The Business of Farming
Nov 19, 2009
Farming is a business. It's my business. Success requires sound business practices. That’s why I choose to plant GM corn and soybeans--and why I’m so appalled by a new activist-sponsored study that questions my ability to make sensible decisions for my own farm.
Except that this isn’t even a “study.” To call it that is to insult the test-preparation methods of 10th graders who flunk biology mid-terms. The document issued on Tuesday by three anti-biotech organizations--the Organic Center, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Center for Food Safety--is a collection of disputable facts and laughable assertions.
The central allegation of these groups is that biotech crops are forcing U.S. farmers to use more pesticides. It claims that since 1996, herbicide use is 383 million pounds higher than it would be without GM crops and insecticide use is 64 million pounds lower, for a total increase of 318 million pounds.
First of all, these figures don’t tell us much because not all pesticides are equal. An ounce of one can be more dangerous than a pound of another, so measuring them as if they were all exactly the same is nonsense. Also, it’s possible to point to statistics that say the exact opposite. PG Economics Ltd., a well-regarded English consulting firm, recently issued its own findings and said that the use of pesticides on global biotech acreage has dropped almost 800 million pounds--or nearly 9 percent--during the same period.
So which claim is more accurate? Maybe the best approach is to let third parties judge. As it happens, the U.S. Geological Survey has studied the environmental impact of pesticides for years. In specific, it has measured pesticide runoffs into rivers and streams. It doesn’t have a political agenda--just a scientific one.
Here’s the title of the press release the USGS issued last week, to announce the results of its latest research: “Pesticide Levels Decline in Corn Belt Rivers.”
It doesn’t take much to realize that this piece of welcome news trumps the hysterical accusations of biotech’s sworn enemies.
The anti-biotech agitators are right about one thing: Weed resistance is a problem. But this was true long before biotechnology improved our weed-control methods. Just as bacteria can develop a resistance to antibiotics, weeds can develop a tolerance for sprays. Farming is all about adapting to change, and we’ve developed techniques for countering this phenomenon. One simple approach is to rotate pesticides rather than relying on a single variety.
Unfortunately, the agenda-driven foes of biotechnology don’t want to help farmers kill harmful weeds that steal moisture and nutrients, but rather to remove one of the best tools we have for protecting our crops.
Their disconnection from reality is so profound that they claim “farmers are increasingly critical of GE crops.” Well, we’re all capable of grumbling about seed prices. But the notion that American farmers are beginning to have second thoughts about biotechnology is preposterous. According to federal statistics, the use of genetically-enhanced crops now includes 91 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton, and 85 percent of corn.
Near-universal acceptance is a strange way of expressing criticism.
Observers sometimes make a distinction between biotech crops and “conventional” crops. When the adoption of biotechnology rises above the 85-percent mark, however, I think we have to reconsider these words. Biotechnology is the new conventional.
This is a positive development because biotech crops are the bounty of safe and reliable technologies that deliver environmental and economic sustainability. They produce more yield on less land with lower production costs--and one of those lower production costs includes less dependence on pesticides.
I can state this as a fact because I’ve farmed for 37 years. That’s another way of saying that I’ve spent my life battling bugs and weeds. I’ve used many different tools to protect my crops from destruction--everything from old-fashioned pesticides to new-fangled biotechnology.
Based on my own personal experience--rather than the scare-tactic reports of people who have never laid eyes on my fields--I can say with absolute certainty that biotech crops have allowed me to reduce my pesticide applications.
I know my business. I just wish there weren’t so many professional protesters trying to put me out of it.
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).