The Life Cycle of Swine

We are still working on this blog!

Until we are finished, we will leave some links here of websites we trust to have accurate information:

https://www.pork.org/production-topics/swine-well-humane-treatment-animals/ (Click “resources” and then “production topics”

The Life Cycle of Beef Cattle Production

Stages of Beef Cattle Production

1.   Beginning Stage (Bull + Cow = Calf)

2A. Grass Finished (Middle Stage – Final Stage)

2B. Grain Finished: Backgrounding (Middle Stage)

2C. Grain Finished: Finishing Lot (Final Stage)

  1. Harvest and Processing (End Stage)

Beginning Stage (Bull + Cow = Calf)

Size: Typically in large pastures with 50-100 head of cattle

Location: All over USA

Family Owned: 99%

Diet: Mama Cow’s milk until old enough to eat grass

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Birth Weight – Sell Weight: 150 lbs – 450 lbs

Time in Cycle: 6-8 months

The beginning stage of life for both grass-finished and grain-finished cattle is the same for the first 8-10 months of the animal’s life. All beef cattle eat grass for at least the first half of their lives.

All beef cattle are born to cows. The natural way for a cow to have a calf is unassisted in an open field or pasture. However, if a rancher knows a cow is about to give birth, they will often bring the cow into a barn or shelter for two reasons. The first reason is to protect both the cow and the newborn calf from extreme cold, rain, or snow. Calves are often born in the winter and going from a cozy womb to the freezing cold can result in sickness or death. The second reason is to make it easier for the rancher to help the cow give birth in case there are problems. Often times a rancher will have to “pull” a calf from a cow in order to reduce the pain and sometimes even save the lives of both the animals.

After birth, the calf will be ear-tagged or branded for identification and will nurse off of its mother for the next 6 to 8 months. Eventually the calf will start to graze grass alongside its mother until it is weaned from milk entirely. Up to this point, the lives of all beef cattle are the same. From here they will either become reproducing cows/bulls or they will be fed out for beef consumption.

Life Cycle of a Cow/Bull

Size: Typically in large pastures with 50 to 100 head of cattle

Location: All over USA

Family Owned: 99%

Diet: Grass, Forage, Roughage (Grazing)

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 1,500 – 2,000 lbs

Time in Cycle: 5 – 10 years

Once calves on grass pasture are weaned off of their mothers, they are sorted into groups based on their gender (male bulls, female heifers). Cows are heifers that were bred by bulls and had a baby calf. Cows have a 9 month gestation period and typically have a calf every 12 months. All cows spend their entire lives (Approx. 7-10 years) grazing on grass or forage and mothering baby calves. When they are no longer able to have calves, cows are harvested for beef (see final stage).

Bulls are calves that are not castrated and bred specifically with dominant genetics to produce superior offspring when fully grown. There are typically 2 or 3 older bulls per cowherd of 50. Bulls can sense when cows go into heat and will mate with them at that time. Ranchers also artificially inseminate cows with bull semen when they are in heat to help guarantee the cow will have calf.

2A. Life Cycle of Grass Finished Beef (Middle to Final Stage)

Size: 100 head – 3,000 head

Location: All over USA

Family Owned: Approx. 99%

Diet: Grass, Forage, Roughage (Grazing)

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 450 pounds to market weight

Time in Cycle: 6-8 months – 3 years

Once calves on grass pasture are weaned off of their mothers, they are sorted into groups of bulls and heifers. Some become steps B and C (Bulls and Cows). The others will be castrated (if they are bulls) and will spend the remainder of their days grazing on grass until they are fat enough to harvest.

2B. Life Cycle of Grain Finished Beef (Middle Stage)

Size: Between 500 and 2,000 head

Location: Typically Midwest/Western USA

Family Owned: Approx. 90%

Diet: Grass, Hay, Roughage with increasing amounts of silage and grain

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 450 pounds – 850 pounds

Time in Cycle: 6-8 months – 12-14 months

Once calves on grass pasture are weaned off of their mothers, they are sorted into groups (Large, small, bulls, heifers) and sold to the next producer. Calves are bought and sold all over the country, which provides a very competitive market, resulting in lower costs. A lot of the calves in the east are shipped out to the west where weather, food supply and conditions are better suited to grow them. The calves spend their next year of life at a backgrounding feedlot like ours. When calves arrive at a backgrounding feedlot, they spend the first couple of days recovering from the stress of being sold, traveling up to several hours, and adjusting to a new place. Our new calves are greeted with a bunk full of feed and hay and a smaller pen that opens into shelter from the elements. The smaller pen helps keep them close to their food and water so they know where to find it. We also pitch hay by hand to help them get used to us. Within the next week, calves are typically vaccinated to help prevent them from possible sickness during their stay. The calves are then ear tagged if they were branded or re-ear tagged if they were already tagged.

