30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Biotechnology

My Generation

Day 2: Why we plant genetically modified seeds on our farm. Part 1.

Published on: November 2, 2012

Fear. Misinformation. Marketing. Fear. Health. Children. Fear. Fear.

All this and more is playing into the discussion involving GMOs these days. And here on the farm, it feels like old news. Fifteen-plus years ago, we evaluated the technology, learned we could plant it and use fewer and less-potent pesticides, have fewer weeds and less required labor. It was a business decision. We got on board. We've gone on to plant Bt corn (using products from DuPont, Syngenta and Monsanto), LibertyLink corn (a Bayer product), RoundupReady corn and beans (using Monsanto and Syngenta products), rootworm-resistant corn (both Monsanto and DuPont products).

But off the farm, in parts further west, let's say, people are downright angry. California's Proposition 37 is being sold as people's "right to know" what's in their food. And if you'd like a logical look at both sides of the argument, check out this point-counterpoint blog.

On its face, I would agree with the right to know. Yet common sense might suggest that given 95% of the U.S. corn crop is planted to biotech seed, you can safely assume any food not labeled organic or GM-free has a product in it that's derived from biotech seed. And further, consider the extensive exemptions being offered even under the "Right to Know" Proposition 37. Even with Prop 37, I'm not sure California consumers will know as much as they want to.

But I digress.

I think much of the problem here is that people just don't understand each other. We sit here in the Midwest and think how those poor consumers just don't know what we do and if they only understood how nice we all are and how much we love our farms and our families, they'd leave us alone and let us carry on with our business. And from what I hear, they sit in their cities and on their coasts and think we farmers are a bunch of poor, overall-wearing saps who are beholden to Monsanto and the rest of Big Agribusiness.

So, here's what I think we need to understand in farm country:

*  Consumers are concerned about the long-term health effects of biotechnology. They're looking at down-the-road diseases like cancer, heart disease, obesity, the "unknown."

*  Saying we produce the safest, most abundant food supply in the world doesn't resonate with consumers. When you say safe, they hear short-term safety (which they expect anyway) and when you say abundant, they hear too much food (which is making us obese).

*  They want transparency. This is one of many reasons why I love this blog. He offers up all the details. In PDF form, no less.

* We need to be less about "telling our story," and more about answering their questions.

What would I like them to know? In the interest of the final point above, I would respond to their questions. And I think immediately of an ongoing conversation I've been having with a California friend-of-a-friend. She could not be nicer and more convinced of her opinions, and I respect that. I really do. But in talking with her, I can see some of her underlying information about how corn is grown is just, well, incorrect.

I don't want to quote her directly here without her permission, but to paraphrase, she believes Monsanto has a monopoly on the seed market, that it sends investigators to farms to see if seeds have blown over into another farmer's field, and then they sue those farmers. She also thinks farmers can't afford non-GMO or non-Monsanto seed, or even alfalfa because Monsanto has a monopoly.

I have to reiterate, she is not alone in thinking this, which is why I'm sharing it. From what I have seen, these are commonly held assumptions. Perhaps that means there's an organization sharing this kind of misinformation among California consumers. I don't know.

But here's what I do know:

*  Monsanto does not have a monopoly on the seed market. Among the many companies we buy seed from is Golden Harvest, which is owned by Syngenta. Syngenta is one of five companies who have patented genetically modified seed traits. Monsanto is not the only one. They do have a lot of market share, but there are still other options. We plant a wide variety of seed on our farm, including from small, family-owned seed companies.

*  Seeds don't blow from one farm to another. Seeds are planted in the ground, where they sprout and grow into plants. Corn plants produce a tassel that's laden with pollen. The pollen falls from the tassel and lands on the silks that sprout from the top of each ear of corn. Each silk goes to a single kernel on the ear. Now pollen? Pollen can blow from one field to another. Generally, farmers try to work together and if their neighbor is planting non-GM, they try to plant in a way that reduces pollen drift.

