots, it was a seed. Milk, beef, poultry and pork producers depend on seed to produce feed for animals. Without question, having control of seed is equal to controlling food supplies.

Today’s new agriculture partners are found not in the fields but in sterile laboratories researching new food-production methods, including genetic modification of seed.

What does hybrid seed versus genetically modified seed mean, what is this Roundup herbicide, what are super weeds, and are genetically modified products really safe to eat?

Hybrid and genetically modified seed are both patented to protect intellectual-property rights. Hybrid seed is a cross-pollination process using specific plants. The hybrid result will not predictably repeat, so each year you must buy new seed.

Genetically modified seed is made by inserting traits other than plant, which alter the genetics. A prime example is Roundup-ready seed, which is modified so the crop grown will have a chemical resistance when sprayed.

“Super weeds” are weeds that have built up a resistance to chemicals. As a result, the strength and amount of chemicals required to kill these weeds need to be increased.

Some proponents of herbicide-spraying crops say this reduces tilling (plowing). Spraying gallons of chemicals over crops so there are no weeds does not make sense in the context of health. See The New York Times story on May 3, 2010, “Farmers cope with Roundup resistant weeds,” by William Neuman and Andrew Pollack.

Food grown from genetically modified seed has serious health concerns. Not only do we consume genetically modified seed products but also traces of Roundup from the sprayed fields. Since industrial food is made from corn, soy and wheat, the chemical is sitting on grocery shelves, in our kitchen cupboards and inside our bodies.

Some advocates say glyphosate (the primary ingredient in Roundup herbicide) has about the same toxicity as salt and vinegar. I have to wonder what “they” said about Agent Orange and other dioxin-laced chemicals used back in the day. Here is a link to contemplate:

Glyphosate has worked into our environment and the food we eat. Unwittingly, we have been testing its safety since the 1970s, and reports are now showing a range of other health problems.

The question remains: Why is there no consumer labeling requirements for genetically modified food? Recently, food industry opposition to genetically modified labeling made headlines. See the USA Today story from June 12 about Vermont being sued because its governor signed a genetically modified labeling law.

But all this barely cracks the book open, because headlines will soon be reporting that soil is also getting sick. Glyphosate acts as a chelating agent, which locks up molecules plants need to grow.

No worries here — Monsanto and DuPont will get this “fixed,” too, because they are quietly moving into the soil-research business. See the Feb. 20 Wall Street Journal story “Seed giants Monsanto, DuPont pursue soil deals.”

There is no denying the health of the environment; our food and ourselves are interrelated and dependent on each other. This shell game of propaganda will continue unless we start asking questions about what is in our food and who is serving up the answers.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at