Why do farmers use technology like GMOs and pesticides? (Benefits) What are the issues? (Costs)

By Nathan Peterson and Greg Peterson

(This blog is part of a larger blog project entitled: Greg Peterson – Advocate for Truth: GMOs. Please read the entire blog project before passing judgement on anything you read here. All comments should be directed to the main page of the larger blog project.)

Benefit #1: Farmers use technology to increase yield potential

GMOs: The first and foremost reason farmers use GM crops is because they increase production. This is the same reason farmers and seed companies have been using traditional breeding for years. Hybrids and breeding are mainly responsible for the massive yield increase we’ve seen over the last several decades, but genetic modification is what helps keep the plant from being eaten by insects or taken over by weeds. It allows the plant to reach the full yield potential hybrids and breeding have given it.

When breeding for seed varieties, seed companies use plants that are most desirable. These are the ones that are able to endure through difficult circumstances like insects, disease, and drought. Seed breeding through genetic engineering is done in the same way, but geneticists are able to speed up the process. The traits that are currently being used for GM crops are traits that resist chemicals and/or resist insects. In both cases, the traits allow the crop to produce more with the resources they have. This is fundamental for increased food production.

Issue #1: We are (and will always be) experiencing issues with resistance

A common and very significant problem with this is that the insects have potential to become resistant to the resistant trait. In the same way, weeds can become resistant to herbicides. This is a concern and always has been a concern. Every farmer understands that diseases, insects and weeds are always changing, which is why we must keep improving our crops to keep up with them. Genetic engineering is simply the newest way to go about that. Resistance is a fundamental part of farming that is rooted in the imperfection of this world (This is explained in the “My Perspective on GMOs as a Christian” blog) and greatly affects the farming industry.

Solution: A lot of time and money are going into working on ways to fight resistance. The farming industry has dealt with problems like this since the beginning of time, and there have always been people ready to step up to solve them. This is the task that has been assigned to each one of us in the food industry! Finding solutions to problems.

Benefit #2: Farmers use technology to better protect the environment

This requires a brief history lesson: Farming is an industry that is always changing. Farmers in the early 1900s used to till up their fields completely, no matter what, plant their crops (usually the same crop repeatedly, otherwise known as monocropping), cultivate in between the rows while the crop was growing, harvest the crop, and till the fields again. This left the soil bare and exposed for most of the year and was a lot of extra work. Each heavy rain or plastering windstorm (these are defining weather characteristics of the weather we farm in) would result in vast amounts of topsoil being washed or blown away. Huge dust storms caused the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Floods overwhelmed deltas with soil that could never be recovered. This was clearly unsustainable and quite frankly, an unethical way to treat the precious gift that is the earth. Farmers knew they must progress to better methods of raising crops. Tree lines were planted to slow down the wind, terraces and waterways were built to slow down and redirect runoff, and reservoirs were built to help contain floods. Farmers also started changing their tillage methods to leave residue on the soil for a larger part of the year. All of these new ideas shaped what is now known as “conservational farming,” a form of environmentally-friendly farming that is practiced widely across America, as well as many other countries, today.

In the late 20th century, a new method of conservational farming was developed called “no-till.” The concept of no-till farming is to leave all residues on the soil throughout the year and never till it under. The idea is based off of how plants grow in natural environments. This type of farming not only protects the topsoil from wind and water erosion but also preserves the natural culture of the soil throughout the soil profile whereas tilling can disrupt it. Furthermore, root structure remains to give the soil more strength, water holding capacity, water infiltration, and higher organic matter content. It also promotes earthworms and microorganisms active in the soil. There is a lot going on below the surface!

Issue #2: Additional Herbicide Usage is Required to No-Till Farm

However, you cannot practice no-till farming without the use of herbicides. Therefore, conservational farming has led to an increase in chemical usage in the last several decades. See, without the practice of tilling the soil, a farmer has no way (unless by hand) to kill a crop’s number one enemy: weeds. It would require over 70 million people to hand weed the cropland acres in the USA alone (See below). Herbicides have allowed farmers to easily control weeds and practice no-till and conservational till practices.

