What are facts about GMOs? How can farmers and consumers separate the facts from the myths of genetically modified organisms? And what impact will the new federal voluntary GMO labeling law have on consumers and the marketplace?
These were questions raised, along with a number of answers, as two panels of agriculture and GMO experts met at the recent Farm Science Review to discuss the many issues of GMO versus non-GMO.
Emily Adams, Ohio State University Extension educator in Coshocton County, talked with moderator David Marrison of Ashtabula County Extension about the “Myths of GMOs” and tried to set the record straight on issues such as yield, production costs and pesticide use.
Regarding consumers, Adams said, “The more questions we can ask back of people asking us questions about GMOs, the better we can understand what their real concerns are. Because we may think they are concerned about health or safety, and then throw them all kinds of facts that show that no studies or research out there has concluded that there are any adverse health affects of GMOs. The research has been well established over the last two decades, but sometimes that is not what they want to hear.”
She said sometimes it is not the health or safety concerns but the moral issue they have concerns with or environmental concerns they have. “I think sometimes we (agriculture educators and GMO farmers) are afraid we don’t have all the answers, so we don’t engage and don’t want it getting emotional,” she said.
Adams said that the more calm they can remain and ask what questions they have, the better able they can seek out the answers. “Shared values is a good way to approach this. What shared values to we have? Safe food for our kids and safe environment. What is the common ground? It is important to have that dialogue,” she said.
Marrison asked Adams, “In looking at the data, is it true or myth that GMOs have an economic advantage over non-GMOs?”
“In looking at the data globally and not just the United States, where countries have grown GMO crops since 1996 when GMOs were first produced, here is what the data says for cotton and corn: Increased yield, reduced pest damage, reduced insecticide use, and increased farm level of profitability. That is looking at all the data rolled into one over the last two decades,” Adams said.
For soybeans, looking at data in the United States between 2001-2005, herbicide purchases declined by 300 million, which is almost equally balanced out by the increase in premiums for herbicide resistant crop fees, according to Adams. “So it was pretty much a wash in terms of economic impact and returns for soybeans. Since 1995, all crops reduced chemical pesticide input by 37 percent, increased crop yield by 22 percent and increased profits by 68 percent. Now that is mixing in the entire world, including those with small economies.”
“If I plant GMO crops, will yield be better? Fact or fiction?” Marrison asked Adams.
“When we look at worldwide, it is an increase in yield. Corn 32 percent increase, but soybeans, it’s a wash, it is not significantly different worldwide,” she said.
When asked about the cost of GMO or non-GMO seed, Adams said there is a major price difference. “It is tempting to say with non-GMO seeds that it is cheaper, so it is better. But you have to look at all the changes this will result in this, multiple factors such as yield, fertilizer use and the market.”
What about resistant weeds? She said 245 herbicide resistant weeds throughout the world have developed since the 1950s when American farmers started using herbicides. “The weeds are in 86 different crops in 66 different countries — this is a global issue and not something that just happened.
In Coshocton County, I just saw fields that were highly impacted by mare’s tail, and I am sure this will impact yields. Yield reduction could be up to 83 percent in fields,” she added.
Marrison asked if is it true that we have actually reduced overall pesticide use because of these GMO crops?
“Studies have shown that when we look at it collectively, insecticide and herbicides together, it increased dramatically in the 1950 and 60s together when the amount of land farmed plateaued. Since 1995, on average, the introduction of GMO crops reduced the chemical pesticide input by 37 percent. The largest chunk of this is insecticide reduction, and use on cotton crops. That’s a huge reduction,” she said.
The reduction, however, on corn and soybean — the impact on those of herbicide is relatively low, Adams said. “For soybeans, it went down for a while for herbicide but now it is up 7 percent. For corn it reduced, and now has come up slightly since 1995.”
She said the answer is … “it depends. Another advantage was that the more hazardous chemicals were not used as much, but with the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds, maybe not so much any more.”
What is the true cost of weed control? Marrison asked. “Looking at management of weed control, a study this year says managing resistance increases the long run cost of herbicide application by $2.20 to $7.10 an acre. It also increases your long run average yields. So you may be investing a little more in weed control but increasing yield and profits. So when you look at profits you would increase by $22.60 an acre for soybeans and $64 an acre for corn,” Adams said.
However, she said one thing they found in the study is the “neighbor effect.” If a neighbor is not doing a good job even if you are managing weeds and in crop rotation, it will have a negative impact, she pointed out.
“Looking at managing for weed resistance, it is $22.60 for soybeans, an increase of $55.80 for the corn/soybean rotation, and $64.30 a year for corn. They modeled this out over 20 years,” she said.
Will herbicides become more resistant over the years?
“It all comes down to farmer commitment to it,” Adams told those attending the session. “That means education from Extension educators. If you can see that you can increase your profit by the amount of money you invest in your herbicide program and really understanding what your herbicide program needs to be, then we can keep that resistance from taking over and controlling everything.”
Gary Brock is editor of Rural Life Today, a publication of Civitas Media, and can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.