Last week's debate on genetically engineered food at the University of Illinois included two farmers: one who grows conventional and biotech seed, the other organic. The messages and values they communicated speak volumes about the curious rift between these two approaches to agriculture.
What drew me to the event in the first place was the title of organic farmer Mary Howell-Martens' presentation: "Why organic farmers don't want GMOs on their farms." Since biotech was first introduced, I believed it was a step towards moving those two camps closer. After all, with biotech seed we apply less insecticide and pesticide on the land. Why wouldn't organic farmers love that?
I was about to find out.
Martens' first message: don't think of organic farmers as throwbacks and luddites. On her New York grain farm they use GPS-guided precision cultivators, solar panels, and satellite based soil maps to make production as efficient as possible. "Our farm is truly science in action," she says. "This is using the best of science and applying it to biological systems."
Martens was an early believer in genetic engineered crops. Now she believes GM seed is part of a larger 'package' production system predicated on herbicide, insecticides, seed treatments, fungicides, expensive equipment, crop insurance and increasing use of petroleum. "The GM package is not sustainable – now or in the future," she says.
"As an organic farmer my biggest concern is pesticides," she says. USDA data shows initially there was a reduction in pesticide use after GM seed was introduced in 1996. Now, however, Charles Benbrook, a well-known organic enthusiast, claims in a study that there has been a 7% increase in the volume of pesticides, as a result of weed resistance.
In fact, weed resistance is another reason why GM has failed, Martens says. "Those seeds spread to my organic farm," she adds. "We're starting to see this – it's the tip of the iceberg." As a result of resistance, not only are farmers using glyphosate but they are going back to older weed control methods, like dicamba and 2 4-d.
The implication is that those older modes of action were more harmful to people and the environment. But that's where it got confusing. Martens wanted to cast doubt on the safety of glyphosate as well, even though it has been tested as safer than nearly every other herbicide. "New research shows that's not true," she says. "There's links to Roundup as a carcinogen and birth disorders. We need good science to see if these chemicals we're putting into our environment are truly as safe as we think they are." Martens also cited another well-known anti-GM researcher who believes glyphosate restricts the ability of a plant to take up micronutrients.
Sounds alarming. But Martens didn't count on young, learned minds in the audience. During questioning a crop science grad student pointed out that the studies Martens had referred to were either retracted or debunked by the scientific community.
Nevertheless, Martens went on to claim new studies that show organic crops yield as well as conventional; that organic systems build soil much faster than no-till; that crops have become less nutritional, in part due to GM technology.
This debate nearly went on without including a farmer who actually grows biotech seed. That changed at the last minute when organizers at the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program were pressured to add to the panel Leon Corzine, who farms near Assumption, Ill.
While Martens seemed defensive about organic, Corzine was trying to build empathy with the audience, noting his son is growing into the business. "My goal is to leave the farm better than I found it," he says. Both farmers are proud of their heritage and both focus on sustainability. "My definition of sustainability is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," adds Corzine.
Corzine says his sustainability goal means exploring every option for improving efficiencies. "New technology is one way we do that," he says. "What is out there that will make our farm more efficient, or produce a higher quality product, and is safe? I won't tell you biotechnology is the silver bullet, but in the case of biotech, there is no product I use on the farm that has had more regulatory scrutiny than biotech products. One reason there are so few companies is that it's so expensive and time consuming, and we think that's not all bad because we want to make sure they are safe.
"Not one animal or person has gotten sick or died from a GMO food product after 20 years," he notes. "We've had five generations of cattle on our farm who have all eaten biotech corn and there has never been an issue." He believes using biotech is better for the environment because as yields grew over the past two decades, his carbon footprint has fallen; land that it takes to grow a bushel of corn has fallen 30%. "We don't have the same chemical residues and insect damage we had before. We've completely eliminated a class of chemicals from our farm," he says regarding planting with no insecticides. "That's important to me as my son is coming into the business."
One point that resonated from the point-counterpoint between Martens and Corzine: Martens believes modern farming is not sustainable. Corzine, on the other hand, believes there is room for both types of agriculture.
"I don't like this either/or approach to farming," he says. "I think we can work in conjunction. I'm not going to say the organic way is crazy. It's not what we've chosen to do, but I don't want the organic guys to be beating me up either. We can do both."