By Gary Brock
WILMINGTON — Farmers who support using GMOs – genetically modified organisms — say this production method has changed the face of agriculture since its introduction almost 20 years ago. But what if today, GMO corn and soybeans were no longer permitted?
Rural Life Today asked agriculture scientists and farmers what they think the impact would be on farming.
“If there were no GMOs, in corn there would be a major increase in pesticide/insecticide use,” said Ohio State University entomologist Andy Michel. “The European corn borer population would rebound, and we would have to go back to the traditional means for insecticide use.”
There are some varieties in corn that have a natural resistance to these pests, but that takes a long, long time to research and get that to marketplace, Michel said. “And I think the durability of the natural variety would not be as great as with the GMO variety.
“I would think there would be more insecticides in the environment, and more aerial applications. Today, we rarely see aerial applications of corn of insecticides. In pre-GMO days, you would see them all the time. These were the crop dusters.”
You may see them, he said, “but I don’t think they are spraying insecticides. There really isn’t any reason to be doing aerial spraying of insecticides today.”
And what about yield? Opponents say there is little different in yield between GMO and non-GMO corn. “And that is potentially true. The yield may be, but in terms of potential, I think because of the protection, the GMO corn has a better chance of reaching its potential,” said Michel.
“Is there truth to the idea that GMOs have created the ability to grow more food throughout the world? I think so. It leads to a safer food production throughout the world. There is less pesticide use and in terms of food security and insect outbreaks. It does lead to a safer and more secure food supply. Because it is so effective and removes the risk of insects,” he said.
And have GMOs caused a shift in protein demands in developing countries? “Yes, I have seen this shift from fish and rice to more of a meat-based diet. And this change toward more beef of course will mean an increase in grain production to feed the beef and pork. By 2050, there will be a lot of mouths to feed. I think GMOs offer a tool to help meet that goal,” Michel said.
“However, I don’t think GMOs are a silver bullet and we have to be careful about how we use this variety. We can lose the durability, which can be argued has happened with root worm in the western corn belt. So need to be careful about how we use that. I know there are cases where it can be overused.”
Now that the European Corn Borer is gone, do we really need that gene in the plants? “Maybe not,” he said. A GMO is a tool that should be used when we need them to be used, he pointed out.
Is there truth to the idea that GMOs have created the ability to grow more food throughout the world? “I think so. It leads to a safer food production throughout the world. There is less pesticide use and in terms of food security and insect outbreaks. It does lead to a safer and more secure food supply. Because it is so effective and removes the risk of insects.
“This is an important issue for Ohio consumers and Ohio farmers. I’ve done some work with the Ohio Soybean Council and I think this consumer perception of GMOs is one of their biggest concerns,” Michel said. “They did their own surveys and they know this is a big concern. They see the value in these crops for their farms’ production. And if they see that consumers don’t want it because of their perception that GMOs are bad – that issue is important to them.
“I would think farmers would hate to go back to the ‘old ways’ because of costs, pesticide use and production,” Michel said.
He added that some growers have decided to not use “GMO trait” seeds, not because of health concerns, but just because of the costs.
GMOs – There are alternatives
Amalie Lipstreu, Policy Program Coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, disagrees with the idea that pesticide use would jump if there are no GMOs available for farmers. In fact, she says in at least one area, use has already increased with GMOs.
“All I can go on is the data that at least herbicide use has increased. We have alternatives to using these chemicals and those alternatives are practiced by organic and sustainable farmers in Ohio and throughout the country. I think sometimes we are looking for a silver bullet, and we don’t see the unintended consequences for what we are doing,” she said.
What sort of things can farmers do as an alternative to use of GMO? “There is a huge amount of ongoing research taking place on organic farms, but we don’t necessarily devote the funding research to organic farming as they should. They are looking at changes in crop rotations and seasons, soil structure,” she said.
Organic farmers try to farm with nature, Lipstreu said. They are looking at things like water quality, buffer strips to filter and protect water quality on the farm, looking at ways to protect and ensure that there is wildlife on the farm as well as beneficial insects.
“Sometimes it is important to have the slow approach, natural approach. We look to much to the ‘quick fix’ without looking to the impact this has. Traditional systems may take a little longer, but it is critical to our species to have a broad base and diverse supply of animal life and plant seeds.
“We need to look at the diversity and resilience of all our animal and plant species.”
