Driving through the countryside, afternoon sunlight ripples golden across the fields as they sway in a warm summer breeze. ‘Sweet Corn’, ‘Wheat’, ‘Barley’ – roadside signs identifying each crop pass by, blending into the background. In the distance, tractors plow, cows graze, and workers in hazmat suits walk row by row systematically spraying each field. Something is not right with our once picturesque “amber waves of grain” and it can be seen without a microscope.
Each day, more and more consumers are reaching for Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified products with much of the dialogue focused around the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While this concern is far from unfounded, there are many other aspects of crop management to be aware of. All grains and produce, regardless of seed type, must still be successfully grown, harvested, transported and stored until needed for later use. How each farmer chooses to complete this task affects us all – the soil, water, air, and more obviously, the food we eat.
Any gardener will tell you insects are a natural part of a healthy garden – fields are no different. Insects like bees are needed for pollination, worms to aerate and breakdown nutrients in the soil, etc. By allowing the “good” insects to thrive, many “bad” insects can also flourish. Pesticides do not have the capability to recognize “good” from “bad” and can have the potential to decimate all susceptible insect populations in an area when used, along with contaminating soil, water and overall air quality when chemical spray drifts into neighboring communities.
While a passerby can easily see field workers spraying crops with chemicals and question the safety of such a practice, not every consumer is aware of sanitation and storage methods using similar substances. Before harvest, field equipment, transport vehicles and storage containers are cleaned by removing field debris and grain dust where insects like grain weevils and other potential issues can hide. In some instances, this means cleaning thoroughly and fumigating or spraying down surface areas with chemical pesticides and fungicides – recommendations include not only areas in and around the grain storage, but also throughout the grain as it fills a silo and even as a surface treatment “top dressing” once full so as to prevent insect infestation from above. Chemicals used after harvest in storage containers or on the grain itself can include products such as the highly toxic fumigant aluminum phosphide and Malathion, an organophosphate pesticide which affects the nervous system and can easily enter the groundwater supply. Many of the chemicals used for crop management and storage have been linked to health issues as they can alter or disrupt the body’s regulation for endocrine, nervous, respiratory and circulatory systems, among a wide array of other developmental concerns in children.
For the grain weevil, a type of beetle, their presence in grain can often go undetected for months. A female grain weevil deposits her hundreds of eggs into grain kernels, one egg per kernel. Once hatched, they consume the inside of the grain, and emerge about a month later as pupae. As they are unable to fly and prefer stored grain over that in the field, these weevils are particularly a nuisance during storage and can hide in leftover grain and grain dust in silos. Growing up, I heard stories of my grandfather’s time enlisted in the Navy and how there was constantly weevil contamination in their food supplies. Crops during the 1930’s and 1940’s were not grown using chemical pesticides in the volumes or variations used currently (and GMOs were non-existent), so a “Certified Organic” label did not exist. While we may still find weevils now and then in grain or grain-based products, it is less likely today as conventionally grown grain, even for human consumption, can have dozens of chemicals sprayed on them to prevent and control potential issues throughout growth, harvest and during storage. Information collected by the USDA Pesticide Data Program found 15 different pesticide residues on corn samples alone! Today, a meal complete with surprise grain weevils sounds more like an episode of ‘Fear Factor’ than the rather normative occurrence it once was. While conventional grains may be less likely now to have insect issues like weevils, be aware that a generous helping of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides – is what’s for dinner – unless your dinner comes from a Certified Organic farm.
Regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) standards, Certified Organic farmers have fewer options for insect control, along with being required to provide documentation to guarantee adherence to quality standards and proper handling of their products from start to finish. Not only are Certified Organic farms unable to use chemical pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate laden Round-Up in their fields, they are also not able to use chemical means for insect control during storage. Quality sanitation and inspection is essential to Certified Organic producers for reducing the likelihood of insects in the grain along with potential cross-contamination from non-Organic grain. For those smaller organic farms renting or borrowing equipment, certification guidelines even require documentation such as a ‘Clean Truck Affidavit’ guaranteeing grain vehicles have been properly cleaned prior to transport.
While it can seem overwhelming to learn more about issues in our food system, consumer awareness and demand for change will determine the future of our food supply. Grain products represent a large portion of most diets as they are easily stored. If you are unable to know your farmer or be your farmer, which is especially difficult with grain, the best practice to guarantee safe, high quality chemical-free food is to buy Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified. The next time you pick up a loaf of bread, you might be getting more than just the simple flour, yeast and water you were looking for!