The next 3-5 months for cattle in a backgrounding feedlot is spent eating. At the beginning of their stay the diet will be primarily grasses and forages with only a hint of grains being introduced. By the end of their stay, cattle will be consuming about 75% forages and 25% grain. Watch the video for more on what we feed our cattle in a backgrounding lot. Each day, cattlemen will survey each animal to determine if they are sick. If cattle happen to get sick in a backgrounding feedlot, they will be administered antibiotics to help them fight the sickness. They will be separated from the rest of the herd until they recover. The risk of sickness is more prevalent in a feedlot compared to on grass, but only a small minority of the animals ever has to deal with sickness.

When the animals have reached the weight of approximately 850 pounds, they are once again sorted by weight and sold to a finishing yard to be fattened for market. Most cattle are not shipped as far in this step as they were in the previous step, resulting in minimal stress on the animal.

2C. Life Cycle of Grain Finished Beef (Final Stage)

Size: 3,000 + head

Location: Midwestern to Western USA

Family Owned: Approx 50%

Diet: Silage, Grain

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 850 pounds to 1300 pounds

Time in Cycle: 4-6 months

The finishing stage of grain-finished beef usually takes place in large finishing yards in the west. This stage is similar to the middle stage in most everything but diet. Cattle once again recover from transfer, are given a second vaccination, and are given antibiotics if they get sick. The primary differences between finishing yards and backgrounding lots are the size of operation and the diet content. Most finishing yards have a large capacity for thousands of animals.

Slaughter/Harvest of All Beef Cattle (End Stage)

When cattle are at a finished weight (Approx. 1300 pounds) they are taken to a processing plant to be harvested and made into beef as well as many other products. If you would like to learn more about this process, please watch the following video (it is somewhat graphic in nature):

The Welfare of Livestock Today

  1. Why Do We Raise Animals for Food and Products?
  2. The Welfare of Livestock Today
  3. Conclusion: The Welfare of Livestock Compared to the Welfare of Humans, Pets, Wildlife

Up to this point, you have read about – why farmers raise livestock – and – what life in each segment of the industry looks like. This blog will discuss the welfare of livestock and will answer the question, “Does the current system of livestock production make it worth it for an animal to be born in the first place?” as discussed in the introduction.

When discussing animal welfare, the thing most people seem to be confused with is the difference between an animal that is “uncomfortable,” and an animal that is “suffering/abused.” We will discuss those definitions below.

When are livestock animals “uncomfortable?”

All beings experience some level of “uncomfortable” for a portion of their lives. This goes for humans, livestock, wildlife, pets, etc. The desire of most humans is to minimize being “uncomfortable” in their lives. The same goes for livestock producers and animals. While livestock owners do care for their animals for ethical reasons, they also care for their animals for financial reasons. If an animal is not comfortable, they will not produce well. Research has shown if animals are stressed, the finished product (meat, milk, or eggs) will not be as high of quality. It doesn’t make any sense to restrict comfort on a livestock operation.

Like I said, there are times in life where humans are uncomfortable and can’t do much about it. For instance:

  • When you have to spend time outside in the heat, cold, rain, snow, or wind
  • When something minor is wrong with you physically
  • When you are doing a job you do not enjoy (for some people a career!)
  • When you are put in claustrophobic situations
  • When you are waiting in line
  • When you break up with a girlfriend/boyfriend
  • Dentist and doctor’s appointments
  • Awkward situations

The list goes on and on. The fact is, humans spend part of their lives in a place they do not necessarily enjoy. However, this time we spend being uncomfortable does not mean we cannot enjoy life. We simply wait it out until it gets better (which is usually very soon).

