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Common Questions About Agriculture – Answered!

Yes. American farmers and ranchers are the starting point in our nation’s food chain, which produces the safest food supply in the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are home to the primary federal food safety agencies. HHS is home to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is housed at USDA. FSIS is “responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe, wholesome and correctly labeled and packaged.” The FDA focuses on both fresh and processed food products. In addition to the federal agencies, many states have their food safety agencies and laws that govern the production of safe and wholesome foods within their respective states. The CDC’s role is to prevent “illness, disability and death due to domestic and imported foodborne diseases.” The CDC typically becomes involved when a food safety concern or outbreak has arisen.

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Energy is like food — we need it every day, but we don’t often think about where it comes from or what it takes to produce it. To keep the lights on (and other important functions) every day, we can’t depend on one single source of energy. In fact, energy used to make electricity in the U.S. comes from a variety of sources. Fossil fuels account for 81% of electricity, with natural gas and coal producing 61.8%. Natural Gas produces 31.7% of our electricity, and nuclear power produces 18%. Hydropower is responsible for only 7.5%, followed by other renewables including biomass, geothermal, solar and wind. Solar electricity is a rising trend; however, it only produces 1.3% of our electricity. An article by Direct Energy  summed it up well, “The diversity of the United States’ production of electricity mirrors its diversity as a nation." The United States depends on a variety of resources to provide energy. When the sun is not shining, we don’t get much electricity from solar energy. When the wind is not blowing, wind energy is minimal. Balance provides consistent energy availability.

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Farmers and ranchers take food safety seriously. The food they raise is subject to extensive food safety regulations and inspections, and technology allows food to be traced back to the farm that produced it. Farmers and ranchers have a vested interest in food safety — the food they produce is not only for consumers, it is for their family. The incidence of foodborne illness has dropped dramatically in the last 100 years. While food safety starts on the farm, it does not end there. The companies that process agricultural commodities into food take care to ensure their products are safe. We must also do our part at home and at school to prevent foodborne illness. Here are a few important tips: cook foods to proper temperatures, use separate cutting boards for uncooked meat and ready-to-eat foods, store leftover food in shallow containers and refrigerate within two hours.

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Natural and organic are not interchangeable terms. According to the Food Marketing Institute, “the term natural applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives.” According to the USDA, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote biological balance and conserve biodiversity.” Organic processors go through a strict regulated certification process that involves reporting on how products are produced, processed and distributed. While the term “natural” is only vaguely defined, usually by the company producing the product, the term “organic” is clearly defined and subject to stringent federal regulations regarding its use.

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Farmers actually have lower overall cancer rates than the general population. The National Cancer Institute conducted an “Agricultural Health Study.” The study began in 1993 and continued through 2011. The study concluded that farmers in many countries, including the U.S., have “lower overall death rates and cancer rates than the general population.” This is due primarily to lower smoking rates among farmers and a very active lifestyle.

The research also showed, however, that rates for certain types of cancer are higher in agricultural workers. Leukemia, Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and skin cancer are some examples. Research has not been conclusive on the cause of this increased rate, however, there is cause to believe than an increased exposure of UV rays as well as environmental elements may be the cause of an increase in skin cancer among farmers.

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This general statement is a common misconception. Several naturally occurring pesticides are highly toxic, even carcinogenic. Copper sulfate is highly toxic and shown to cause liver disease. Rotenone is a plant extract found in some species within the pea family. It has received significant attention because of studies indicating a potential link to Parkinson’s disease. All pesticides, natural or synthetic, are reviewed and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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Synthetic fertilizers are not allowed in certified organic products, but select pesticides are allowed. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) oversees organic certification. Organic producers must follow a strict process for production and processing of products. But organic does not mean “without pesticides.” Natural pesticides and synthetic pesticides are allowed in some cases. The NOP requirements provide a list of synthetic substances that may be used in organic production as long as these do not contaminate crops, soil or water. Chlorine and hydrogen peroxide are examples of some allowable synthetic substances allowed in organic production.

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According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the good does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” There are many naturally occurring toxins and carcinogens. Nicotine, opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine all come from plant sources. Arsenic, radon, lead and strychnine are all natural. The term “natural” should not be considered a label to help the consumer make a decision.

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