On July 5th, I was invited to attend an event called “Table For Twenty”, a celebration of twenty years of biotechnology in crops. Too often, we spend our time defending GMOs, pesticides and the like, and not enough time is spent in recognizing the amazing achievements this technology has allowed. Twenty people from all different occupations were invited to the event, with representatives from CropLife Canada (the host of the evening), the government of Saskatchewan, universities, industry professionals, students, and of course, farmers.
My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the event, and as one of the very few full-time farmers at the table, I was asked to say a few words. In the nature of the transparency I try to practice in this blog, I felt it was important to share with you what I spoke about. Here it is in full:
Hi, everyone, my name is Jake Leguee, and I farm about 3 and a half hours southeast of here. I have to admit, I am humbled to be here, and it is an absolute honour to speak to you about my experience in growing biotech crops. Our farm operation is a family one, with my parents, my older sister and my wife all heavily involved. We farm about 12,000 acres of cereals, pulses and oilseeds and yes – some of those are GMOs, and no – I’m not on Monsanto’s payroll.
For a long time, I watched as our industry was continually attacked and derided for many of our production practices. I watched as pesticides were blamed for all sorts of terrible things, like cancer, destruction of the environment, and more health conditions than I can count. I watched as genetic engineering, one of humankind’s greatest achievements, was labeled as “Frankenfood” and was incriminated for a medley of problems every bit as broad and as devastating as pesticides had been.
I watched as an industry that feeds the world, that provides a living for thousands of farmers just like me, was ostracized by what seemed to be a majority of the public. I knew these products were safe; I had used them for much of my life. My father has been farming for 40 years, as his father did before him. We grow genetically modified crops, we use pesticides, we use fertilizers, and I know firsthand the benefits they bring to the table.
So, I had to ask myself, what could I do about it?
I don’t have the ability to talk to every person on the planet one by one, and I certainly don’t have the money to run advertisements during the SuperBowl. But, I could write, and people might be interested in reading the perspective of a farmer. So, for the last 3 years, I have been writing about the life of a farmer, and I am continually amazed at how interested people are in just what it is that farmers do. They seem fascinated by why we grow GM crops, why we use pesticides and fertilizers, and how we make our decisions.
I grow genetically modified crops because they bring value to my farm. They allow me to control a broader variety of weeds with lower application rates. Because of the success of these crops, agriculture companies are able to generate profits from them, and as a result, inject more money into breeding better varieties. This generates a cycle of better and better varieties being developed each and every year, which further increases my ability to grow crops in a broader variety of weather and climate challenges. The phenomenal success of herbicide tolerant canola has been a game-changer for our farm and many others, and the continued investment in soybeans and corn will enable us to have success with these crops, despite their limitations due to our short growing season. This would never have happened without genetic modification.
The exciting part about all this is the reality that we have only scratched the surface of what we can do with genetic engineering. With the emergence of new technologies, such as gene editing, the future is wide open. Drought and frost tolerance, insect and disease resistance, improved photosynthetic efficiency; these are all traits that would make my farm more resilient and less susceptible to weather shocks.
But to be able to take advantage of these exciting new prospects, we need to get the consumer on our side. We need people to understand why we farmers need access to these products. Farming is a challenging and extremely risky business. One bad weather event, one storm, one cold night, can impact the very survival of our family farm. We need access to new technologies that can help mitigate the weather extremes that have had such an impact on our family.
I was born in 1988, a year that many farmers would like to forget. Dad talks about the 80’s a lot, and not too fondly – well, except for my birthday of course! It was a decade of drought, with searing heat waves and limited rainfall. To say it was a challenging time is a severe underestimation of the difficulties farmers faced.
We will see another decade like the 80’s, and the 1930’s too. But this time will be different. With the rise of pesticides and the release of GMOs, we have been able to virtually eliminate tillage. There won’t be another dust bowl. No-till is the saviour of dryland agriculture – but it only works if we have access to pesticides and GM crops.
I believe public perceptions are starting to change; I believe we are getting the message out. But we must continue to advocate for agriculture and tell our story. Because our story is a great one. It is a story of families, of generational farms, of environmental stewardship. My goal, and I suspect the goal of most farms, is to someday leave this land in better shape than it was in when I started farming it. To allow my children to farm in an even better world than we do today. Biotechnology is the key to achieving this goal.
I want to extend a huge thank you to CropLife Canada, and all of its staff, for doing an outstanding job of promoting a positive conversation about agriculture; from the work they put into producing the video I was apart of (see it here), to hosting the Table For Twenty events, and everything else they have done.
One more thing I want to add to this: to all of you who have read, shared and talked about my blog (good and bad!), thank you. My goal in doing this is to try and create a conversation about agriculture; not arguments, not insults and finger-pointing; a constructive discussion that broadens all of our views on such a controversial subject. I have had an amazing ride in this project, and I am excited about what the future holds.