Q&A – The Lowdown on GMOs With A Family Farmer

In reading about GMOs in the last several years, I also read lots of reports about how farmers are disadvantaged, slaves to Monsanto, and for the most part, I blindly accepted them. But I had never heard from a farmer before. It was time to change that. It occurred to me recently that we live in the (mostly) free-market. The Big Ag BioTech companies can’t force people to buy their products, they have to convince them; with results, with cost-savings, or whatever else that a farmer needs that I know nothing about. The 95% of GM acreage in America isn’t a Monsanto empire, the farms bought into it not because they were forced to, but because they saw a benefit in it, and they keep buying the seeds not because they are obligated to, but because they still see benefits. On my last post when I interviewed a molecular biologist, Brian Scott (his photo is the featured image), a fourth generation family farmer, was kind enough to let me ask questions about how he farms and why he uses biotech seeds, and what specifically was his relationship to Monsanto from whom he buys some of his seed types. I wanted to know what really happens between a farmer and the evil company everybody talks about, and not hear about it from activists who’ve probably never set foot on a farm. While this is only one story from one farmer, it is enlightening. Also, do check out his blog, The Farmers Life, where he blogs about running his farm.

Fourat (Me) – Why do you use GMOs?

Brian –  I like to call GMO a tool in my toolbox. Biotech isn’t a silver bullet for every problem, but it’s still a powerful tool. We use traits like Bt and Roundup Ready (RR) on many of

thefarmerslife.comour acres, but not all of them.  All our soybeans are generally RR, while only some of our corn carries that trait. Popcorn and wheat, our other crops, are not available in GMO varieties. Some of our corn acres are dedicated to waxy corn production, and we generally don’t buy them as RR.  Built in insect resistance in Bt corn along with seed treatments mean it’s a very rare event that we have to treat a crop in season for pests.  That means we prevent soil compaction by keeping another piece of equipment out of the field. It also means a sprayer doesn’t need to filled with water, fuel, and pesticide which is good for the earth and the wallet.

Me – What incentives are there for using GMOs?

Brian – There can be incentives such as buying traited crops and certain chemistry (herbicide, etc) as a bundle to receive price discounts. Some crop insurance plans also offer a biotechnology discount. I think that says a lot about the effectiveness of GMO. If an insurance company is willing to give you a discount, they must believe those crops lead to less crop insurance claims.

Me – As many activists allege, are you a slave to Monsanto once you sign their contract?

Brian – I’m certainly not beholden to any seed company. I can plant what I want and manage it how I see fit. Do I sign an agreement that stipulates certain things when I buy patented seeds? Yes. Do patents only apply to biotechnology? No. These agreements are not nearly as binding as people would lead you to believe. The most viewed post I’ve put online is an outline of my 2011 Monsanto Technology Use Agreement. In the post I break down the line items in my own words, but I also provide the reader with a scanned copy of the agreement pulled straight from my filing cabinet. This allows anyone to read the agreement for themselves. In short, if I buy seed from Monsanto, Pioneer, etc nothing binds me into buying seed from them the following season. Nothing says I have to use their brand of herbicides or insecticides. Believe what you will about farmers being slaves to seed companies, but you’ve got to talk to a farmer before your mind is set in stone. My post can be found here. (Fourat: Definitely a worthwhile read.)

Me – Do you think you should be able to reuse the seeds you purchase from Monsanto? If not, why not?

Brian – That’s a tough question. For my purposes, if I wanted to save seed it would be soybean seed. All of our corn is hybrid corn. Hybrids don’t necessarily produce seed identical to the parent plant. Therefore, planting that seed the next season would give you an unknown result.  Soybeans self-pollinate so they remain true to themselves genetically. If I saved seed I would need to take a little extra care and expense to clean and possibly apply seed treatments to protect young seedlings. Right now my view is that of a division of labor. Farmers are great at producing high quality and high quantities of crops. The seed companies have the know how and resources to breed great plants. I think that’s a great combination for success. I’m not saying farmers couldn’t develop their own seed. Successful farmers are some of the smartest people I know, and can do anything if they choose to. [Fourat: I’d never thought about it this way. Farmers can save time and money by not having to clean and protect the next crops seeds. Funny how simple things evade the mind to those of us not actually involved in the industry.]

I also believe since it takes several years and millions if not billions of dollars to bring an innovative new variety to market, that any breeder large or small should be entitled to benefit financially from said variety for some period of time via a patent system.

Me – What is the most glaring factual error, if any, made by activists when discussing GMO seeds?

