Why I Grow GMOs

What do you think about GMOs?

Nikon J1 July (2) 160

Is there a more emotionally charged question out there in this part of today’s world? Certainly, it is understandable that the food we eat be an engaging issue for consumer and producer alike. There has been a drive from the consumer to learn about the food they eat. They want to know how it is produced, and whether it is in a sustainable fashion. Ultimately, and most importantly, they want to know if it is safe.  An unknown factor like genetic modification is a cause for concern for these people, because the long-term effects are not readily available to us.

I support and applaud those in the public that ask these critical questions. Too many people don’t think about the things that are done by the government, business and other organizations. The problem isn’t in people asking questions; it is in people asking the wrong questions to the wrong sources – and believing the answers without question.

I am a farmer that grows genetically modified (GM) crops. Not all of my crops are GMOs. In fact, in a usual rotation of 5-7 different crops, only two are GMOs. Canola and soybeans, two of my farm’s most economically important crops, are GMOs. Other crops, like wheat, peas and flax, are not GMOs, for there are simply none available. Contrary to popular belief, I do have a choice to buy GM crops or alternatives. So why do I grow GM crops when there are so many other cropping options?

That is a good question, and the answer will be different for every farm. In my life on the farm, canola and soybeans are our two newest crop options. In Western Canada, we have been growing wheat for as long as we’ve been farming. Flax and peas are old crops for us as well. Canola is one that we have really only been growing in earnest on our farm for the past 15 or so years. We only just started growing soybeans 3 years ago.

I suppose we could grow old open-pollinated canola and conventional soybeans (these are not GMOs). But would we do that? The claim I hear from some consumers is that GMOs are hazardous. By association then, I must be either cruel or naïve to grow these dangerous crops, putting other people at risk.

But here is the question I pose to the GMO haters: do you really believe I would grow these crops if I believed they were unsafe? My family eats the food we grow. I would not put them at risk if I truly believed GMOs were hazardous.

Honestly, I don’t believe they are. GM crops are not dangerous1. In the almost 20 years since Monsanto started genetically modifying corn, soybeans and canola, the evidence has become clear that the benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the risks1. This isn’t an opinion by a biased industry representative. The information I use comes directly from peer reviewed journal articles, the best source of information on anything scientific. GM crops also have dramatically reduced use of the most dangerous and volatile chemicals to control weeds2. Most of the GM plants we deal with are “Roundup Ready”, which means they are resistant to the active ingredient of Roundup, which is glyphosate. The way we measure the toxicity of chemicals like glyphosate is its LD50 number. This refers to the amount of the chemical, given all at once, which results in the death of 50% of the test animals3. The acute Low Acute Toxicity for oral consumption of glyphosate in rats is an LD50 value greater than 5,000 mg/kg of body weight4. This means that if you were a rat, and you weighed in at 3 kg, you would have to consume 15 grams of glyphosate for it to become toxic to you. That is quite a lot. Comparatively, the LD50 of caffeine is 192 mg/kg body weight. How much coffee do you have in a day? The point is, the dosage makes the poison, and any chemical can be toxic in a large enough dose.

Today’s farm operation is a complicated business. Every year, we run through the numbers on each crop to decide which ones to grow and on how many acres. Canola and soybeans, and especially canola, are profitable crop options for us. So yes, we do grow these GM crops because they allow our farm to make money. Are they making us rich? I wish! But they do allow our farm business to make enough money to survive, and hopefully, over time, prosper. Is this not the dream for us all?

Ultimately, the question of why I grow GMOs comes down to the fundamental freedom that we all have in our democratic society: the freedom of choice. It is my choice to grow GM crops. Conversely, if you don’t approve of them, it is your choice to buy something else. However, keep in mind the unintended consequences of doing so. GM crops allow us to use less toxic pesticides at lower rates. Furthermore, we can achieve unprecedented yields with the incredible biological advances made with these GM varieties. We need to grow 70% more food by 2050 to feed this growing world5; we are going to need all the tools we can get to accomplish this.

My farm grows GM crops, and I am proud to say that we do.  They are safe and sustainable crop options that we have the right to grow if we choose to. I hope that you will think about what I have said the next time someone asks you, “what do you think about GMOs?”

References:

  1. Stella G. Uzogara, 2000. The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century: A review. Biotechnology Advances 18 (2000): 179-206.
  2. RH. Phipps and J.R. Park, 2002. Environmental benefits of genetically modified crops: Global and European perspectives on their ability to reduce pesticide use. Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, Vol. 11, pp. 1-18.
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2012. Lethal Dosage (LD50) Values. http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/pestlethal.html
  4. Cornell University, 1994. Extension Toxicology Network. http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/dienochlor-glyphosate/glyphosate-ext.html
  5. Agricultural Development Economics Division, 2009. High Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf
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Why Do We Spray?

There was a time, not too long ago, that June and July were relatively quiet months on the farm. Once in-crop weed spraying was finished, work in the fields was essentially completed. Farmers were able to spend their summers getting ready for harvest, taking care of unseeded low-lying areas in their fields, and attend weddings and other social events.

