In a wide, brown field, Bret Davis opens a pocketknife with a click, kneels down and scrapes through a furrow of dirt. He uncovers a purple corn seed. He measures about six inches to his right, scrapes the dirt again and reveals a green seed.
Their appearance in the field is not a prank nor evidence of some agricultural disease. The corn’s identity resides in those colors.
The purple ones, just 5 percent of the planted seeds, are fodder for the insects, a way of keeping pests from developing immunity to the green corn’s ability to kill them.
These green and purple seeds are monsters to some, miracles to others. To Davis, they are tools.
“It’s made raising a healthy crop easier,” said Davis, who farms 3,600 acres of corn and soybeans in Delaware County. “We can do it non-GMO, but we’d need more pesticide and labor. (GMOs) make it a lot easier on the farmer.
“We all want safe, economical food, and this is how we can do it for the masses.”
What’s a GMO?
GMOs are plants that have genes spliced from other organisms in the hope that their beneficial traits will transfer. Corn, cotton, potatoes, apples, plums, soybeans, papaya, sugar beets, alfalfa, canola, flax, tobacco and squash are among the GMO plants approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. So far, GMOs mostly enhance a plant’s defenses, giving resistance or immunity to pests and herbicides.
Opponents, some of whom are very strident in their protests, say GMOs haven’t been proven safe, that the long-term effects of eating GMOs are unknown and that growing GMOs promotes the use of pesticides.
“One of the biggest questions or uneasiness is, ‘Are they safe?’ There is a perception that they have not been well tested, and that is inaccurate,” said Margaret Smith, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University. “There has been quite a bit of testing.”
Smith points to a 2014 report that pooled the results of more than 1,700 recent studies on GMOs — about a decade’s worth of research — that concluded that there is no evidence of danger to humans.
“I feel comfortable,” she said. “I don’t think there is any credible evidence of concern at this time.”
Most scientists agree with Smith. The Pew Research Center released a poll in January that asked several questions of scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. More agreed that GMOs are safe to eat (88 percent) than agreed that climate change is mostly caused by human activity (87 percent) or that childhood vaccines should be required (86 percent).
Smith added that skepticism is healthy. “Just like they say on Wall Street, past performance is not a guarantee of future return. We shouldn’t stop worrying. … Our regulatory system and evaluations have worked well, and we need to continue to be thoughtful and careful.”
Making the switch
For Davis, the science is settled.
He believes GMOs make his farm more sustainable and profitable and his crops safer for consumers and farmers. Since he’s used them, he said, he no longer has to blanket his cornfields indiscriminately with insecticide.
“When I started, the bag (of insecticide) itself had a skull and crossbones on it,” he said. “Does that tell you how harmful it was? It was poison.”
According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2014, the use of insecticide on corn declined 90 percent between 1995 and 2010. The USDA also said the active ingredient in RoundUp — glyphosate — is less toxic than the herbicides it replaced.
Davis bought his first GMO 23 years ago — RoundUp-resistant soybeans. Since then, subsequent hybrids with the trait have boosted his yield by 50 percent.
“The hardest thing to swallow was the price of the technology,” he said.
The GMO soybean cost double that of the variety it replaced. He didn’t regret it, and he’s never looked back. He started planting GMO corn about 12 years ago.
“It was well worth it,” Davis said. Before GMOs, he spent $50 to $60 an acre on chemicals to control weeds and insects. RoundUp cost just $4 to $5 an acre, he said.
His corn yields jumped as well. Davis reaped 150 bushels of corn per acre pre-GMO; today, he tops 220 bushels an acre. It’s a leap in efficiency that would have been science fiction to a teenage Davis, who joined the family farm when he graduated from Buckeye Valley High School in 1978.
“I never thought I’d see 200-bushel corn in my lifetime,” Davis said. “Never. Not in my wildest dreams.”
According to the USDA, more than 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered.
“When you see an adoption as quickly as GMO corn and soybeans, it is an obvious benefit,” said Michael Langemeier, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “That means that there has to be some very strong advantages. The yield increases have been pretty big.”
Some farmers still choose to go non-GMO, and all organic crops are non-GMO, but those farmers are aiming for specialty markets, Langemeier said.
“They are able to market it to people willing to pay for it,” he said.
Well-known companies do pay for it. Chipotle has pledged to rid its food of GMOs, and Whole Foods is rolling out mandatory labeling of products containing GMOs. Snowville Creamery in Meigs County pays its dairy farmers more to use non-GMO feeds when supplementing their grass-fed cows.
For all of their benefits, GMOs aren’t a panacea. Just like pesticides, they have weaknesses, and their near-universal use has created problems, Smith said.
“(GMOs) are no more silver bullets than pesticides were,” she said.
Root worms and other pests, plus some weeds, have adapted to the technology. “If you keep hitting pests with the same hammer, (they) will evolve to overcome it,” she said.
Davis knows that. He’s betting the purple refuge seeds will give bugs another wrinkle to figure out. “Nothing’s perfect,” he said.
Davis paused to wiggle his fingers at his month-old grandchild.
“Why do I grow GMO crops? If I don’t make a profit, I’m not going to be here — and this is a true business — and I have to so that little baby can do what I do. Why would I grow something detrimental to my family?”
(Source – http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/business/2015/07/26/1-gmo-future.html)