A Visit to Iowa – CornQuest 2014
One of the most enjoyable and unexpected opportunities food blogging has given me is the chance to travel and to learn about new aspects of the food industry.
Last week, the Iowa Corn Growers Association invited a group of bloggers and me to visit Iowa and learn more about the corn industry and the farmers behind it, who work tirelessly to grow food for our tables. Although I grew up in Kansas, I am very much a city girl, and I didn’t entirely know what to expect.
To be honest, before our trip, when I pictured the corn industry, I envisioned giant, mechanized fields with little human involvement. What I didn’t expect is that the majority of farms are still family owned and operated, and many have been in the same family for generations. The farmers with whom we met view farming not as only a job, but as a calling. Their passion for their fields, as well as for their duty to preserve their land for future generations was both evident and inspiring.
In addition to spending time with farmers, we also had the opportunity to have honest discussions with members of Iowa Pork, Iowa Beef and Common Ground, an organization that seeks to unite voices in the corn industry and educate consumers. We had open, honest conversations with individuals who ranged from PhDs, to lifetime farmers, to those who became farmers by marriage. The conversations continued among our group of bloggers too.
Every single person we met cared deeply about their work and the quality of the food they produced. They were raising families of their own and wanted to feel as good about the food they were feeding their children as any of us would our own.
We also learned that sweet corn—the corn that you and I eat—is only 1% of the corn that is produced. The remainder of corn is field corn and is used for animal feed, as well as to make dozens and dozens of products that range from corn starch to corn syrup to ethanol.
We received an up-close ethanol experience at the Iowa Speedway, an Indy racetrack where we sped at 100+ miles per hour. I had a blast, but I’m glad that I wasn’t the one behind the wheel!
Another incredible opportunity we had was to tour Meredith Corporation, publisher of many popular magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens. Meredith is also home to the BHG test kitchen, a.k.a. where I’d like to cook every single meal for the rest of my life.
Throughout the trip, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were a frequent topic of discussion. In a nutshell, GMOs are the result of a laboratory process where the genes of an organism (such as corn) are modified to have particular traits. In the case of corn, the plants are engineered to resist negative circumstances, such as droughts and pests. They have many benefits—less need to use pesticides, since the corn is designed to resist pests inherently; higher yields, which can be regarded as important to feed a growing population—but I did walk away with my concerns about them too.
Let me be clear that I am not a GMO expert, nor am I making a claim on GMOs one way or another. I was happy to hear from every farmer that we met that they do not feel compelled to grow GMOs, nor to buy GMO seeds from one company or another. Many of the farmers grow a mix of both GMO and non-GMO corn and purchase their seeds from a variety of producers.
At the same time, however, I do still have misgivings about the amount of processed foods in the American diet, many of which rely on GMO and non-GMO corn products, as well as the fact that GMOs are still (relatively) new—the commercial sale of GMO products began around 1994—so the long-term health effects have not been studied in decades of detail.
Ultimately, I feel that as consumers, we have an obligation to try to understand our food choices as best as we can, a task that can be overwhelming. We have so much information at our disposal, much of which is conflicting. My general food philosophy, both on this blog and outside of it, is to try to eat a balance of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits every single day, and not to feel guilty about indulging a little too.
Now, thanks to my experience in Iowa, when I place those items in my shopping cart, I will remember that food does not come from the grocery store—it comes from the fields, the barns, and the care of hardworking families in Iowa, my home state of Kansas, and throughout the country and world.
Thank you to the Iowa Corn Growers Association for this incredible opportunity. Although my trip was hosted, all opinions are my own, and I was under no obligation to write about my experience. I feel passionately about the sources and the quality of our food, and I am so grateful to have this space to share my thoughts with you!
And for the curious, a few resources to read more on both sides of the issue, courtesy of Becky: