Keegan-Filion switching to non-GMO feed; warns meat prices will rise

A very young Cornish Rock Cross at Keegan-Filion Farm. (Hanna Raskin)

Keegan-Filion Farm later this month is switching to non-GMO feed for its chickens, turkeys and hogs, a move that Marc Filion estimates will bump up the per pound price of his meat by 25 cents.

“It’s going to greatly increase our costs, and it could cost us restaurant business,” Filion says. “But it’s something we think is important.”

Dozens of restaurants in the Charleston area buy from Keegan-Filion, widely recognized as the area’s top meat producer. According to Filion, when he and wife Annie surveyed 60 restaurants on their delivery list, all but three expressed support for the feed switch. Still, Filion has seen previously loyal customers “go back to buying off the Sysco truck” when the mounting costs of rent or payroll force them to revisit their budgetary math.

Meat from Keegan-Filion is already antibiotic-free and horomone-free. The farm’s cows eat grass, so they won’t be affected by the feed adjustment.

Genetically-modified crops are highly controversial: Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post has described the conversation about them as “the World War I of food issues,” pointing out opposing camps “have dug trenches, and they’re lobbing grenades over the wall.” Arguments against GMOs are manifold, and include concerns about environmental health; economic justice; culinary aesthetics and human safety (There is clear scientific consensus that eating GMOs won’t hurt you: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration; American Medical Association and World Health Organization have all signed off on GMO consumption.)

For the Filions, though, the most significant issue involves the pesticides and herbicides sprayed on GMO corn and other grains.

“We’re not seeing the lowering of chemical use we were promised,” says Filion, who hasn’t applied chemicals to his hay field for a decade. The Filions’ chickens are housed in floorless poultry trailers that are dragged from one spot to another, so they fertilize the field.

In 2014, the USDA summarized 40 studies of genetically-engineered crops dating back to 1993. Of those studies, based on field tests and farm surveys, only a dozen measured effects on insecticide and herbicide use. In all but two cases, researchers concluded pesticide use had decreased. (The outliers were characterized as “same” or “small increase.”) But scholarly analyses vary somewhat depending on which crops; which chemicals and which countries are examined.

As Filion acknowledges, there are online claims for almost everything related to GMOs: One farmer posted about barnyard rats which ate though his sack of non-GMO corn, but refused to touch his retired GMO stash.

Filion won’t hazard a guess as to whether his animals will prefer the new feed, or if the dietary change will alter their flavor. “It’s the chemicals,” he confirms when asked to reiterate his rationale. “They’re coming in and spraying Roundup.”