Hand Weeding Commercial Crops

No-till farmers spraying weeds at 10 mph with a 120 ft sprayer can cover a field roughly SIX times as fast as a tillage tool pulled behind a tractor going 5 mph and burn a lot less fuel as well. Herbicides are sprayed once or twice during a growing season with or without the crop already growing. This is so much easier for a farmer than the alternative: Tilling the soil 3-4 times prior to planting and cultivating between the rows after planting, which is difficult, slower and has to be done multiple times. As you can see, no-till farming can be of great value to the preservation of the environment!

(Side note: To be clear, farmers who are not no-till still use pesticides. This includes conventional tillage farmers as well as organic farmers (who use natural pesticides). These methods are used for many different management reasons and they are both completely viable practices. Whether or not a farmer decides to till is based on many different variables. We choose to no-till because of the contour of our land, the various weather factors we face, the amount of labor we have available, and the many advantages listed in the previous paragraph.)

Solution: Below you can read about how things like GMOs and cover crops are helping to reduce pesticide usage. It is clear we need to reduce our use of pesticides in agriculture, and the good news is that we will likely see a decrease in pesticide usage over the next several decades.

Benefit #3: Farmers use GM technology to reduce costly inputs like pesticides

GM technology can actually help reduce the amount pesticides. Bt corn and Bt cotton resist the corn borer itself so farmers don’t have to spray (less pesticides). Roundup Ready GM crops provide better weed control that can be provided while the crop is growing. Glyphosate (The Roundup Ready herbicide) is one of the least toxic chemicals available for use, which is why it is so popular among farmers. Safer, more effective chemicals like glyphosate are being developed as we speak. If farmers were not allowed to use GM crops like these, they would have to use more potent chemicals that are active in the soil for a whole growing season and spray multiple times instead of just once, regardless of whether the field was tilled. This is why we say that GMOs reduce pesticide usage.

GMOs are not the only way to reduce herbicide/pesticide usage. Chemicals and fertilizer are some of the highest expenses a farmer has to spend to plant a crop, so minimizing the use of them is a very high priority. Equipment manufacturers are continually implementing new machinery and computer technology to increase the precision and accuracy of chemical application machines (sprayers) to apply these products. This technology extends all the way from inside of the cab to the output at the nozzles:

  • Monitors in sprayers can be calibrated to spray specific amounts of chemical/fertilizer in each part of the field to prevent the slightest amount of over-application.
  • They also keep track of each individual field, knowing where to turn on/off the application in sections to make sure no area is double applied.
  • There are also sensors called “green-seekers” being developed that can, for certain applications, detect green (weeds) and spray only in that one spot so chemical is not wasted empty spaces of the field.
  • Nozzles are always being developed to better apply the spray solution in an ideal consistency to cover the plants but not drift from the desired application area.
  • There is also boom-leveling technology that has been developed to prevent drift by automatically retaining the sprayer booms at a certain height off of the ground.
  • You can see all of these in action in Part 2 of our blog about chemicals:

Another tool that is being developed to decrease herbicide usage is cover crops. Cover crops are plants that are grown in between growing seasons to help keep the ground covered and hold/provide nutrients in the soil for the future desired crop. There are many potential benefits to cover crops, however, they are still being tested and experimented with. One benefit is that if the ground is growing something throughout the entire year, it can dramatically reduce the opportunity for weeds to grow. This, of course, then reduces the need to spray the weeds. Livestock can also graze cover crops. In this way, the livestock are controlling the weeds/cover crops for the farmer instead of herbicides. Cover crops won’t eliminate the need for herbicides completely but they could potentially lower the use of them quite a bit.

More and more farmers are adopting these technologies as they become more and more available and affordable. Conveniently, less chemical usage is best for the environment as well as for a farmer’s pocketbook so this technology pays for itself. It doesn’t make sense for farmers to use more chemicals than they have to, because they cost so much. Farmers and manufacturers will continue to identify the problems in chemical application as well as continue to find solutions.

Issue #3: Pesticide use in farming is still very high. Large, Agri-Business companies are taking home most of the profit. The whole process caters to larger, more efficient farms and larger, more efficient businesses.

