GMOs and Farmers
As the COVID-19 pandemic still affects life around the world, people are showing more interest in the food supply and where their food comes than ever before. At GMO Answers, we are committed to answering people’s questions about food and have answered more than 2,000 questions on our website since our launch in 2013. One of the more common questions that we get is something along the lines of “Why do farmers choose to grow GMOs?”
Farmers in the United States and throughout the world are continuing to work, planting seeds, taking care of their animals, and tending to their fields during these times when so many of our lives are interrupted. With all the talk about heroes on the medical front lines, we believe that farmers deserve to be on the list of heroes, as they continue to grow the food that ends up on your grocery store shelves and eventually your homes.
After all, it takes true courage for farmers to plant a seed in the spring, watch the crop endure ever-challenging weather and pests in the summer, and hope it will yield a bountiful harvest in the fall.
It takes courage to drive a tractor or combine along a busy highway, with traffic zooming impatiently around you because it is the only way to get the crop from field to market.
It takes courage for a young farmer to ask the local bank for a loan to build a hog or cattle barn, not knowing whether an international trade war or an animal-disease outbreak will put them out of business.
And it takes courage for farmers to continually try to learn, improve and adopt new conservation or animal care practices, even though it might cost them in tight financial times and there’s no guarantee that the science (or public opinion) won’t change. (Thanks to Iowa Farm Bureau for these words!)
Farmers do this all because it’s their calling - to give back to others, to grow and raise our food.
Farmers choose what seeds to grow based on what is best for their farms, market demand and local growing environments. Farmers also look for ways to grow crops using resources more efficiently and with less impact on the environment.
More than 18 million farmers around the world, the majority in developing countries, choose to plant genetically modified seeds due to their advantages, which can include reducing the impact of agriculture on their environment, reducing costs via more targeted pesticide use and reducing yield loss or crop damage from weeds, diseases, and insects, as well as from extreme weather conditions such as drought.
We’ve compiled a few resources that help explain why farmers choose GMO seeds, why GMOs are such an important tool in the toolbox for them, and how GMOs are helping farmers actually be more sustainable and better stewards of their land and the environment.
Why are GMOs so important to farmers?
GMOs are one of modern agriculture’s many innovations and allow farmers to grow more food with fewer resources. Genetically modified traits like insect-resistance and drought-resistance help to maximize yields and enable farmers to grow more food using less land and with fewer inputs like chemicals and fuel. Because of the superior weed control of genetically modified crops, farmers can till the soil much less often. That has led to improved soil health and water retention, reduced runoff, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Additionally, genetically modified plants with more efficient use of nitrogen and other important nutrients mean less fertilizer is needed, saving farmers money and reducing the amount of fertilizer in the environment. Learn more here.
Are big companies forcing farmers to grow GMOs?
Brian Scott, a farmer that volunteers in helping to answer the questions on our website, says, “None of the seed companies force farmers like me to buy any particular product. Salespeople might push the latest and greatest, but since every farm operates a little bit differently from the next one, seed choice is very important. All the companies that sell GMO seed also have many non-GMO varieties available. I can buy any seed from any vendor I choose from one year to the next. Just because I bought Monsanto, Pioneer, or Syngenta seeds one year doesn’t mean I have to buy seed from any one of them the following year.
Farmers do sign technology use agreements in relation to patented products, but nothing in the contracts designates a requirement for future purchases or even purchases of other products during the growing season.” Read more here.
Sustainable Farming Practices You Didn’t Know are Used with GMO Crops
Here are five ways that GMOs help farmers to be more sustainable and help the environment: fewer pesticide applications, conservation tillage (which leads to reduced greenhouse gas emissions), increased water conservation, reduced water pollution through precision nutrient applications, and helping to enhance biodiversity. To learn more about these practices, check out this feature from our Get To Know GMOs Month.
How GMOs Fit into The Farm Toolbox
Katie Pratt, another one of our Farmer volunteers, writes in a blog post that originally appeared on Forbes, “These days the greater farm/food conversation is buzzing with words. Buzzwords and the ideas driving them are great for conversation, but on the farm, conversation must translate to real work with real results. Sustainability is a great goal, but to sustain is to maintain, and maintenance is not our focus on the farm. Continuous improvement, i.e. leaving things better than we received them, is. To do that we fill our farm toolbox with people, equipment, technology and science to give us options to use less of our natural resources and care for them, all the while raising a high-quality crop for use far beyond the typical applications to food, fuel, and fiber. AND, in doing all this, we must be financially responsible. Farming is our life choice, but it is also our business.
What This Indiana Farmer Wishes Everyone Knew About His Job
Farmer Brian Scott notes, “I want everyone to know that we try to be better farmers every season. We try something new or different every year and test the results against our normal practices to see which works better. We set up trials for fertilizer and seeding rates to see what the upper and lower limits are where yield or cost of production begins to suffer. We've been pushing further with cover crops by letting them grow longer in the spring than we have in the past. It can get a little dicey with a wet spring like we had this year, but we are learning more about how to manage covers each season”. Learn more about a typical day in a farmer’s life here.
Farmers and the Buying and Saving of Seeds, Genetically Modified or Not
Back to farmer Brian Scott again: “The biggest hang-up for most people seems to be that I cannot save the progeny of the seeds I plant in order to grow another crop the following year. I grow mostly corn and soybeans. Saving seed from corn is something not really done anymore, and it has been that way for decades because pretty much all field corn is hybrid corn. The harvest of a hybrid corn plant won’t produce seed genetically identical to the parent plant.
"So, since I don’t know exactly what the genetics are in that new seed, I don’t want to plant it next year. I should add that just about all corn grown today is hybrid corn because it performs much better than inbred corn. When it comes to corn, I wouldn’t save the seed even if I could. Farmers used to save corn seed. They would grab the biggest ears from the field at harvest time and hang them up in the barn. That’s just guessing at best. I get one shot to plant each year. I can’t afford not to do it right.” Learn more about the answers to these questions and more in a blog post originally posted at Forbes.
Factory Farmer? No, I'm A Family Farmer
Another one of our volunteer farmers notes, “Today I was called a “factory farmer” because I use vaccines and antibiotics in my cattle herd and genetically engineered crop varieties in our fields. While I didn’t take it as the insult it was meant to be, it betrayed an inherent flaw in the way the public sees farmers and food in our country. Somehow, large = bad, technology = dangerous, science = scary, and efficient = evil.” Get more of his personal experience and expert opinion here.
So when you see on the news that there are shortages of food at the grocery store or negative stories about farmers showing up in the media during these extremely trying times, please try to remember that there are many decisions that determine what a farmer does and doesn’t do. And to have to make these additional decisions while facing the same pressure of taking care of their family and worrying about the economy as you do is a daunting task. For these reasons, we consider farmers to be the quintessential essential employee and true heroes of these times. If you have further questions about GMOs, your food, agriculture, or farmers, please feel free to explore our website, GMO Answers.