Minnesota Farmer


Why GMO’s

It is unfortunate for the whole industry that the first really successful Genetically Modified Organism was the ability to withstand a herbicide.  For many consumers this has been the chief reason that they do not trust GMO’s.  And yet the advent of Round Up Ready technology came at the request of farmers.  Why did they need this new technology?  Weed control.

Let me take you back a bit in history.  When I was young, there were no “crop protection chemicals,”  No herbicides, no insecticides, no fungicides.  You planted your crops and lived with the weeds that grew up in the field.  I remember walking oats fields to remove mustard plants, then later the hand removal of weeds from soybean fields.

One of the pre-herbicide methods for weed control in corn was cross checking.239-1A wire with “knots” in it every 48 inches would trip the planter to “hill” several corn seeds.  This allowed a farmer to cultivate his field in two directions, thus cutting down on the weeds that had a chance to grow in the field.  Hilling corn is not a very efficient use of land, so farmers switched to narrower rows, but still planted their corn in “hills” of 2 to 4 seeds placed closer together.  About this time the first chemicals that I remember were used on our farm.

2,4-D is a broadleaf weed killer developed during WWII that greatly reduced weeds in our fields.  When mixed with 2,4,5-T it is know as Agent Orange and was used in Vietnam, and Malaya as a defoliant.  We would spray it several times a year on our corn, wheat and oats fields to keep broadleaf weeds at bay.

Another early crop chemical I remember is Furadan, which was used to control insects in our fields.  Furadan is also highly toxic, but in those days I do not think we fully understood how toxic it was.

These were not the only chemical crop protection agents we used, but they were typical of their age.  Usually highly toxic, and little understood by their users.  In the 1970’s farmers were asking for something better.  We wanted something we could spray on once and kill all of the weeds.  I should be safer than what we had been using and then go away leaving no long lasting residue.

When Round-Up (glyphosate) was first released it was used for spot spraying.  It was understood that if you sprayed Round-Up on a weed it died.  Interestingly, Round-Up was found while Monsanto was trying to develop an engine cleaner, that’s right, glyphosate is a soap.  Since glyphosate only worked on actively growing plants it worked very well early in a plants life, but not so well as they started to mature.

We always knew that some plants were resistant to glyphosate.  Grasses were easy for glyphosate to kill, but broad leaf weeds took a bit more.  Some weeds took a LOT of spraying to kill them.  Monsanto fixed that by adding a surfactant that helped break down the barriers to absorbing glyphosate.  This “fix” is not permanent.  Survivors will always be around, and those plants that do survive will be the only weeds out there.

When Monsanto first found the gene to allow glyphosate to be sprayed on corn it was indeed a great day in weed control.  We finally had a grass killer that would not cause harm to our corn, which is also a grass.  Weed pressure went way down.  That meant less competition for water and a better chance for our corn to thrive.  It also spelled the end for most of the tillage that was needed to control weeds in our fields.  This opened the way for many new methods of farming that greatly reduced field erosion.

Thus, the first commercially successful GMO was born.  For farmers it has been a multi point success.  It now costs us less to control our weeds.  Fewer weeds mean more crop harvested, which puts more money in the pocket.  Glyphosate has also allowed us to reduce row width and increase plant population.  While increased plant population has added bushels to every acre, it has also put more plant material in and on the ground.  This has reduced erosion, further helping to improve soil health.  Yes, glyphosate has really been good for us out here on the farm.

The future of GMO’s, while tainted in the eye of some of our consumers, is indeed bright.  Adding more bushels to a corn crop does not effect the food on the table as much as adding more fruits and veggies will.  So far, the short list of transgenic crops used directly for food includes virus-resistant papaya grown in Hawaii, Bt sweet corn recently commercialized in the United States, and a few varieties of squash that resist plant viruses. That list could be about to grow, however. The Indonesian agricultural agency expects to approve a blight-resistant potato soon, and J. R. Simplot, an agricultural supplier based in Boise, Idaho, is hoping to commercialize its own version by 2017. And Cornell researchers are working with collaborators in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, countries where eggplant is a staple, to make an insect-resistant form of the vegetable available to farmers.

We will be seeing more GMO’s on the table, because, despite the complaints of a few, most consumers are more interested in buying inexpensive, safe and good looking fruits and veggies than are worried about where and how they are produced.  I’m sure the GMO debate will continue to rage on in some circles.  But since the science is proving again and again the safety of how GMO’s are produced, most consumers will continue to accept them.

Michael

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