Minnesota Farmer


Biotech makes sustainability easier

The big word in agriculture these days seems to be sustainability.  I’ve never been real sure what that is, but I’m trying to understand those who are pushing for a more sustainable world.  One thing that I do not understand is how people who do not farm think that biotechnology, with its genetically modified crops, does not fit into this mold.

Todays modern biotech manipulates organisms at a cellular level getting the plant or animal to do things that would either take nature a long time to produce, or would not happen at all in nature.  In the case of the corn and soybeans that I grow, that could be the ability for a crop to be resistant to a herbicide or to produce its own insecticide.  Both of those outcomes I see as good things.

Because the biotech industry has produced corn that produces its own insecticide, I do not have to treat my corn for a variety of insect pests.  This means considerable savings in time and money, and not having to use some really hazardous chemicals.  This also means that the corn plant can focus on growing more roots and grain.  More roots means the corn will survive dry periods better.  More roots means that the plant can use fertilizer more efficiently, thus more corn from less fertilizer.  More grain means more income for the farmer.  This also means that farmers have not had to use millions of pounds of insecticides on Americas farms.

The biotech industry has also produced crops that have increased resistance to certain herbicides.  Because of that resistance we are able to use more contact herbicides that kill plants quickly from the outside and then disappear, as compared to the older systemic herbicides that enter a plant through its roots and then hang around for months or years.  Using a contact herbicide may mean I have to spray the crop more than once to kill all of the weeds, but it is also safer for me and for the environment.  It also means that herbicide use in America has dropped by millions of pounds.

How does all of this make me more sustainable?  Because I can control insects and weeds easier I can now farm with less tillage.  Less tillage means less erosion and more crop material left in the soil.  More crop material in the soil means less carbon released to the air.

More and more farmers are looking to do less tillage to cut back on their costs and control erosion.  No- till, strip-till and ridge-till are all methods of farming that promote less tillage and produce more sequestered carbon and less erosion.  The use of fewer moldboard plows in favor of chisel plows, primary tillage disks and disk-rippers also reduces erosion, but will not hold as much carbon in the soil.

Reduced tillage methods promote weed and insect growth.  Without the turning of the soil to bury weeds, more weeds are left to produce seed.  More crop residue on the ground allows insect pests to overwinter easier, thus putting more pressure on the next years crop.

The biotech crops available allow farmers to get into the field earlier, use fewer chemicals and insecticides and reduce erosion.  They also reduce the amount of labor and machinery needed to farm the land.  Biotech crops help make it easier for young farmers to get started in farming and help keep more families on the farm.  Biotech makes it easier for me to do my job with less damage to the environment.  All of that to me is sustainability.

Michael

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3 Comments so far
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Michael quote: ” One thing that I do not understand is how people who do not farm think that biotechnology, with its genetically modified crops, does not fit into this mold.” :end quote

You as a farmer have a first-hand perspective on hard work and stress it takes to produce this country’s food. Those who don’t farm aren’t running their opinions through this filter. I’m not saying you do wrong to suggest that biotechnology is a good thing when it can save farmers work and stress, but there are some genuine concerns that need to be addressed. One of them which relates directly to sustainability is the problem of ‘superweeds.’

NY Times quote: “For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.

But not this year.
… Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted.
… American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers … are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years.

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts. ” :end quote

There are also negative health implications of consuming plants engineered to produce toxins. The toxins are not degraded by oxygen, UV, and other elements that would break down pesticides that are applied topically.

Of course, I will not try to hide my bias. When Monsanto will sue hardworking farmers who ‘stole their GMO patent’ (meaning cross-pollination or seed saving) it makes it hard for me to trust anything they would say. Monsanto claims the right to patent life. Well, I think God holds that spot. We are playing with fire.

Comment by shawn

When glyphosate (Round Up) was first introduced farmers already knew of the potential of resistant weeds. Every year farmers are urged to use chemicals with different modes of action. This is not something new. “Super weeds,” I doubt it. It is easy for someone to decry that things are changing if they have been living with their eyes closed to the danger for years. I knew that some weeds were already resistant to glyphosate over 30 years ago when we first used it so I’m not surprised. Many plants will take a non-lethal dose of glyphosate, including some crop species, and produce seed. That seed is better able to tolerate glyphosate than its parent. Farmers who try to get by with a lower than recommended dose of glyphosate produced those super weeds.
Crops bioengineered to resist glyphosate do not have any toxins in them, nor do they produce toxins. They are able to break down the glyphosate so it will not hurt them. You are mixing some facts here.
It’s a fact of life here in our country of laws and lawyers that if you steal someone’s intellectual property you will be taken to court. Is it any different if it is Monsanto, Microsoft, Warner Brothers or the guy down the block?
When farmers buy GMO seed they sign a contract that says that they understand that to reuse seed from these fields is illegal.
To get cross pollinated seed in corn is easy, but no one wants to plant corn seed from a field, it does not yield as well as Hybrid Seed. If you have GMO seed in a soybean field or the field of other self pollinated crops it is because someone put it there. I have a tough time buying the argument that they did not know it was there. But what do I know. I’m just a farmer like they are, a farmer who has studied genetics and agronomy in college back before there were GMO’s.

Comment by Michael

original post quote: “Because the biotech industry has produced corn that produces its own insecticide, I do not have to treat my corn for a variety of insect pests.”

reply to comment: “Crops bioengineered to resist glyphosate do not have any toxins in them, nor do they produce toxins. They are able to break down the glyphosate so it will not hurt them. You are mixing some facts here.”

was I mixing facts? you described two methods of genetic modification. I commented on the danger of one of those methods in which crops produce their own insecticides. I said nothing about crops engineered to resist glyphosate.

you are right to point out that non-lethal doses of glyphosate contributed to resistance, much like the overuse of antibiotics (most of which are used in confined animal feeding operations) are contributing to antibiotic resistant strains like MRSA.

I don’t know anything about the economics of seed saving so I cannot comment there. ok, low battery, I’m out!

Comment by skj




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