I was asked by the publisher of our local newspaper to write a story about GMO technology. People often ask me why do farmers plant GMO crops? What crops are GMO’s? Headlines confuse them and they want answers from people they trust.
It would have been easiest to say no to my local newspaper and not add it to my plate. But I realize we need to connect with our local neighbors to answer questions just as much or more than trying to reach a broader, regional, national or global audience. I often say it when I speak at events; if I cannot make an impact locally, I do not care about making an impact nationally or globally.
My local audience matters me. What happens at home matters before I can focus beyond my circles and borders.
In preparation, I reached out to a few farmer and rancher friends in my county for their insight, providing me with smart quotes that pulled it together.
Before church on Sunday, an older woman stopped and said, “I read every word of your GMO article. But what IS a GMO?” She inspired me to keep writing and maybe I need to write more agriculture content from time to time. I’ve gotten away from it in the past few years and maintained this as lifestyle blog, documenting mostly our family life.
Here’s my first attempt at getting started at sharing farm focused content again. I added links below for you to read additionally on GMO’s. The most important aspect to me is farmers have choices in what they grow just like you and I have choices in what food we purchase. We are affluent eaters most likely if you’re reading my blog. You have disposable income to spend on food! I’ll share my thoughts about that topic soon also. Let’s think of farmers today as spring planting and seeding begins.
Before long, amber waves of grain, lush green soybean plants, sunflowers at attention, blue flax and brilliant yellow canola blooms will fill our farm fields across south-central North Dakota. The crops will eventually make their way to grocery store shelves, providing families with affordable food choices.
North Dakota is the No. 1 producer of 13 crops, including flax; barley; spring and durum wheat; honey; dry edible, navy and pinto beans; dry edible peas; lentils; sunflowers; and canola. Of those crops, canola is the only one grown using GMO technology.
Despite the fact GMO seed choices have been on the market for 20 years, with the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996, consumers still have questions about why farmers choose to raise GMO crops. The answers can often be found in our own backyard—just ask a farmer.
“In our part of the world, rain is hard to come by even in a ‘wet’ year. We try to do everything we can to conserve moisture along with nutrients and topsoil, so we no-till seed all of our crops, says Wishek, North Dakota farmer Adam Wiegel. “By doing this, we need a way to fight tough weeds, especially in the areas where we feed our cattle in the winter. Using GMO products gives us a broader, more cost-effective weed management program.”
A GMO is a plant that has a desired gene or portion of a gene, such as drought or pest resistance, placed from one plant or organism into another plant. GMO technology is available for 10 crops grown in the U.S.: field corn, sweet corn, alfalfa, canola, soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes, cotton, squash and papaya. In late 2016, GMO Arctic apples will be grown in small amounts in test markets. Non-GMO and organic crop options of GMO-approved crops can be grown, and often offer a premium, but they require more intensive management.
For example, food-grade soybean varieties are non-GMO and account for 8% to 10% of the total soybean acreage in North Dakota. Soybeans varieties are grown for food items such as tofu, soy milk, Natto and tempeh are sold to domestic and international markets. About 70% of North Dakota’s food-grade soybeans are exported to Asia, providing a value-added crop option to North Dakota farmers.
Beyond value-added benefits, farmers choose to grow specific crops based on a variety of factors.
“GMO choices give our farm the benefits of a no-till cropping system that better utilizes labor and resources and improves soil health and sustainability,” says Allan Rohrich, Zeeland, North Dakota farmer. “It provides us with more options for weed control, while using fewer chemicals. We can also control insects and other pests through the plant instead of an insecticide application, reducing exposure and allowing beneficial insects to thrive.”
Polly Ulrich, who farms southeast of Ashley, North Dakota, echoes the advantages of having options: “We raise GMO corn and soybeans on Ulrich Farms. Managing weed control and erodible soils via no-till farming techniques and crop rotation are standard procedure for our region. GMO crops greatly influence our success by decreasing herbicide inputs and improving soil/moisture conservation efforts in our fields.”
See a glimpse into Polly’s farm (and beautiful food she makes and cans) in this short video. I was a part of this project through CommonGround North Dakota.
Sustainability for our world’s food supply is a concern, Ulrich adds. “Once you’ve visited a third-world country and held a hungry, malnourished child in your arms, questioning the utilization of science/biotechnology to improve our agricultural production of food is irresponsible,” she adds. “Science is great!”
While most produce is not genetically modified, one fruit is—Hawaiian papaya. The science of how it came to fruition allows us to buy Hawaiian papaya at our grocery stores today.
The papaya ringspot virus nearly decimated the Hawaiian papaya industry. The virus started in the 1940s on the island of Oahu and ran rampant in the 1950s. The papaya industry moved to the island of Hawaii by the 1970s but knew the virus would eventually find its way to that island because the virus is spread through aphids, according to The American Phytopathological Society.
Research at the University of Hawaii made headway through the 1980s. By 1996, petitions were filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve transgenic papaya with consultation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for food safety approval.
By 1997, the virus had decreased Hawaiian papaya production by 40%. The following year, the University of Hawaii-developed rainbow papaya seeds, a disease-resistant plant to fend off the ringspot virus, became commercially available to Hawaiian growers. In four short years, papaya production returned to levels before the virus invasion, according to GMOAnswers.com.
While Hawaii agriculture seems far from the farm fields of south-central North Dakota, the same technology choices are accessible to our local farmers. Seed technology choices allow Americans to have an abundance of food choices, at affordable prices. Americans spend just under 10% of their disposable income on food, the lowest in the world, according to USDA.
While driving by farm fields this summer, consider the time, choices and passion local farmers put into the growing crop. The next time you shop for groceries, think of the farmers who grow the food on the shelves, providing healthy, affordable choices for all types of families.
Your family’s food supply drives farmers’ passion. “I’m passionate about the way we raise our crops and livestock and want nothing more than for my family, your family and everyone’s family to enjoy safe, healthy, sustainable food,” Wiegel says. “To do that, we as farmers and ranchers need all the tools available, including GMO products, to ensure we can supply that food. We just want to do the best job we can at what I think is the best job in the world.”