Preserving our place on the planet: A food-community discussion on GMO and organics

FEAST TEAM: Kelly Shea, Jeremy Seifert, Jamie Ager, Dan Rattigan and Kevin Fletcher. Photo by Grant G. Edwards, partner, creative director of Socialoriate Photo by Grant G. Edwards, Partner, Creative Director of Socialoriate

At the farm-to-table Feast hosted on Monday, Sept. 29, a hundred guests, including local farmers, bakers, chefs, restaurant and market owners, food activists and stakeholders in the local food economy, gathered at The Hub in West Asheville. Feast, inspired and organized by Rebecca Friedman, owner of Farmer’s Daughter Catering, was an invite-only occasion designed to propel the local, organic-food movement forward.

The evening featured a screening of the documentary film GMO OMG followed by a panel discussion including guest speakers Jamie Ager, the co-owner of Hickory Nut Gap Meats; Dan Rattigan, co-owner of French Broad Chocolates and the French Broad Chocolate Lounge; Kevin Fletcher, president of Countryside Organics; and Kelly Shea, vice president of Government and Industry Relations at WhiteWave Food Company.

“My whole goal for this evening,” said Friedman, “is to make it possible for everyone in this room who’s already organic to do it more profitably and more successfully; and for those who aren’t yet organic to switch. I think everyone already knows that it’s better for our community, for our kids, for our long-term health. The brass tacks for me is how do we move it up to the next level? I want to know, is this community willing to walk the walk and step up to the next level so that we can go organic in the pork, in the eggs, poultry, in the milk, in all those categories that aren’t yet organic and local, because I’d really like to buy those things from y’all.”

The screening of GMO OMG was introduced by its filmmaker, writer and editor, Jeremy Seifert, who moved to Asheville with his family two years ago. GMO OMG is a beautiful, provocative, and shocking investigation (traveling from the fields of Haiti, across North America, to Norway and to France) of genetically modified organisms, how they’re engineered, the companies that endorse and profit from them, and their potential affect on human health, the health of our planet and farmers freedom of choice. For more information on the film click here.

After the screening, and while local chefs Anthony Cerrato (Strada), Edwin Bloodworth (Lex 18), Steven Goff (King James Public House) and Peter Pollay (Posana) put final touches on an elegant farm-to-table, three-course meal, Seifert took on a challenging question about honoring all farmers and their decisions, be it organic or GMO, without the “urban elite” telling them what to do.

To that, Seifert offered this: “It is they, the giant multinational corporations, determining what kind of seeds [farmers] will grow, and this started before GMO, it started with hybridization of crops and the conglomeration of seed companies from thousands of seed companies to a very few. That centralization … is the definition of fragility. … It isn’t some urban elite or suburban elite telling farmers what they should and shouldn’t do, it is the status quo of this country and our tax dollars through the farm bill that have determined that [GMO seeds and conventional farming is the] predominant way we grow foods.”

He continued to say, “We have to expand the conversation beyond GMOs, they’re just a window into agriculture and how things are grown. [In the film] we didn’t discuss, truly, soil, the sequestration of carbon in soil … we didn’t discuss biodymnaic farming, we didn’t discuss permaculture, aquaponics, all of the things available, but I think that farmers should have a choice: and if a farmer chooses GMO cotton, for whatever reason, they should have that choice, but many farmers haven’t really been given that choice because the status quo is GMO and this is ‘the superior technology,’ and now we’re seeing immense amounts — 30 million acres — of round-up resistant weeds throughout the south right now.”