There is, of course, the issue of who is profiting from selling these expensive technologies (such as GMOs and pesticides). It is true that the ones benefitting the most from these technologies are chemical companies and seed companies. I wish it were different, that the farmers were the ones taking home most of the profit. However, this is simply a result of the free market society we have in place. These companies have created products that help farmers grow more food with less inputs. Farmers are willing to pay these companies thousands of dollars for their products. That is why the large seed and pesticide companies are making a lot of money. There is no “buying out” of farmers happening, and farmers still have all sorts of freedom to choose what kind of crops to plant. If farmers want to make more money, we have to find a way to make our product appealing enough to consumers, so that they will spend higher amounts of money. That is essentially what organic farmers are doing. (Although I mentioned earlier that organic food at its core isn’t “better” or “different” nutritionally than conventional food)

This system, along with many other variables, has resulted in less farms with more acreage. Does this mean that these farms are taking over family farms? Not necessarily. What I have seen in my travels is that most of the time it is the family farms becoming larger to adapt to the changes being made in the agricultural industry. Family farms still make up 96% of all farms in America, and that percentage doesn’t seem to be going down. (See: The Definition of Family Farming)

The free market system caters to larger, more efficient farms and larger, more efficient businesses. That is why there are so many successful businesses in America that are huge (Microsoft, Apple, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, etc). That is just how industry in the free market works. Keep in mind that a lot of the money these companies make is poured back into research of new products and new technology. You can hate on this system if you want, but in my opinion, without these huge companies, our country (and other countries around the world) would not be as well off.

It is the same thing in agriculture. There are huge companies in agriculture with a lot of money (John Deere, Case IH, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow) and it doesn’t always seem fair that they are making most of the profit. But these companies (as well as all of the other large companies I failed to mention) are responsible for most of the research, technology, and development that we’ve seen in the last several decades. GMOs cost millions of dollars and take many years to get approved. There is a lot of research going into safer, more effective pesticides. Who else has millions of dollars to fund this research besides these large agricultural companies? Farming has progressed so much in the last few decades, and we need all the help we can get to continue to progress in the future.

 

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10 thoughts on “Why do farmers use technology like GMOs and pesticides? (Benefits) What are the issues? (Costs)

  1. Pingback: Greg Peterson – Advocate for Truth: GMOs | The Peterson Farm Blog

  2. Thank you for such a balanced, insightful article on a topic fraught with controversy. I must admit tho, (former farm kid working in conventional medicine) when I saw your 70 million workers my first thought was fix unemployment AND the “obesity crisis” in one fell swoop 😉

  3. Civil. Good to read something without threats and forced information.

    Criticisms: many anti-GMO people are not quite sure why they ‘hate’ GMOs. As a farmer who refrains from using sprays, yet does not believe in the organic label. I am surprised that your blog does not mention that many “commercial organic” farms use pesticides and herbicides. If Sprays are an issue for organic consumers. Then they need to know the truth that organic farms are allowed to use thos “so called harmful” sprays that they fear. Round up may not be one those sprays, but if these are the issues why the hypocrac?

  4. Is it absolutely, definitively proven that Roundup and Bt do not harm gut bacteria within humans? Sometimes “safe” can be proven otherwise as time goes on. Maybe they really are safe in all respects, but if they are not, if the balance and health of our gut bacteria are genuinely harmed by Bt and Roundup, we may soon find out that the harm was no small thing.

    Remember: Physicians once prescribed cigarette smoking for lung health. New mommies were told that formula was far superior to breast milk. Cardiologists and the American Heart Association advocated the use of margarine rather than butter for the health benefits. All horrible “scientifically based” beliefs that caused illness and death.

    I only say this because the science is not settled and until it is, advance with cautious optimism.

    • monsanto also created and scientifically proved the ‘safety’ of DDT, there were also hundreds of private studies that proved it safe, but this “safe” product caused hundreds of species of birds of prey to become a now endangered species.as well as killing fish, deforming frogs, etc. and now we are trusting the same company who made DDT and Angent Orange to tell sell us yet again another “safe product”
      we need to wake up and look through the history of these companies selling us these products because they are just repeating history over again.

      • It is not quite the “same company.” The Monsanto who created those things is long gone. They pretty much overthrew their company in the ’90s. Look it up.

        Besides, Monsanto is not the only company making GMOs. This isn’t just about Monsanto.

