Ask the farmer: Breaking free from “Pro-GMO” myths


Rodale Institute Farm Director Jeff Moyer talks about what is happening in our fields and yours.

Joe asks:

I’ve been trying to convince a friend of mine that many “Pro-GMO” arguments are myths. I sent him to your Farming Systems Trial study to address some of the most common ones.

One objection that he had, listed below, is that this would never work on a large-scale basis. I don’t grow my own food (yet) and, even if I did, it wouldn’t be on a large scale so I’m not able to challenge his argument. He also argued that soil depletion would be a problem. I sent him information from your website about cover crops and he came up with another objection. I’ve listed his two points below. If there is an article that would address these, let me know so I can forward the information to him and use it in the future.

1. Organic farming with proper crop rotation and with a large collection of varying crops/animals IS possible on a smaller scale such as for use by a large family or commune. On a large scale commercial basis it would be extremely cost prohibitive and labor intensive. For example: one tractor and truck can run 100 acres of corn (GMO or not). You would need an army of manual labor personnel to do the same on an organic, non-GMO, or mixed crop/animal farm.

2. As for cover crops, yes, they work great when you can tiptoe around them in your backyard garden. I do it myself with cucumber plants low growing around corn, but try harvesting with any manner of machine and you’ll have squished crop.

Jeff says:

Well, where to start? It is sometimes difficult to relate the type of work we do and the scale we do it on to someone who doesn’t want to hear, but the fact of the matter is we have many large scale organic operations producing every conceivable crop across the globe and in the US.

According to the latest USDA Ag census  figures, just over four million acres were certified within the USA totaling just over $3 billion in sales (not small business or backyard gardens). Of those farms 65% used cover crops so we know it will work at any scale. The organic industry is now over $30 billion worldwide. While a portion of the farms are small operations, many of these farms growing grains and vegetables are well over 1,000 acres. In fact some are over 10,000 acres.

Take a look at the concept that the world’s growing population can be fed using organic methods in an article by World Watch .You can see that many of the world’s leading minds agree the future is in biological production methods, not strategies based on chemical inputs or biotech solutions.

Now let’s look at your friend’s specific questions:

1. Rodale Institute and the organic industry would never suggest we don’t use modern farming equipment, and certification does not preclude the use of high tech solutions like GPS or even hybrid seeds. While additional labor may be needed at certain times of the year, our economic calculations are all based on family farm operations of approximately 750 acres for an east coast grain operation. When everything is calculated (including labor), the cost of production for organic management is actually less since the costs are internalized not externalized. The costs to the environment are far less and the profit is much higher since the value in the market place for the end product is higher.

2. The idea for the use of cover crops could fill a book, but, in short, the reasons we utilize cover crops in the rotations are to sustain the living organisms in the soil by keeping something green and growing on the soil. We also reduce erosion, recycle nutrients and improve the soil organic matter content helping to minimize drought problems. We plant most of our cover crops at times when we would otherwise not be using the land. For example, winter annuals are planted after corn or soybeans or even wheat. These cover crops, if leguminous, can fix enough nitrogen to grow subsequent crops without the need for additional nitrogen. Together, crops rotations, cover crops, compost application (if available) balanced with any purchased fertilizers needed, the systems can easily compete with conventional farming systems and come out even or ahead.

12 Responses to “Ask the farmer: Breaking free from “Pro-GMO” myths”

  1. Marcy McManaway

    Thanks for this information, I have heard many times how organic farming won’t work on a large scale. I am glad I have now found information proving otherwise.

    Reply
  2. Michael

    What are the exact chemicals or compounds in GMO food that are toxic? I want to help spread the word about how bad it is and just need the name of one toxin. With that information I can end the debate.