*  About 15 cases have worked their way through the court system, regarding Monsanto suing farmers. Really, I've never heard of a farmer being sued because pollen drifted into their field and Monsanto wants them to pay for it. It's actually more the other way around. You can read here or here about a Canadian farmer and his odyssey through the Canadian court system with Monsanto. In short, he knew (or ought to have known) he had saved and planted Roundup Ready seed back in 2001, violating the agreement he had signed. He appealed in 2002 and all 17 grounds were dismissed by a three-member court. He appealed to the Canadian Supreme Court in 2004 and lost again.

*  Non-GM seed costs less than GM seed. In the farm world, we talk about traited and non-traited varieties, and when you're talking traits (like rootworm or roundup or corn borer resistence), you're talking more money. This makes sense. If there is extra technology in that seed which allows us to, say, use less weed control products, or helps the plant grow better in a drought, or lets us use less insect control products, we should pay for it. Again, it's good business sense. It's an added value, and that value adds to the cost.

*  Monsanto has a very small share of the alfalfa seed market. I don't know what else to say about that. It just does.

I don't know that this will sway someone who is a die-hard supporter of Prop 37, or who considers GM foods to be poisoned. Maybe they can make a more well-informed decision, even if they vote for Prop 37.

I don't know that this will make a difference. But I have to believe it helps, if only to make a better informed decision.


**A note: I had the crazy idea that I could cover biotechnology in one post. Silliness. Look for another post on Monday on biotechnology and the research surrounding it.



The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Kickoff: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Day 1: Working Kids

Day 2: Biotechnology

Day 3: Harvest Eats

Day 4: Church

Day 5: Biotechnology, Again

Day 6: Long Haul

Day 7: Hormones

Day 8: Weather

Day 9: Milk

Day 10: County Fairs

Day 11: Harvest

Day 12: Technology

Day 13: Show Ring

Day 14: Leave the Farm

Day 15: Dialogue

Day 16: Store Grain

Day 17: Love

Day 18: Kid Love     

Day 19: Straight Rows

Day 20: Antibiotics

Day 21: Bottle Calves

Day 22: Relationship

Day 23: Big Fun

Day 24: Dogs

Day 25: Family

Day 26: Cattle

Day 27: Sustainability

Day 28: Chemicals

Day 29: Organic

Day 30: Future


More "30 Days" farm blogs

Looking for more 30 Days goodness? My Generation has friends and we're all blogging a "30 Days" series in November. Check out what these farm bloggers are talking about this month.

Beyer Beware: 30 Days, 30 Things You Never Knew About Food

Black Ink: Beef's a Trip - 30 Days from Gate to Plate

Confessions of a Farm Wife: 30 Days of Life on our Farm

Le Jardin da ma Vie: 30 Reasons Why I Love Being a Farmer's Wife

Go Go Bookworm: 30 Days of Farm Kid Stories

Kelly McCormick Photography: 30 Days of Thankfulness

Pinke Post: 30 Days of a North Dakota November

Go Beyond the Barn: 30 Days of Farm Life Blessings

Rural Route 2: 30 Days of the Not-So-Glamorous Life of This Farm Wife

Touching Families: 30 Days of a Town Girl Touched by the Farming Life

This Land, This Life, This Farmer's Wife: 30 Days of Thankfulness on a Family Farm

Farmgirldays: 30 Days of Farm Kids Trapped in the City

My Cows and Pigs: 30 Days of "What's that?"

Dennis Olmstead: 30 Days in a Row

White House on the Prairie: 30 Days, 30 Posts

A Colorful Adventure: 30 Days of JP

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  18. Holly, I think you did a very good job. Thank you for the link to Lisen and my point-counterpoint on BlogHer. I wish some of our readers would come here! In fact, I think I'm going to refer a couple of the commenters right back to you. There is a real misunderstanding about what farmers do and don't do, and what role companies like Monsanto play in their businesses.

  19. Tim says:

    Good information. I agree that much of the consumer's concern is based on ignorance and fear. Probably Carl Sagan, astronomer and science communicator put it best, "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.'

  20. Trish says:

    Thanks for this blog. I agree that we need to listen and understand and answer people's questions. As a Monsanto employee, I answer virtually every email we receive here in Canada. But when I share the facts and try to answer the questions (like you have above), I am usually called a liar. Sigh. I appreciate you sharing your story. Farmers, afterall, are the ones making the choice to use technology and innovation.