These days my introduction as a farmer is often followed by this question or a version of it, “Do you use GMOs?” Guaranteed asked. Every. Time.
GMOs are the topic du jour. Organizations with ulterior motives are leveling accusations, consumers are confused and concerned, and farmers are left wondering, “What’s the big deal?”
GMOs or agriculture biotechnology has been around since before 1996 when genetically modified seed came to market. The first was a soybean that could handle an application of RoundUp (glyphosate) because it contained a gene from a petunia. Initially, these herbicide and insecticide resistant hybrids and varieties were exciting for the farmer, but we knew these innovations did not replace tried and true farming practices and GMOs became just another tool in the toolbox.
Too often during GMO dominated conversations, I get the sense that people are assuming these seeds are magic. That they grow just because they’re put in the ground. But a successful growing season and a bumper harvest is not dependent upon one gene found in a genetically modified plant. So many factors play into raising a crop, many of which have nothing to do with a GMO.
For starters a vital tool on any size farm is the tractor. Today’s tractors are mobile computer labs linking to satellites, sending information to home computers, cell phones and tablets. We can overlay field maps detailing soil quality with maps highlighting the previous year’s yields. We input data about our fertility program and crop protection efforts. This year we added weather data – rainfall, daily temperatures, etc. Combined, all of this information allows us and the tractor to decide how fast to plant, how much to plant, where to plant, where to apply fertilizers and in what amount. We can control the inputs (seed, herbicide, fertilizer, etc.) for a square foot of a 400-acre field.
Tractor intelligence means nothing if the seed we plant is worthless. Hybrids and varieties developed through traditional plant breeding efforts are the foundation on which a farmer can build a successful farm. We have hundreds of seed choices brought to us from hundreds of different seed companies. We look for hybrids that will withstand dry conditions, yet perform well when rainfall is plentiful. We search for hybrids with good root and stalk structure. Too many spring windstorms can level a shoulder-high field. The plants must have the strength to stand up again. We watch for hybrids touting good ear growth, fill and strength.
Good hybrids will perform optimally if planted in good soil. Have you ever paid attention to the ground beneath your feet? Is it concrete, grass, sand, or rock? What is its purpose? On the farm, the soil is our store. It is what gives us our product to sell. Therefore it behooves the farmer to treat the soil with the utmost care.
Soil quality is affected by different things. Farmers can apply fertilizers in the form of animal waste, in the form of rock like lime or in liquid form, like nitrogen. For soil to hang on to those fertilizers though, it must contain organic matter. Organic matter can include the leftovers from last year’s crop. But those leftovers are havens for new weed seed.
This is where genetically modified seed has enhanced our previous soil care efforts. Prior to the use of GMOs, farmers spent much time controlling weeds. Weeds steal water, nutrients and minerals from the farmer’s crop. Farmers would till the fields before planting, use several applications of herbicide and during the growing season, plow between the rows of corn and beans.
But these days on our farm, by using a genetically modified seed, we cultivate the field once before planting, plant and let the seeds grow. A few weeks later, we apply one application of herbicide to control the weeds and leave the field until harvest. Soil, organic matter, and fertilizers are left to do their job without being disturbed by the tractor and plow. Soil stays where it needs to be. Less fuel is used because we aren’t in the field with tractors. Less herbicide is used because we need not apply at various growing times. AND more organic matter is left in the field, creating a naturally fertile seed bed for the next year.
Farmers can control the tractors they drive, the seeds they plant and to some extent the soil they farm. But farmers cannot control the weather. Plentiful sun, wind and rain are needed for a crop to grow, regardless of its genes.
And so I ask, what is the big deal? On the farm, GMOs are just a tool in the tool box, a slice of the pizza, an egg in a carton, a piece of a puzzle… a tool, like the tractor, the seed, the soil, and the weather. No big deal.
Katie Pratt grows 5,500 acres of commercial corn, soybeans and seed corn with her husband Andy, Andy’s parents, and his brother and wife. All three families are supported by Grand Prairie Farms – their family farm operation. The Pratts are 7th generation farmers.