Virginia Livestock Farmer Abstains From GMOs and Antibiotics

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Georgiatown Farm and SignBy Shelby Mertens

Karen Doyle, a small livestock farmer in White Stone, Va., made a conscious decision to keep her livestock free of GMOs and antibiotics when she started Georgiatown Farms almost five years ago. This requires Doyle to embark on a two and a half hour road trip to Maryland to buy the special feed from the Amish. She said most farmers aren’t willing to put in that much effort, but for her, it’s a matter of health safety and animal welfare.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are genetically engineered plants or animals that have been hybridized with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. The experimentation with combining genes from different species is not natural nor does it occur in traditional crossbreeding, according to The Non-GMO Project

The purpose of using GMOs commercially is to use them as herbicides or insecticides. However, The Non-GMO Project, as well as other research studies, has determined that GMOs do not provide any nutritional benefits to consumers.

Approximately 80 percent of processed foods in the United States contain GMOs. The European Union, Australia and Japan are among the more than 60 nations around the world that have placed strict restrictions or absolute bans on the production and sale of GMOs, according to the Non-GMO Project.

Thailand, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Brazil and Paraguay are other countries that have either bans or restrictions on the production, sale and distribution of food containing GMOs, according to the Organic Consumers Association.

I’m against GMOs for so many reasons, the rest of the world either has labeling or they are outlawing GMO,” Doyle said. “The poorest countries in the world don’t want our GMO products … those countries where people are so poor and starving, the ones that we send all our money to often, they don’t want our grain products.

Supporters of GMOs claim that the use of genetic engineering prevents insects and bacteria from infiltrating the food we eat. But Doyle said it also creates hybrid breeds of livestock that are bred to grow bigger and faster, so industrial agricultural productions can produce a much higher yield.

The companies that sell GMO seeds to farmers for instance, tell you that you’re going to get a higher yield, it’s insect and herbicide resistant and things like that,” she said.

Doyle said the chemicals used to combat insects and unwanted vegetation ultimately damage the soil.

They are pouring chemicals all over the land all the time and the neighbors are being affected by it and they don’t know it,” Doyle added. “The glyphosate ruins the ground, what’s in roundup … it takes years to recover that ground, nothing will grow from it.

 

In the U.S., food producers are not required to label GMOs on food, which the Non-GMO Project claims is because of the successful lobbying efforts by the biotech industry.

Doyle said pigs that are fed GMO feeds have 30 percent more incidents of inflammation in their intestines.

You know, they compare humans digestive system to the pig’s digestive system and if it happens to them then why isn’t it going to happen to us? Well it does,” she said. “Look how sick Americans are with colitis and Crohn’s disease and intolerance to gluten, all of these things.

Doyle also believes that the use of antibiotics in animal feed has caused Americans to become sicker because of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains it creates.

Well, antibiotics, you know, we ingest that when it’s in our food products and when it’s in our meat, and that’s just not good for us,” she said. “It makes us resistant to strains of antibiotics and now we can’t be treated when we (need to be) treated.

Modern industrial agriculture, or “factory farms,” is responsible for the introduction of low dose antibiotics into livestock feed, starting in 1946 when the first studies came out that found that antibiotics in low doses made animals grow faster and gain weight more efficiently, thus increasing the producer’s profits, according to Grace Communication Foundation’s Sustainable Table.

They have bred the life out of these animals,” Doyle said.

Doyle does not raise the conventional Cornish cross chickens, a breed created specifically for industrial agriculture. She said Cornish cross chickens are bred to be large-breasted and grow quickly. Doyle raises rare heritage livestock breeds that are not meant for industrial agriculture. Her heritage breeds, such as the Red Wattle Hog and the Red Bourbon Turkey, are slow grown, as they were when they were first brought over to America during the colonial period.

The Sustainable Table also says that antibiotics compensate for the unsanitary living conditions on factory farms because the animals are raised in close quarters, often unable to stand up or move around, which causes the animals to be under constant stress, making them more susceptible to disease.

Farmer Karen Doyle and her pigs.

Farmer Karen Doyle and her pigs.

Doyle weans her piglets at eight weeks, whereas factory farms wean young pigs at just three weeks old. She raises her poultry for 28 weeks, unlike the conventional 12 weeks in industrial agriculture. Doyle ensures that she gives her animals a life that is natural to them.

I give them a decent life that’s natural for them, that’s relaxed and they’re not under stress and strain and confinement where they can’t turn around or lay down,” Doyle said. “I don’t clip their teeth; I don’t clip their tails off; I don’t de-beak my chickens. They (factory farms) do that because they (livestock) are in such appalling conditions that they’ll eat each other when they’re sick.

The use of antibiotics in animal feed for industrial livestock production rose 50 percent between 1985 and 2001, according to the Sustainable Table. An FDA report shows that approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the U.S. are fed to farm animals, which means the U.S. human population only consumes 20 percent of all antibiotics.

The Sustainable Table and other research studies say that the use of antibiotics for livestock production is a public health and safety threat because it has been linked to several bacterial disease outbreaks. The Sustainable Table says that when the antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop inside the agricultural facilities, it can reach the rest of the human population through food, the environment (water, air, soil, etc.) or by direct human-animal contact.

Doyle said the advantage of going GMO and antibiotic free is that her animals have plenty of space to roam and act like normal animals.

The benefit is that they have their natural life; they scratch; they dig; they eat the bugs on the ground; they eat plants, which is natural for them,” she said.

However, going GMO and antibiotic free does come with a heavy price tag. Organic and non-GMO feed is more costly than the conventional GMO feed.

The feed does cost more. I buy mine from some Amish folks and they don’t have markups like Tractor Supply or Southern States or wherever people buy their feed,” Doyle said.

Doyle said she is finding that more people are becoming aware of the dangers of antibiotics and GMOs. She sells her products primarily to farmers markets, local restaurants or through individual sales. She’s had success at the Williamsburg farmers market in particular.

I have found that in certain places, people really care about that, Williamsburg for instance, everyone is very highly educated about GMO and they do not want GMO-raised animals or antibiotics or anything like that,” Doyle said.

Doyle added that people have different reasons for not wanting GMOs in their food.

What I found is that people have different agendas, some people just want animals raised humanely, some people just want something local,” she said. “Other people who have health issues don’t want GMO.

Karen Doyle raises free-range red broiler chickens.

Karen Doyle raises free-range red broiler chickens.

But Doyle said she has found that customers are willing to pay extra knowing their food has no chemicals or additives. She said her chicken costs $4.50 a pound.

There are just different reasons people would buy from me because it costs so much more for me to raise an animal and get it to market and get it on your plate, so you are going to pay two or three times as more as you would in a supermarket,” Doyle said.

 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price of a whole chicken in the Southern region of the U.S. is $1.45 per pound as of Feb. 2014. That number was $1.37 in Feb. 2013.

Doyle said if consumers want to change or improve the quality of foods available in their grocery stores, it’s up to them to make the change.

“It’s the customers, the customers can make a change,” she said. “To make it happen, you have to ask for it.

Shelby Mertens

About Shelby Mertens

Shelby Mertens is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Mass Communications - Journalism. She was the arts and culture editor of The Commonwealth Times, VCU's independent student press. Shelby was a blogging and social media intern for Gandzee, an online retail startup in Richmond. She covered the General Assembly session last spring for Capital News Service on behalf of over 70 news publications across the state. She has also published work on WTVR-CBS 6's website, a part of the iPadJournos project at VCU.