In my quest to understand why, exactly, GMOs cause so much agitation on both sides of the debate, I was surprised to find a large, less-vocal majority in the middle. These people, many of them farmers, don’t take issue with the technology itself, but how it is applied. Rather than argue ad nauseam over the latest contradicting studies that seem to indicate as many possible benefits of GMOs as there are potential drawbacks, this group views biotechnology like a hammer in agriculture’s toolbox. You can use it to beat nature up and endanger the food supply, or you can set about building a healthy food system with it.
Nathanael Johnson, the food editor at the environmental news site Grist.org, has written an exhaustive 30-part series titled Panic-Free GMOs, which is perhaps the ultimate primer for skeptical environmentalists seeking unbiased information on the subject. After six months of research and interviews with dozens of experts on both sides of the debate, Johnson concluded that the most troubling problem with GMOs has less to do with the facts at hand than the rhetoric with which they are discussed, especially the tendency to lump all GMOs together as a “monolithic entity”:
“[GMOs] are a mixed bag of good and bad… The reason it’s so hard to see the facts is that the actual genetically modified organisms have been crowded out by the things they represent… We oppose GMOs because we oppose the unsustainable agricultural system they serve.”
Even the venerable Michael Pollan acknowledged to The New Yorker that he feels “pretty lonely among my science-writing colleagues in being critical of this technology, at this point.”
The GMO debate has been dominated by scientists, business interests, politicians, advocacy groups, and journalists – but the farmers caught in the middle of it often have a less ideological, more practical point of view, some of which we’ve published below.
University of California-Davis Student Farm, Davis, CA
A longtime organic farmer at Full Belly Farm and a former inspector for CCOF, California’s largest organic certification organization, Adamchak is married to Pamela Ronald, a prominent genetic researcher on the UC-Davis campus, who has dedicated her career to improving rice plants for Third World farmers. Together they wrote the book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, launching them into the spotlight as America’s most unlikely agricultural couple.
In my mind I just put GMOs in the category of improved seed. GMOs are not allowed in organic agriculture, but if they were allowed, they could be particularly useful for disease problems. I have a friend from California who is now farming in upstate New York. In California, you can grow tomatoes without fungicides, because the climate is so dry. But in New York he has to spray his organic tomatoes every week, 20 times a season, with a copper compound in order to get a crop. Copper sprays are permitted under organic standards, but there are [toxicity] issues with them. If you had varieties that were resistant to early blight, late blight, and other fungal diseases, organic growers would reduce their costs, improve their product and would not have to spray copper.
There’s been some [traditional] breeding work on tomatoes for resistance to those diseases, but to get the resistance into all the varieties would take decades. If a genetic trait for resistance was identified, it could happen pretty quickly with genetic engineering. You would still need crop rotation; you would still need to add compost to the soil; you would still need to do all the things that you would normally do to minimize disease on a farm, but boy would it help to have resistant plants.
Organic agriculture currently occupies only about 1 percent of cropland in the US, so that leaves 99 percent of cropland under conventional cultivation practices. I’m a big advocate of reducing pesticide use, and it seems like genetic engineering is a way that conventional growers can do that. BT crops are probably the best example – there’s been a lot of studies that show a great reduction in pesticide use due to BT crops. It just seems like for the total impact on agriculture, with regard to pesticide reduction, reducing it on the land that is growing genetically engineered crops is really important for society.
The situation is complicated by the fact that a few very large corporations have dominated genetic engineering. But that has gone hand-in-hand, unfortunately, with the consolidation of the seed industry by the same companies. Whether they are genetically engineered seeds or not, the seed industry is still way more consolidated than it should be. We have an economic system that has allowed that to happen, and I don’t think it has really benefited farmers or consumers. It could potentially be broken up, but it’s hard to do in the present economic climate. Maybe Bernie Sanders will take care of it!
We need to have a problem-solving approach. Sometimes the solution might be genetic engineering; sometimes the solution is to plant cover crops – it just depends where the problem is and what resources are available. I think that being open to different approaches is probably the most productive way to go into the future.
Hepworth Farms, Milton, NY
Amy Hepworth is the seventh generation in her family to farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. She grows upwards of 400 varieties of fruit and vegetables on 250 acres of certified organic land near Poughkeepsie. Something of a cult hero in the New York City food scene, Hepworth is known for speaking her mind, even when it contradicts what some of her customers might think – as is the case with her opinion about GMOs.
We have to treat GMOs very carefully, but it’s not a black-or-white issue. We don’t need a two-party [agricultural] system; we need a good system. We have to remove the emotion and talk about GMOs on an intellectual level. What is necessary? What will benefit society as a whole? As long as the goal is healthy, delicious, safe, secure food, we shouldn’t exclude GMOs as a possibility to help us get there.
We are next to New York City, where there are a lot of people to feed, which is something we take very seriously. And I’m not sure if organic, as we think of it now, is the ideal approach to agriculture. We don’t use GMOs because we’re certified organic, but I think they can help solve some of the very complex problems of feeding the population in a healthy and even more sustainable way. They are just a tool in the chest.
It’s important to unify around the intent to use biotechnology for the betterment of our society, with great caution to understand any potential negative side effects. But we have to be open-minded and acknowledge that we can actually eliminate certain unsustainable practices by genetically modifying a plant to resist disease or to withstand stress. There are endless possibilities, if only we could agree on how we will use that technology.