      • The “old” monsanto did not overthrow and in fact the “new” one are still basically one and the same they just changed there study to exclusive bio engineering

        “1980s onward: transgenic development[edit]
        Monsanto scientists were among the first to genetically modify a plant cell, publishing their results in 1983.[5] Five years later, Monsanto conducted the first field tests of genetically engineered crops.
        In 1985, Monsanto acquired G. D. Searle & Company, a life sciences company focusing on pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and animal health. In 1993, Monsanto’s Searle division filed a patent application for Celebrex,[36][37] which in 1998 became the first selective COX‑2 inhibitor to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).[38] Celebrex became a blockbuster drug and was often mentioned as a key reason for Pfizer’s acquisition of Monsanto’s pharmaceutical business in 2002.[39]

        In 1994, Monsanto introduced a recombinant version of bovine somatotropin, brand-named Posilac.[40] Monsanto later sold this business to Eli Lilly and Company.

        §1996 to present: growth into world’s largest-grossing seed company[edit]
        In 1996, Monsanto purchased Agracetus, the biotechnology company that had generated the first transgenic varieties of cotton, soybeans, peanuts, and other crops, and from which Monsanto had already been licencing technology since 1991.[41] Monsanto first entered the maize seed business when it purchased 40% of DEKALB in 1996; it purchased the remainder of the corporation in 1998.[42] In 1998 Monsanto purchased Cargill’s seed business, which gave it access to sales and distribution facilities in 51 countries.[43] In 2005, it finalized the purchase of Seminis Inc, a leading global vegetable and fruit seed company, for $1.4 billion.[44] This made it the world’s largest conventional seed company at the time.

        The reason i focus alot on Monsanto is because they are the leaders in the GMO industry and in fact are the Mother company to many of the smaller GMO buisness’s in the industry.

        I live in Southwestern Manitoba Canada and my sister and Aunt and Uncle saw either you or one of your brothers Speak at AG days in Brandon Mb this year. As you probalbly already know zero-till really shines in dry areas because it helps retain moisture so i think that this system would work very well in Kansas.

        another farm you may be interested in is Gabe Browns farm, he has a very healthy soil and i have just started to learn about him but it lookss similar to the model i described

        http://brownsranch.us/?id=13

        thanks again

  5. I also mentioned that in some of my previous comments about organic zero till which requires the use of no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, cultivation, and no synthetic fertilization (making sythetic N takes up 2% of worlds petroleum). it does this by;

    Year 1 -planting and growing a cover crop (usually a legume) and before the cover crop goes to seed we roll it with a roller crimper and it the cover crop lays on soil like a mulch.

    year 2- seed cash crop into mulch with a disc drill. the mulch will suppress weeds from germination, and if it was a legume like hairy vetch will fix up to 120lbs o f N/acre, plus it will build and add organic matter and build topsoil at a fast rate. and the crop will fight off bad fungi and bugs by itself if it has a high brix (sugar) level because bugs cannot digest a high sugar content plant. and because there is no tillage and no killicides that are killing your beneficial bugs, microbes, and fungi they are all busy breaking down residues, converting N from the air into ammonia for the plant for FREE and bringing up nutrients from the bottom of your aerobic zone to the roots. the Plant releases half its sugar every day into the soil which feeds all these microbes and gives them energy to do these things, it is synergy.

    year three- in the spring you can either use a high speed tillage unit like a Joker or Pro-till that only tills the top inch or two of soil OR if you are really against tillage you can spray agricultural Vinegar (same as table vinegar just more concentrated) which kills all plants by drying them out and they can never build a resistance to it because it doesnt poison them it withers them by sucking the water out.
    then you can seed another cash crop and can spray sugar water, microbial tea, calcium, phosphorous, or other minerals you need. (go to Back to Your Roots website for more info)
    all this is to create a healthy soil teeming with microbes and fungi that make plant usuable nutrients from the air! the plants get 90% of everything it needs from the air but it can only do it with a healthy soil which a good population of microbes.

    and then you start this 3 year cycle over again with diferent cash crops and different cover crops depending on what your cash crop needs.

    and when you say that God gave us the knowledge to make GMOs so we should grow them, I have the right to say that God gave us the knowlege to make a nuclear bomb but it doesnt mean we should kill everyone with it

    Just because we have to science and ability to do something doesn’t mean we should do it.

    • Very interesting. I will have to check out the website. Where do you live, just curious? It would be interesting to see if these methods work in dry climates like Kansas. It’s also interesting to think of how we would be able to get to this point.

      I agree with your last part, but it goes both ways. It is a matter of opinion at this point.

  6. Pingback: Chemical Usage in Agriculture | The Peterson Farm Blog

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