My family’s farm has always been an early adopter of new practices, varieties, and technologies. We adopted no-till conservation practices in the 1960s and have been planting cover crops, which are designed not for harvest but for building soil and plant health, for almost seven decades. In recent years we have invested heavily in precision agriculture technology and tillage equipment that is geared toward conservation. We offer acreage to universities and seed companies to try new varieties or to research the benefits of different practices, not only to help them find better solutions for agricultural practices, but also because their data help to improve our farm’s sustainability. It should be no surprise that our farm was an early adopter of GE seeds.
As Pamela Ronald points out, farmers have “embraced” GE crops. Since the first commercialization of herbicide-tolerant soybeans in 1996, the U.S. acreage share of the crop has increased enormously, from 17 percent in 1997 to 93 percent in 2013. Perhaps because of their positive experience with hybrid corn adoption, which grew from an acreage share of 0.1 percent in 1933 to 96 percent in 1960, farmers were quick to adopt GE crops decades later. My father-in-law, while farming with his brother, adopted hybrid corn in the 1940s and ’50s. Farming with his two sons in the 1990s, he chose GE crops.
Farmers choose GE crops because they are economically and environmentally advantageous.
I think it is fair to say that farmers want proof that comes from their own soil or from a close neighbor’s. The variables in farming regions are too vast to rely on data from other areas, where soils and climate are entirely different from one’s own. Typically farmers do a test plot, a first-year trial to see if a crop performs as claimed and if it fits their operations. The data speak for themselves. Per acre, our farm averages 167 bushels of conventional corn, 182 bushels of GE corn, 36 bushels of organic corn. In a typical year, we gain 24 bushels of GE corn and 10 bushels of GE soybeans when compared to our conventional acres.
In addition to being more productive, GE crops have significantly reduced the amount of insecticide we use and have allowed for less use of environmentally harsh herbicides. GE crops have allowed our farm to avoid tillage, thus preserving our topsoil. Our soil is healthier as a result. GE crops have allowed us to be a more sustainable family farm by reducing our carbon footprint: less tillage means more carbon is retained in the soil, and fewer tractor passes across a field means reduced emissions and savings on fossil fuels and biofuels.
I am a registered dietitian by training. More importantly I am a mom raising two kids to be responsible citizens instilled with the farm-family values we treasure. I know that the science of human nutrition intersects with the science of soil and plant nutrition and health. We eat what we grow and therefore nurture what we produce and the land it comes from. Our soil is our livelihood and we are stewards entrusted to ensure that it is preserved and produces abundant, healthy, and safe food for my family and yours.
I also know sustainable farming requires that the next generation want to be farmers. They have many career options that offer higher income, greater stability, and better benefits. Their main incentive is the knowledge that the best form of land preservation is a profitable family farm. But they need to be able to make a living for their families.
It’s not hard to understand why farmers have chosen to plant GE crops. They make sense. They require fewer inputs and therefore are economically and environmentally advantageous. They are socially advantageous too: their higher yield will help feed a growing world population.