    Reply
  3. Michael

    That’s the first time I’ve heard that argument… Clearly the guy has mash potatoes between his ears. I’ve heard the argument that GMO is more tolerant to drought and has a higher disease resistance. But water is endless right? And how common is disease? People act like famines happen because of drought and plant disease… Somalia’s drought and famine is probably smoke and mirrors, they are fine. North Korea during the drought in the 90′s… They just needed water hoses from China and they could have saved a million people, they were just being dramatic. The south American chocolate cacao plant disease isn’t as bad as they make it. And of course selective breeding is classified as GMO and should be labeled too. The definition is broad and loose for a reason, gene splicing.. yes… Selective breeding of plants and animals… Yes too. Isn’t it great?

    Reply
  4. Steve

    Michael-There are no GMO crops with increased drought resistance that I know of. This is due to the fact that drought resistance is not a single gene phenomon. There is no “drought resistance” gene that you can tweezer in. Rather, drought resistance is a complex of strategies by the plant. Pardon my litteralism if you were being tongue in cheek.

    Reply
  5. Debbie

    Michael, GMO and selective breeding are two completely different animals. GMO means Genetically Modified… meaning that scientists have taken genes from one organism (usually a bacteria) and spliced them into the genes of another organism. The reason that GMO crops are resistant to pests, is that the bacteria introduced into their genes make the insides of the pest that eats the plant explode.

    Reply
  6. Sarah O'HALLORAN

    I have a question about cover crops. In our area of The Chesapeake Bay watershed, the farmers use the no til method of farming to minimise runoff. Are cover crops any use if the product cannot be turned under?

    Reply
    • Jude Guardi

      some cover crops can be used in low-till and no till fields. ones that die after mowing can be used (winter wheat is one of them, vetch is another) and the clippings act as mulch. the root structures help keep soil in place, and provides nutrients as they break down. vetch also adds nitrogen to the soil.

      Reply
  7. Anne

    There are so many reasons GMO’s are bad it’s hard to start the list! Take the recent study proving the Roundup used on most GMO’s at ever increasing amounts can cause gigantic tumors in lab animals. Or that GMO crops in health studies cause infertility. Or the unrefutable evidence that they cause terrible birth defects. And life-threatening allergic reactions. Too much to list. Look up the original scientific studies–they will knock the cynicism out of you if you are human. Watch the documentary and book of the same name “Genetic Roulette.” (Smith) I have been a member of the Seed Saver’s Exchange, and believe me, there are non hybrid food plants for every possible climate, drought or wet, cold or hot. They already exist!!!!! There is a tomato that bears 40 days from transplant, and a tomato that is drought resistant. The GMO brainwashers talk like they have a monopoly on helpful traits, when the ONLY traits they have succeeded well with are traits enabling plants to live in the existence of poisons they are doused with, or with a pesticide existing within the cells of its own self! This translates into MONEY for the patent holders. Period– the only benefit is not for farmers or eaters, but for the patent holders.

    Reply
  8. bud hoekstra

    Rodale is nestled away in Pennsylvania state, truth be told, 100′s of miles from the Colorado River. So would it change your thinking to know that 15% of the nation’s food supply depends on irrigation water from the Colorado River? Every plate in America has a stake in this river, and yet – nobody knows it.
    We have no accounting for it.
    If thieves attack a pumpkin field and steal all the Halloween squash, the farmer is on the phone to the local sheriff reporting the loss. But if the same pumpkins wash away during erosion of the soil because no cover crop is planted, nobody tallies the cost. Nobody journalizes the entry of theft by neglect.
    GMO’s are not designed to keep ungrown pumpkins in the soil stable and uneroded, they are designed to accelerate the use of herbicidal chemicals and clear the land of soil-retaining weeds. In net effect, fertilizers and herbicides put the harvest in the black and the soil’s nutrient base in the red. If you can’t look at the checkered face of GMO and see black and red squares, you need to peel away your blinders.
    Double-entry bookkeeping was a fantastic invention, but it doesn’t capture externalized costs.

    Reply
  9. First Officer

    You mention you use compost when available and purchased fertilizers. How much of each do you use per acre per year, what kind of fertilizers and where does the material in that compost come from?

    Reply

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