Brian – I often ask people what they think about crops that produce their own chemical defenses naturally, and I find a good number of people aren’t aware that some crops do this.  For example cereal rye has an ability to suppress weeds. This quality is called allelopathy. Many plants are naturally resistant to herbicides. Think about your lawn. Spraying 2,4D on your grass to kill dandelions and other weeds won’t harm your lawn. Grasses, which include corn and wheat, have a natural tolerance to that chemistry. Biotech may be allowing plants to do new things, but we are really just mimicking something nature has already shown us is possible.

I see many people say that seeds are soaked in glyphosate which is the active ingredient in Roundup. I’m not really sure where that idea comes from, but seeds are not somehow filled with herbicide. I think it’s possible people are confusing herbicides and insecticides thinking Bt and Roundup are the same thing. Bt traits protect crops like corn and cotton from pests like European corn borer.

Another fallacy is that GMO crops failed in the drought of 2012.  As if somehow during the worst drought since 1988 or maybe even the Dust Bowl era nature was supposed to give us a normal yield because our crops are able to protect themselves from pests and be resistant to certain herbicides. Drought tolerant varieties of corn were not widely available to growers in 2012. I’ve grown Pioneer’s version of drought tolerant corn in a test plot. It beat everything else in the plot hands down. Wide availability of drought tolerant corn varieties will spread in the next year or two. Drought tolerance and water use efficiency could be game changers for water use in the highly irrigated areas of the Great Plains. It should also be noted that all the corn being marketed as drought tolerant was brought to fruition by conventional breeding techniques except for Monsanto’s. Theirs will be the one genetically modified version.

Farmers make plans on how to plant and manage their crops several months before actual fieldwork begins.  In the end we all understand that weather will be the ultimate factor in determining the success of those plans. In agriculture there are countless variables in play when managing a crop, and the one thing you have no control over is the weather. It can rain too much or not enough. Temperatures may be great for crop growth, or they may be too hot or too cold. Farmers must do all they can to realize the potential of a seed, but nature will always dictate a large portion of yield.

So, do you still think Monsanto is an evil empire out for world domination? Why don’t we just leave it at a company like any other, trying to make money. Some people call this greedy, but the rest of us also spend most of our lives making money. So if you dislike (or hate) Monsanto, then maybe it’s time to encourage other bio-tech innovations to make seeds better, cheaper, or both, to offer to Brian and other farmers like him a better deal. (As Dr. Kevin Folta told me in my interview with a scientist, there are many seeds paid for with tax dollars sitting on shelves around the country that are better in several respects than what Monsanto has provided us. As long as they are shielded from competing against these seeds, farmers do have limited choices. You can read my interview with him here.) Competition and a dynamic marketplace is what gives consumers the most choice and power, and now, Monsanto pretty much stands alone having cornered a majority of the market. Much of their practices are rooted in this power and laws (not in the science and seeds), so let’s go about encouraging innovation and competition.

And if you are against the consumption of GMO foods, there is no need for it. There is already a label that tells you the exact same thing, ‘Certified Organic’ is another way to say “GMO free.” GMO food is in 80% of your supermarket, so it’s a safe bet that anything you see in the supermarket has a GM ingredient in it. There is no need to create ever more regulatory hoops to label GMO food, when the opposite label means the same thing. As for me, though I live for the moment in Europe where I can’t get GMO food, even if I wanted to, I’ll not shy away from it in my travels, it is my opinion that they are the future of food. (Note: I am not saying I think organic production is going away, or that everyone should eat GMO food because I said so; as long as there is a market, there will be self-interested people looking to make money by providing that product.)

Biotech seeds have been the fastest adopted agricultural technology in history. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no closing it, only managing it, so let us manage it better, and that will only occur if farmers are convinced. So if you have issues, have them not with the science or technology, but the handful of controlling companies who are only responding to the incentives the market has provided them. Competition is needed, not an outright ban, which is probably impossible anyway. But, it is heartening to me, that family farmers are not disadvantaged by using what is available now. (I know that Monsanto has disadvantaged other family farmers, or just farmers, but this is not a bias against GM seeds, it is against the company, and it doesn’t mean they are out to screw everybody else as well. They act in their own interest as does any other company.) And as for the subject of chemicals that always comes up, let us put them in the proper context:

Every compound you can name, no matter how scary has a safe level; and every compound, no matter how natural, has a toxic level.” ~ Brian Dunning (Author)

Thanks Brian, for making food for the rest of us. We, or at the very least I, are grateful, and I trust that you know what you’re doing.

[UPDATE: Part 3 in the series: Lowdown on GMOs with a Biotech Firm can be read here.]