The same goes for livestock. There are times in the lives of animals where they are uncomfortable and there’s not much a farmer can do to change it. However, that does not mean the animals do not enjoy their lives. For instance:

When they are stuck out in the heat, cold, rain, snow, or wind

Farmers do everything they can in order to maximize the level of comfort for animals. In fact, the indoor “CAFOs” (confined animal feeding operations) that people get the most upset over provide some of the best comfort you can find – temperature control and protection from the elements. In northern climates, the extremely cold weather makes bringing animals inside an obvious choice for their welfare. It is the best decision, both for the producer and the animals. Animals (especially cattle) that are kept outside during extreme weather usually adapt fairly well. Cattle are basically wearing a leather coat at all times and regulate their body temperature by how much they eat. When it gets cold, they eat a lot!

Our cattle eat more in the winter to stay warm. They are provided with wind break and plenty of food.

Our cattle eat more in the winter to stay warm. They are provided with wind break and plenty of food.

When they are packed together in tight places (transport, handling)

Transporting, handling, sorting, and doctoring animals can be uncomfortable as well, but these times represent a fraction of the animal’s lives. Livestock get transported for (at most) a few hours (at most) every 2-3 months. They are handled every few weeks, depending on a variety of factors. They are doctored only when needed. For some, this can be 5-6 times in their life. For others, they may never need to be doctored. This goes for humans as well. Overall, even when you add all of these things together in their worst-case scenario, it represents less than 1% of the life of an animal.

Cattle being loaded into a trailer. They don't particularly like the process, but it is a huge part of the efficiency of the industry.

Cattle being loaded into a trailer. They don’t particularly like the process, but it is a huge part of the efficiency of the industry.

When they are in annoying situations (muddy pen conditions)

Many “undercover videos” of livestock farms show animals living in the worst possible conditions you can think of. Mud and slop up to their knees and dark, damp buildings. While a lot of the videos are heavily edited or acted out to make the conditions look much worse than they really are, pen and housing conditions can go downhill if not maintained or if weather conditions are extreme. However, walking around in mud and slop is not “suffering/abuse.” In some cases, it would fit into the “uncomfortable category.” In other cases, mud and slop can be somewhat of a comfort to animals, especially cattle and pigs. Pigs prefer laying in the mud and so do cattle on hot days. Even cattle in pasture will go tromp in a pond or muddy area to stay cool and relax. In outdoor conditions “mud and slop” would be a mix of wet soil and manure. On the other hand, when this occurs inside of a building, it is most likely 100% manure getting on the animal, which is a little gross, but animals do not have the same standard of clean as humans have, as evidenced by the cattle and pigs who bathe and drink out of the same ponds they relieve themselves in. In any case, producers should do their best to keep their pens/housing clean and I believe the vast majority do so.

Cleaning our cattle pens to prevent build-up of manure.

Cleaning our cattle pens to prevent build-up of manure.


To summarize, if we had to go to the dentist every day or take a ten-hour car ride once a week, we would not enjoy life as much. But a dentist appointment every year or so, and a road trip every few months is not so bad. Animals spend the majority of their lives feeling comfortable. Being uncomfortable sometimes is a part of life, and that is the same for humans as it is for animals.

When are animals “suffering/abused?”

As humans, we should know the difference between suffering and being uncomfortable. We’ve talked about what being uncomfortable as a human looks like. Here are some examples of human suffering:

  •             Deprivation of food or water
  •             When something major is wrong physically
  •             Sickness or disease
  •             Physical, Emotional, or Mental Abuse
  •             Slavery, Deprivation of Human Rights

Animals are similar to humans in this category, however they are not exactly the same when it comes to emotional needs and animal “rights.” Abuse leads to suffering, and in livestock, suffering can lead to death. When livestock producers lose animals to death, it can be extremely costly (an animal is typically worth thousands of dollars) and can put an operation out of business. Therefore, just like with comfort, producers must do everything they can to avoid abuse or suffering.

Deprivation of food or water

Livestock, except in extreme situations, are always well fed and well watered. This is especially true of “CAFOs” and confined operations. Pastured livestock may run out of food or water, especially in times of drought, but animals confined on the farm generally always have ample supplies of food and water in storage. If a producer does happen to run out of resources, they will transport or sell their animals to another location so they do not suffer or die (would result in thousands of dollars of losses).

