Illustrations by Ingrid Wu.

In the fertile hills of northern Alachua County, a 30-acre organic farm boasts rows of lush vegetation. It’s the middle of growing season, and Noah Shitama, a main grower at Swallowtail Farm, supervises a young and eager crew as they tend to the daily chores. 

Shitama got his start in food production after college, when he realized how little he knew about sustenance and basic human needs. “I resolved to learn how to build things and how to grow things,” he said. 

After college, Shitama worked at a small farm in Citra, Fla., that practiced “community-supported agriculture,” a subscription-based program that allows consumers to receive fresh, seasonal produce on a weekly or bi-weekly basis directly from the farm. As a Gainesville native, Shitama wanted to bring that platform closer to his roots. In 2009 he founded Swallowtail Farms.

“My intention was to offer better alternatives in terms of food choices for both my family and community,” he said.

Local organic farms have secured a place in the market as a preferred food source for consumers who have the luxury of choosing between more expensive local grocers and cheaper, more accessible large chains.

Often, this is motivated by a decision to buy genetically modified organisms or not. GMOs are no strangers to mainstream media, but for the common consumer the topic can be difficult to digest. What does genetically modified even mean? Are they safe to eat? Are they safe for the environment?

A GMO is a living organism whose genetic code has been manipulated to include a function it would otherwise not have. Take, for instance, Bt crops. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria with a gene whose protein disrupts digestion in many caterpillars. The bacteria is harmless to humans and kills the pests, which would otherwise destroy their crops. The gene was recently transferred into the Asian eggplant to combat the fruit-and-shoot borer. Now, farmers’ need for pesticides is reduced, as are the chances of runoff contaminating the surrounding land and water, or contributing to greenhouse gas emissions—the “externalized costs” of farming.

Amy Van Scoik, co-founder of Frog Song Organics, an organic farm located off Highway 301 in Hawthorne, cites these “externalized costs,” usually associated with conventional farming, as a motive for starting Frog Song. “Farming can be accomplished with the ‘triple bottom line,’ Van Scoik said, referring to a practice of benefitting human, ecological and economic resources at once.  

“Conventional production exemplifies what is wrong with how we use our resources,” she said.

Conventional production is different from organic farming in a few ways. First, organic farms sell produce in markets that demand diversity, forcing them to grow an assortment of crops with the seasons. But conventional farms emphasize streamlining production. As a result, many conventional farms specialize in a single crop. Organic farms can use any practices they want and often choose those promoting soil, air and water quality, but conventional farms will only use sustainable methods if they are convenient and minimize labor inputs.

Conventional farms can also legally incorporate the use of GMOs, which claim the best of both worlds: lower inputs, like water or chemicals, with higher marketable yields and reduced environmental pressures.

“In American agriculture, we’ve sacrificed almost everything in the name of efficiencies and productivity.” 

Organizations like Greenpeace justify their anti-GMO stance by spreading the concept of “GMO-contamination.” They claim the cross pollination of plant life surrounding genetically modified agricultural fields jeopardizes biodiversity. But Kevin Folta, Ph.D, the chairman of the horticultural science department at the University of Florida, insists that GMO technology can be used sustainably and safely.

“I see this technology as a great way to solve problems for people,” he wrote. “We can design crops to grow in floods, droughts and heat. We can make plants with higher nutrition. We can make plants that last longer. These are huge gains for the farmer, the environment and the needy.”

After 17 years on the market, he writes, there is no evidence to suggest that GMOs are not safe to eat.

“The last thing I’m worried about with GMOs is the effect of actually consuming them,” said Van Scoik. “What people need to be worried about is the corporate control of food supply and production.”

The issues with genetic modification arise when a new plant product becomes patented and in turn controlled by whomever created it. 

“There’s no power for farmers who plant GMOs to save their seeds. They’re legally not allowed to,” said Cody Gallitan of Siembra Farms, an organic farm in southeast Gainesville. “These companies have made a system they can control. You buy their seed and then you have to buy their chemicals that accompany them.”

Back at Swallowtail, Shitama reflected on how culture is mirrored in agriculture. Humans have manipulated genetic crops since 12,000 BC, when it was discovered that saving the largest kernels yields bigger corn in the next harvest. When this is practiced for hundreds of thousands of years, an organism’s most recent harvest will be completely different from its first.

With GMOs, however, there’s no need to wait decades: a trait can be manifested in the plant’s genome almost instantly. The difference is that growers who wish to use GMOs no longer have control over their seed stock. They have to use patented seeds, from large companies like Monsanto.

“In American agriculture, we’ve sacrificed almost everything in the name of efficiencies and productivity,” Shitama noted.

In a place like Gainesville, where land is accessible and viable, where community members value the wellbeing of the earth and take on the role of its caretakers, the arrival of genetically modified crops in food production is unlikely. However, GMOs or no GMOs, it’s important that these small farms—who maintain an integral facet of our culture—are not hijacked by corporate interests.

“The debate over GMOs is in the wrong place,” Shitama said. “People ask ‘what do GMOs do?’ and ‘how are they better or worse than non-GMO crops?’ The point of what’s happening is [that] big ag[riculture] companies are out for domination.” •