Will there be changes to GMO use in the future? She thinks so. Under the USDA there is the APHIS, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. “The president ordered the EPA, FDA and USDA to update the coordinated network, which is how these products are regulated,” Lipstreu said.
“Because of this mandate from the White House, there will be a process over the next few years where they will accept public comment and conducting independent analysis of this evolving technology, which is growing more complex all the time. We have to look at the impact of the GMO technology, not just in the lab, but also in the environment,” Lipstreu said.
‘Monkeying’ with nature
Seneca County farmer Daryl Moyer doesn’t believe in using GMO technology.
One reason he uses non-GMO seeds is because he cannot be certified organic with GMO seeds. “Also, it is because of my belief that genetic engineering alters the quality of the food value of the grain. Those using GMOs don’t know what kind of effect GMO feed will have on the animals and people eating GMO food,” Moyer said.
“People are not going to know the affect of this for a couple of generations. They are monkeying with stuff that I just don’t think they should be monkeying with,” he said.
When asked if he would be non-GMO even if it was not a requirement for organic certification, Moyer said yes. “There is a market for non-GMO products. It is growing fast. People want to know where there food is coming from and they are more aware today of health issues and what is in the food they eat. I would stay with non-GMO even if it wasn’t required for organic.”
He also says there hasn’t been much of a difference in premium, perhaps 50 cents more a bushel, between GMO and non-GMO… “which isn’t a lot. That may change, depending on the demand. Certified organic has a lot higher premium than conventional crops.”
He said he has been happy with corn yield. But not as much with the soybeans. “We can’t seem to break that 40 bushel an acre threshold. Some people are getting 50, but that is pretty uncommon for us.” He averages about 35-40 bushels an acre for soybeans. Corn yield is about 160 bushels an acre for him. “I am happy with that. With the premiums we do pretty good.”
One farmer sees a big difference
Farmer Hugh Vance, of Clinton County is a big advocate of GMO technology.
About 18 years ago, he said he was at a seed company’s “growers appreciation dinner,” and a Sabina farmer asked: “When are you going to have soybeans resistant to Roundup? Everyone laughed then, because it was a crazy question, It was impossible to think about. Just a few years later, they developed an idea of Roundup Ready soybeans,” he said.
In the old traditional grain production, it was always a struggle to keep weeds under control, we could never get all the weeks, Vance said.
“So when Roundup Ready was introduced, it changed everything. It made it much easier. There was less management. This was a ‘SMO’ but we didn’t know then it was called that. They followed with Roundup Ready corn, which was also nice, and led to less management,” he said.
Vance believes Europe, China and Japan “really dragged their feet because they were concerned about GMOs and health. Plus with Roundup Ready soybeans, there is no documented evidence there is any health risks to humans. People have been fighting it, but I think they will finally give up since there is no proof of any harm.”
Environmental benefits of GMO?
Vance says there is a humanitarian benefit to using GMOs. “The chemicals I am putting on crops today are very safe compared to what I put on 20 years ago. The stuff you put on 20 years ago, if you got it on your skin, the stain would stay on two or three weeks. People told you to wear goggles and gloves, but accidents happened.”
He said corn was modified to resist four to five insects, including the European corn borer and the root worm. “In the past you had to apply insecticide dust in bags and the wind would spread it… and you always spread it downwind from your face. We don’t spread any of that any more.”
He said with the genetically modified corn, “we don’t have these insect problems.”
And yield? “Now it is almost normal to hit 200 bushels of corn. In the past it was always about 150 bushels. People are now hitting 220 bushels and some are hitting 260-280 bushels. I think it is because of the GMO corn. There is like a 20 bushel difference.”
he added with the increase in safety to farmers not using as much pesticide it increased safety for the community, “because of less runoff of insecticides washing into reservoirs.”
Vance said that, “My grandfather wouldn’t believe the way we farm today. Is farming today easier? The challenges today are so different. I look at the way my grandfather and father farmed There was prosperity then, the quality of life then… a little slower paced. I know they had their challenges. Today, there are a lot of challenges,” he said.
He said the bulk are financial challenges. “It is growing a large number of acres and balancing how we manage our spending. My grandfather and father were prosperous farmers,” he said, adding that being prosperous today is a greater challenge, with pressure to produce more and more corn and soybeans per acre.