I choose to grow genetically modified crops on my farm for a simple reason: sustainability.
These products of modern science make me more economically and environmentally sustainable, allowing me to grow more food on less land, benefitting my family, consumers, and the wider world.
My 84-year-old father helps me put things in perspective. He worked this land before my brother and I did, teaching us the value of hard work and the art of agriculture.
Back in his heyday, he mostly grew wheat. Today’s biotechnology has allowed us to expand our crop choices to more corn and soybeans, along with wheat. My father was delighted when an acre produced 80 bushels of corn. Today, that would be an economic calamity – worse than letting the land lie fallow. We like to see an acre produce at least 150 bushels, are pleased when it hits 170, and always hope for more.
Behind these gains is the miracle of biotechnology and the crops that give us a fighting chance against the oldest adversaries of farmers: weeds, pests, and disease.
When genetically engineered, GE crops, became commercially available two decades ago, they were more expensive and we were skeptical. We decided to try them on a few acres and liked the results. Within a few years, our corn and soybean plants were almost entirely GE.
Because we farm in the northern plains, our growing season is shorter. With GE crops, we’re able to start our planting season sooner, thanks in large part to improved weed control. My brother says that the first weeks of any growing season are the most important— a good emergence in the spring means an excellent harvest in the fall. GE crops give us a vital edge.
Our land produces far more food than it did just a generation ago. This helps our bottom line in rural America—a place where economic opportunities are limited. It also keeps food prices in check, although grocery-store shoppers rarely make the connection between biotechnology and their food bills.
GE crops help the environment. When land provides a bigger bounty, it helps conservation, allowing us to put more vulnerable, less productive land into prairies here in the US and lessening the pressure around the world to convert rainforests into farmland.
We’ve reduced our carbon footprint. Because our crops excel at fighting weeds and pests, we don’t have to devote our summers to driving tractors, cultivating weeds out of the crops. We’ve cut our costs in equipment and fuel, and our farm produces fewer greenhouse gases.
Improved weed control has allowed us to become no-till farmers. This approach protects against soil erosion, allowing us to keep moisture and nutrients locked into our soil. It’s also better for biodiversity, helping bugs and birds find food and shelter. I’ve noticed in recent years that crop residue left after harvest have made our fields attractive destinations for goose and duck hunters in the fall. They come here because they know our farm is rich with wildlife.
Despite these clear advantages, I’m always willing to get a second opinion. We discovered the value of GE crops because we experimented with them—and last year, we decided to experiment with non-GE crops. We planted about 3,000 acres of corn, including 250 acres that we set aside for the newest kinds of non-GE varieties. If we can switch away from GE crops, after all, we’d save a lot of money on seeds.
The results reconfirmed the old adage: You get what you pay for. Our GE corn provided about 150 bushels per acre. The non-GE corn gave us about 100 bushels per acre. That’s a huge difference.
So we’re sticking with GE crops. Over the years, they’ve added traits that have allowed for steady improvement. Before long, I’m hoping we’ll see types that are suited for colder soil temperatures, allowing us to get an even earlier start to the planting season.
We’re also expecting GE crops to provide obvious consumer benefits. Soon we could have gluten-free wheat; a boon to people who suffer from celiac disease. I’ve heard about everything from peanuts without allergens to biofortified crops that deliver essential nutrients to people who struggle with a balanced diet: important for people in the developing world and those who live in food deserts in the US.
That’s in the future. In the here and now, as I get ready to start another summer of sustainable farming, I’m thankful that modern science has given us the technology of GE crops, which help me make a living and improve my stewardship of the land.
A version of this column first appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of The Environmental Forum.