After dinner, the panelists took center stage. Kelly Shea of WhiteWave Foods spoke about her work transitioning conventional farmers to organic: “We have a saying on the halls of our building that the conventional farmer of today is the organic farmer of tomorrow. And we love and nurture conventional farmers because they are the ones that are going to transition. But at the same time let’s quit hiding behind labels like local, because at some point the people at your farmers markets are going to realize that you’re using local herbicides, local fungicides, local pesticides, local GMOs, local organics and local hormones, and they’re going to be pissed, because people want transparency in their food. … Don’t say that [organic] costs more and that it’s going to hurt your bottom line, because its a righteous circle of economics. It’s value added farming. When I talk to conventional farmers about the organic opportunity I say, ‘Hey, do what you need to do for your family man, it’s cool. But this will put more in your pocket; when your wife washes your overalls when she’s pregnant it’s not going to hurt her or the baby; your soil is going to improve, your water is going to improve, your animal health is going to improve. Go organic even if you don’t sell it as organic just for the benefits to you and your family. But don’t just keep saying, I’m artisan and I’m local and that’s okay, because it ain’t okay.”

Jamie Ager, dedicated to raising grassfed and pastured meats on his family farm in Fairview, spoke about the premiums that pose a barrier to feeding all his farm animals GMO-free grain: “Our farm is certified organic, on the farm. The cattle are in the process of being certified organic, but we also raise pigs and chickens and turkeys on GMO feed, so this kind of illustrates a dilemma we have. The challenge we have is that we have to charge a pretty high premium already over commodity product. I realize that our pork is significantly more expense and to have a true wholesale business I think we’d lose maybe 80 or 90% of our wholesale customers at this time if we jumped into the organic side.”

Ager continued: “A feed mill is a pretty large infrastructure and it’s its own business, essentially. I think what we really need to find, in this area, and it’s a great entrepreneurial opportunity, is one of these feed mills that’s gone out of business in one of the rural areas around here that you could get started and get back going.”

Ager also offered this on the cost people must be willing to pay for meat fed on an exclusively organic-grain diet: “[A] chef would have to pay 13 bucks a pound for a pork chop, and retail pork chops for 40-some dollars, for a plated fine-dinning experience. These are logistics that I think about all the time. Does this all add up?”

Dan Rattigan, committed to using as many locally-sourced ingredients in his chocolates as possible, introduced himself and spoke about his decision to support local farmers who are not organically certified: “I’m very passionate about it: Food is my religion. I came to understand, or think I understood, the issues around the need for organic, not just non-GMO. … When I meet my wife in Minnesota, before she was my wife … we decided to drop out of school and move to Costa Rica where we started a restaurant called Bread and Chocolate. Chocolate became our path. From the get-go we knew we wanted to support food grown organically.”

Since starting their business though, French Broad Chocolates has dropped their organic certification. The decision was made, in part, because Rattigan felt they “were missing opportunities to help farmers that are growing organically but don’t have a certification. Some of our farmers, including Full Sun Farm up in Big Sandy Mush, used to be certified organic but dropped their certification for one reason or another, partly because of administrative issues with running an organic farm and partly because their neighbors were not organic and so it precluded them from maintaining their certification. … We wanted to support them. We wanted to support folks that were either transitioning to organic or had organic in their hearts-of-hearts, and we could look them in the eye and visit their farm and get to know their operations and see that that’s what they’re doing: They’re growing our food purely.”

Kevin Fletcher, who provides organic feed for animals through Countryside Organics in Virginia, spoke about long-term costs of non-organic practices: “Non-GMO only describes the seed, not the process in which it’s grown. … It all comes down to the soil: Life in the soil. There’s the discussion: ‘We must save the planet.’ The planet will go on without us, that’s for sure. We’re trying to preserve our place on the planet. Who we are, in our time, and that’s where organic plays such an important role in preserving our soil and the life of the soil. [At] Countryside Organics we provide organic animal feeds, and I’m here to talk about how we can get more organic grains grown. It’s all supply and demand. [Demand] will bring the cost down. [Cost] is the great hurdle that keeps people from trying to feed organic. But if you look at the overall cost in the long run towards our environment and our health, it’s actually a rather inexpensive cost.”

The organic-farming movement has already begun and continues to gain momentum in Asheville and its surrounding regions. But, in order to take off and hold even higher standards (including non-GMO animal feed), it must be met with community demand. Are we willing to spend more on meat raised on organic grain? Does that cost outweigh the potential consequence if we don’t? The decision rests with the consumer.

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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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