Finding Common Ground Between Human and Crop Nutrition

Jennie Schmidt has a unique perspective on food. She’s a registered dietitian. She’s a mother. She’s a CommonGround volunteer. And she’s a Maryland farmer who grows everything from corn and soybeans (both genetically-engineered and non-GMO/Conventional previously certified organic) to tomatoes, green beans and wine-grapes. Jennie takes great care in the food she raises – it’s her livelihood, and she’s a consumer who, like you, takes care in making the best food choices for her family.

Jennie believes the biology she studied to learn about human nutrition also applies to her crops, making her a better farmer and an educated consumer. Here, she shares five things you may not know about farming and food.

1. Being a dietitian for humans is not unlike being a dietitian for plants. It’s just a different biological system. I use the same skills from my years as a clinical and long-term care dietitian to apply that science to my crops. For instance, I sample the nutrients of my soil and monitor for other factors, like pH, moisture and temperature. I chart and compare previous year’s nutrient levels and make adjustments for the health of my soil and plants. This process is very similar to monitoring and charting human nutrition for health.

2. Organic foods aren’t necessarily “pesticide-free.” And that’s nothing to fear. I’m not only a registered dietitian (RD); I’m also a licensed pesticide applicator. My RD training not only gives me a solid understanding of nutrition, it also gives me a solid understanding of chemistry and therefore pesticides. Consumers often think that “organic” translates to “pesticide-free.” As a farmer who has grown both genetically-engineered (GE,or GM), non-GMO (i.e. conventional) and previously certified organic crops, I know firsthand that even some organic crops require pesticides; they’re just chemicals derived from natural sources, instead of synthetic sources.. For organic crops, we use naturally-derived pesticides based on copper, sulfur or other nutrients, bacteria, fungi, and plant extracts. It’s the dose that changes it from a nutrient to a pesticide. As a mom who uses organic and synthetic pesticides, I’m very in tune with what I’m applying and why. I care very much about what my family eats and how it was grown.

Nutrients, in high doses, work as pesticides to control bacteria, fungi, molds and mildews. It is said, “It’s the dose that makes the poison.” A small dose such as a milligram or microgram of sulfur is considered a nutrient; five pounds of sulfur make it a pesticide. But rest assured, no human is going to consume five pounds of it – not even in a lifetime. As a registered dietitian, I know that nutrients are essential for our health and wellness. As a pesticide applicator, I know these nutrients are essential for the health and wellness of my fruit and vegetable crops.

3. Genetically-engineered farming can be sustainable. Some consumers think that a crop must be organic to be sustainable – but GE crops are also sustainable. Roughly translated, sustainable agriculture is the practice of tending the land in a manner that’s mindful of the soil, environment, public health and animal welfare. Sustainable agriculture is producing safe and nutritious foods using less inputs and reducing our environmental impact. Whether they choose to plant organic or GE crops, farmers, by nature, are sustainable. We have to be to ensure the land remains healthy and productive for the next generation. Our livelihood and legacy depends on our ability to care for and sustain the land on which we live and farm.

We’ve grown both organic and GE crops on our farm. I respect farmers’ choices to farm in the manner that works best for them, but for us, GE crops are a better fit. We like that they require fewer inputs. For instance, with nonGMO crops, a farmer must spray for weeds up-front, before the plant has sprouted. With our GE crops, we can wait and see what fields or plants are affected and spray just the areas that need treatment. Roundup Ready crops have herbicide tolerant traits built into the seed, which saves us time and money later on and fits well with our environment. They provide us flexibility in managing our crops. In addition, organic farming requires more cultivation in order to control for weeds which creates the opportunity for erosion and sediment loss. Here in the Chesapeake Bay region, sediment is the No. 1 pollutant in the Bay and sediment comes from disturbed top soil. Anything we can do to reduce the opportunity for sediment loss really contributes to improving the health of the Chesapeake, so we prefer to no till and reduce till our fields.

4. Farmers don’t use as many chemicals as you might think. Have you ever seen a farmer driving with a big tank of spray on the side of their tractor? Those tanks hold about 700 gallons. But did you know that approximately 695 gallons of that are water? Five gallons of chemicals are mixed with the 695 gallons of water – and 15 gallons per acre is the amount is sprayed depending on the crop. An acre is about the size of a football field. Imagine trying to take 3 – 5 gallon buckets and spreading them evenly over a football field! If you’ve ever heard the term “precision agriculture,” this is it; modern machinery allows us to be extremely precise, so we can spray plants on an individual basis. Today’s farming equipment allows us to treat plant pests and diseases with amazing accuracy. Pesticides and insecticides take time and money – we use them very sparingly and only when needed to keep a plant healthy. Also important to note, the pesticides farmers use have been tested thousands of times and found by the Environmental Protection Agency to pose no risk to human health.

5. Genetically engineering a crop doesn’t make it allergenic. I studied biotechnology at length (it was the focus of my Master’s degree) and I worked with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to review science around the safety of foods produced from genetically-engineered crops. I can tell you the science clearly shows that foods derived from genetically-engineered crops do not cause food allergies. When researchers consider genetically engineering a plant – taking plants with desired traits and breeding them to exhibit those characteristics – they review a large database of food allergens and protein sources known to be allergenic. Much testing goes into this, and if they come across one, the process is stopped.

Genetic engineering can actually help combat food allergies by allowing scientists to identify and “turn off” the proteins that cause allergies. This might someday lead to a world where all children can eat peanut butter or people with celiac disease be able to eat wheat!

I hope I’ve answered some questions that you, as a consumer, might have had about the connection between farming and food. In the comments section below, let us know what other questions you have about the science and safety of GE crops. Consumers have many choices to make when it comes to food. As a U.S. farmer, I’m proud to provide safe, nutritious options.

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