Summer this year has been a whirlwind so far. In-crop spraying was completed about two weeks ago (mostly), but fungicide season has only just gotten started. Every sprayer is rolling full out on whatever fields are ready to spray, and farmers are busy checking the rest of the fields to see if they are ready. It is not unheard of to spray 40,000 acres per season, per sprayer.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “in-crop spraying”. After seeding is complete in late May to mid-June, crops must all be sprayed to kill weeds. Make no mistake, this is a critical application, as a crop left to fight weeds on its own can be quickly overwhelmed by competition. Thanks to genetic modification, many of our crops are easy to deal with, such as corn, soybeans and canola. Some are also very competitive, like wheat and barley. However, crops like peas and lentils, even with proper herbicide application, can easily be outcompeted by difficult weeds like kochia, wild buckwheat, wild oats, etc. Spraying these crops is a big project and it takes many hours on the sprayer; but it is not the final application of the year.

As soon as the weeds are taken care of, crops are carefully monitored for disease and insects. Most diseases need wet, humid air and warm temperatures for optimum growth and infection. These diseases are mostly fungi, with a wide variety of species infecting each crop. In wheat, tan spot can be very damaging to the leaves, removing photosynthetic area and replacing it with tan-coloured spots. In canola, white mould can devastate yield potential, choking off the stem and starving the plant. In other crops such as lentils, some diseases can virtually kill an entire field in a matter of days (e.g. Anthracnose).

From the outside looking in on agriculture, you may wonder why we spray so many chemicals on our crops. We would not spray fungicides if we didn’t need to. These are expensive products that require many hours on the sprayer to apply, and many of them have extremely tight application windows. Also, during the summer months, I can guarantee you every farmer would rather be at the lake than spraying non-stop.

Take Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) for example, caused by Fusarium graminearum. This disease, if left unchecked, infects the seeds of durum, wheat and barley, elevating levels of a vomitoxin called deoxynivalenol (DON). As the name suggests, this toxin induces vomiting and can be dangerous if consumed in high enough levels. Therefore, if our grain is infected with FHB, it will be worth a lot less to try and sell. Would you want to eat bread or pastries or drink beer infected with this? It is a difficult disease to control, and we check our durum daily to try and catch the optimal window for fungicide application, which is about a two-day opportunity while the head is flowering. A wheat head that has completed flowering, and therefore moved past its application window, is shown below:

Nikon J1 July 351

We sprayed this crop to protect it from FHB, as climatic conditions are perfect for its development. Unfortunately, we also had to apply a product that everyone hates: chlorpyrifos, also known by its brand name, Lorsban. This product is an insecticide, and yes it is somewhat hazardous. We applied it to protect our crop from the dreaded grasshopper. These verocious insects can eat a lot of material very quickly. To compound the problem, we also found some of these bugs:

 

20170704_205521

This little bug on the wheat head is called the orange blossom wheat midge, a nasty little insect that lays its eggs in the florets of wheat and durum, which hatch later on and chew on the developing kernel. Like FHB-damaged kernels, this also causes grade loss.

Spraying insecticides is not a fun job, but sometimes it is necessary to protect the massive investment we put into our crops every year. We avoid spraying them as much as we can, but you do not have to worry about their safety. There is no kernel, or any form of it, in that wheat head yet. Lorsban has a residual of about 7 days. This plant is at least 40 days from harvest. All of our insecticides, indeed all of our chemicals, have a regulated pre-harvest interval to ensure no residue remains at harvest. Furthermore, scientists have developed economic thresholds to determine when it is worth spraying insecticides to prevent unnecessary spraying. Believe me, if I didn’t believe this our food was safe after spraying with insecticides, would I really be out there spraying it? Would I eat it with my family?

The reason I have covered this in such detail isn’t to tell you how tough farming is. I love farming, and I couldn’t think of a career I could enjoy more. I tell you this so that you may know why we do the things we do. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t smother our crops with pesticides; we target herbicides (kills weeds), fungicides (kills fungi) and insecticides (kills bugs) to specific fields that require them. Someday, maybe we will have better tools that allow us to reduce pesticide use (genetic engineering is by far the best path forward for this), but for now, these are the best options we have. And the reality is, for the most part, they have been proven safe by journal article after peer-reviewed journal article.

That’s my rant for today. Hopefully I can get back on this blog more often in the future, as fungicide season will only last another week or so. I am looking forward to its conclusion. It has been a busy spray season!

Oh, one more point, in case you were wondering how the “summer of storms” has progressed since my last post about it. Immediately after that post, some fields got 3 inches of rain. Yeah. Not good. But things have improved since, and because of near ideal weather in the past two weeks, we are now looking at the potential for a very nice crop. Our fingers are crossed!

If you disagree with me about pesticides and their safety, please comment, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. This is a subject I take very seriously, and I have done a great deal of research on it.