It’s difficult for the agricultural community to have the constant scrutiny and judgment of people who have no idea about the problems we face; no understanding of why we do certain things. If they were in our shoes, what would they do? A lot of people don’t understand how complex these problems are. We have to be realistic and come to the table for an honest conversation about the best way forward to create the safest, healthiest, most secure food supply.
The key to all of this is having an open mind and letting principles drive the movement. If what we’re doing is not of net benefit, then why are we doing it? Out of attachment to a movement? Ideological militancy? If we really want to have the healthiest agricultural system we better be very open-minded as to what that means. Because organic in and of itself is has limitations in how it is constructed. The principles of organic can be adopted into any future model because inherent in the organic movement is the best stewardship of the land. I think it needs to be a little more open with the rules, as long as the principles stay the same.
There is an element of truth in the idea Monsanto has done something negative. There is also a huge amount of positive research to create new varieties that help strengthen our agricultural systems. You can focus on problems with GMOs until they get bigger than the big picture or you can focus on the potential for good.
Ogletree Farm, Milner, GA
Ogletree is a grassfed beef producer and conventional commodity crop grower with 2,000 acres just outside of Atlanta, where he is the fourth generation of his family on the land. He practices cover cropping, crop rotation, and no-till cultivation practices, which he credits with vastly improved soil quality and reduced erosion. But he also plants GMO soybeans that have been engineered to resist glyphosate, the herbicide commonly known as Roundup. Here he explains why, in a conventional agriculture context, herbicide tolerant GMO soybeans are actually the lesser of two evils – in short, because glyphosate, while toxic, is significantly less toxic than the herbicides it replaces – and how they complement his soil conservation practices.
I think organic is great. We use chicken litter as one of our main fertilizers and all of our crop residue goes back into the ground. We are a no-till farm, which means we use a grain drill to plant the seed with the previous crop residue still standing. We use a rotation of soybeans in summer, wheat in winter, a non-soybean crop the following summer, such as browntop millet, cover crops the next winter, such as crimson clover, and then soybeans again the following summer. That every-other-year rotation keeps the disease and insect pressure down and makes the farm much more profitable.
With GMO soybeans we spray just one dose of glyphosate after planting. Then they form a canopy over the ground that outcompetes the weeds and we’re done with weed pressure from that point on. With the traditional [non-GM] soybeans, different types of chemicals that are based on chemistry from 30 years ago have to be used, which are less effective on weeds. So instead of applying just one application of an herbicide for everything, you have different chemicals for different types of weeds. And since they are less effective; you have to go out and reapply.
You also have to rely on more mechanical cultivation with non-GMO soybeans. That leaves the soil loose and exposed. With nothing holding it together, you get wind erosion and water erosion. To me, that is more damaging than using glyphosate. You’re losing your topsoil, and the chemicals are more likely to get into the watershed – when soil runs off it takes the chemicals downstream with it. Not to mention the fuel costs of doing all that cultivation.
A few years ago we tried some non-GMO soybeans, but easily used twice the amount of chemicals than with the GMO beans. A lot of people don’t understand the amount of chemicals and fuel that it takes to grow a non-GMO [soybean] crop. The whole reason these crops were developed is to be more efficient – to save money and fuel.
You’ve heard of some of the resistant weeds with Roundup? Well you have resistant weeds with the old chemistry, too. With anything, some people are going to overuse certain products, and you’re going to get resistance and unfortunately that screws it up for everybody. Because the wind carries those seeds, sooner or later they affect everybody. It’s a mess, but it just comes down to good management in my opinion.
There are so many myths out there about GMOs, and what gets me is how many very well-educated people I’ve met who believe them.
Stocks Farms, Dalton City, IL
Stocks recently wrote a letter to Modern Farmer to express his appreciation for our efforts at balanced reporting on the slippery subject of GMOs. Like Ogletree, he employs conservation tillage practices and believes that the question of herbicide tolerant GMO crops is more complicated than it is given credit for; he is particularly concerned with the unintended negative consequences that consumer demand for non-GMO foods has created. Stocks has a deeply personal relationship to the subject.
I am a young farmer who recently returned to my family’s industrial corn and soybean farm in Illinois. I have a severely deformed right hand that is possibly related to my father’s exposure to pesticides. Glyphosate has never been linked to the type of deformity I have, but many past generations of chemicals have been. I would prefer not to have any exposure to these compounds, but we are paid an extra $1.10/per bushel premium for non-GMO soybeans. Not being able to utilize glyphosate forces my father, who still has a cavalier attitude towards pesticide exposure, to revert back to older, more dangerous herbicides, such as Paraquat.
Because glyphosate residue would damage the non-GMO beans, I am required to thoroughly rinse our sprayer tank multiple times per year when switching between chemical regimens. Many studies have indicated that cleaning tasks like this represent an acute source of chemical exposure. It is an unfortunate example of the perverse incentives created by an otherwise well-meaning group of consumers.
I suspect that many of the non-GMO commenters would accuse me of being a coward for complying with a production model I know to be detrimental. Often people speak of changing our farming methods like it is as easy as making a choice and waiting for the economics to settle themselves out. When I try to tell them about our farm’s conservation tillage practices or cover crop regimens they glaze over. When I speak about the enormous potential of decentralized biomass energy or recirculating aquaculture for fighting climate change they generally aren’t very engaged. When the subject turns to GMOs, however, they have a wealth of opinions.