By Terry Wanzek: Jamestown, North Dakota
I don’t tell reporters at the New York Times how to write their articles. Maybe they should consider not telling me how to run my farm.
That was my first thought after reading a long article in the October 29 edition of the newspaper, headlined: “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops.”
The folks at the New York Times may have their doubts, but I have a message from the real world of agriculture: GM crops are delivering benefits. I’ve been growing GM corn and soybeans for 20 years—which is more than half of my adult life as a farmer—and I’m still in awe of this technology.
I’m hardly alone in this belief. Farmers everywhere choose to plant GM crops because they deliver what they say they will. It doesn’t matter if we operate large farms in the United States or Brazil, or if we’re small-time cotton growers in Burkina Faso or India: Wherever GM crops are available, farmers choose them in overwhelming numbers. Over 90% of U.S. corn and soybean acres are GM crops.
We don’t choose them because they’re cool. We don’t choose them because seed companies make us. And we certainly don’t choose them because they’re cheap. It is a voluntary choice and a sound business decision when farmers choose GM crops.
The New York Times seems to think that we choose them because we’re stupid. It claims that we’re missing a “basic problem,” and that we’re wrong to believe GM crops increase yield or reduce pesticide use.
I suppose it’s possible that the New York Times is right—and that millions of farmers around the world, toiling to grow commodities as different as soybeans and sugar beets and papayas, are all wrong. Maybe a bunch of Manhattan-bound journalists know better that we do.
But I doubt it.
The New York Times cites its own “extensive examination” of data. I prefer to draw from personal experience.
Like so many farmers, we’re always experimenting on our farm. Every year, we are trying new seed varieties and practices on a limited number of acres to see what is working, trying to minimize our expenses and maximize our yields while protecting the resources needed to grow crops. We did this the first year we tried GM crops, testing them on a small number of acres at first. Initially, GM crops had to prove their value to us. This is our own “extensive examination”, performed season after season in a quest to always do better.
So let me offer an example from last year, when we planted about 3,000 acres of corn. Mostly we chose to grow GM corn, because we’ve had such great success with it. But we also wanted to see how the latest GM corn compares with the latest non-GM varieties, so we set aside about 250 acres for non-GM corn.
My instincts were that the GM corn would outperform the non-GM corn. But you never know until you try, and I like to keep an open mind. I never want to become set in my ways. Besides, if non-GM corn were to show an ability to compete with GM corn, I’d like to know—because I could save a lot of money on seeds.
When the harvest came in, the result was clear. The acres with GM corn produced an average of more than 150 bushels. The acres with non-GM corn were far behind, with about 100 bushels per acre.
The scientist in me must acknowledge caveats. It’s possible, for example, that we selected a lousy kind of non-GM corn and that another type would have done better. Perhaps we picked a strain that wasn’t suited to our farm’s soil or climate.
Yet I don’t think so. We’ve experimented on our farm for nearly four decades—and in that time, we’ve become convinced that GM crops deliver benefits to us and consumers. They’ve not only boosted my yields and reduced our reliance on traditional crop-protection products, but they’ve also been good for the environment. Because of GM crops, we have been able to eliminate a number of tillage passes over our fields each year, saving fuel and wear and tear on machinery. Not needing to drive our tractors as much as we once did means we’re emitting fewer greenhouse gases and leaving a smaller carbon footprint.
That’s my story. I suspect millions of other farmers have their own versions. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t flock to GM crops as they do.
The next time the New York Times reports on agriculture, it should do a better job of making sure that the news it prints includes the views of the people who grow the crops: Our nation’s farmers!
Terry Wanzek grows wheat, corn, soybean and pinto beans on a family farm in North Dakota. He serves as a ND State Senator and volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.