Even cattle on CAFOs are always provided with adequate food and water, something many humans in the world do not have.

Even cattle on CAFOs are always provided with adequate food and water, something many humans in the world do not have.

When something major is wrong physically

Animals on livestock farms do sometimes injure themselves or develop physical problems. Farmers will discover animals that have internal or external injuries that are causing them pain or suffering. The farmer will do everything they can to save the animal as long as it is possible and cost efficient. However, an injury can sometimes result in the animal being put down or harvested for meat earlier in life than planned. Is this abuse? No, on the contrary, it is relieving the animal of pain. Is the death of an animal for meat unethical? No. (Refer to the introduction of these blogs)

Sickness or disease

Humans get sick. It is a part of life. In order to truly live, we put ourselves at the risk of getting sick. Nearly all humans will experience some sort of sickness in their lives. We do all that we can to prevent sickness and disease and that includes eating right, exercising, and getting vaccinated for certain diseases.

The same goes for livestock. In order to raise animals for food, livestock producers risk these animals getting sick. However, unlike humans, there are many animals that do not get sick during their life. Livestock operations do everything they can to prevent sickness and disease, and that includes providing animals with the right nutrition and vaccinating them for certain diseases. The overwhelming majority of animals on livestock farms spend the overwhelming majority of their lives free from sickness.

Our cattle are handled within a few days of arriving on our farm to receive vaccinations to prevent them from getting sick.

Our cattle are handled within a few days of arriving on our farm to receive vaccinations to prevent them from getting sick.

Now, it is true that in some cases (beef, dairy) having animals on open pasture instead of confined in a pen can prevent sickness. However, it is also true that in some cases (swine, poultry), keeping animals confined inside year round can prevent sickness. It is not a simple equation as to whether or not you should keep animals on open pasture or confined in a building. Each farmer has to make a decision based on the type of livestock they own, the climate they live in, and the resources they have. One type of method might be the “best,” but it might not be practical for everyone, and doesn’t mean the other methods are “bad.”

Physical, Emotional, or Mental Abuse

This category (and the next) is where animals differ somewhat from humans. It is important to remember that while we do compare animals to humans to make discussion points, animals are not humans! You will find this very obvious the more time you spend around them. Animals have different physical needs, different emotional needs, and a different level of pain tolerance than humans do.

Physical abuse is seen in some of the “undercover videos” about the livestock industry. This can include repeated beating of animals, making them bleed, etc. This is clearly physical abuse and should not happen, ever. However, many people think routine things farmers do to animals (prodding, branding, ear tagging, castration, docking, shearing, etc.) are physical abuse as well. Those things are pains that are necessary in order to raise these animals for food in a cost efficient way. They are better for the animal/producer in the long run. They only last a few seconds or a few minutes at most (if done correctly), and then the animal is free from pain. Humans undergo similar pains in order to live their lives efficiently. Doctor’s appointments, surgery, wisdom teeth, etc. Could livestock be raised without some of these things? Yes. Is putting animals through these things abuse? No.

Emotional abuse can be hard to measure in an animal. Livestock do show emotions such as excitement, curiosity, and fear. To abuse an animal emotionally would be to remove excitement and adventure from an animal’s life and/or to have them live in constant fear. If you’ve ever been to a livestock farm, you will see that the livestock are curious and get excited at various times. A sad animal is very easy to spot: Droopy demeanor, separation from the herd, and less of an appetite. This is usually associated with a sick animal. Animals do experience sickness on a farm (discussed above) and experience fear in certain situations (sudden movements, wild animal attacks, when they are cornered), but as with other forms of pain/suffering/uncomfortable feelings, these moments are few and far in between on the vast majority of livestock farms. Livestock spend most of their time happy and relaxed.

Mental abuse would be to remove a livestock animal from all other animals and deprive it of attention. Just like a pet, livestock animals prefer to live in community with other beings (preferably of the same species). On livestock farms, big and small, hundreds or thousands of animals are together to interact with.

***Physical, emotional, and mental abuse should never be tolerated in humans or in livestock farming. We should do everything we can to eliminate these things from our society. However, just as it is incredibly hard to completely eliminate human abuse in society, it is hard to eliminate animal abuse as well. There will always be bad apples, the 1% of the population that gives the rest a bad name. Screwed up people with screwed up minds that will abuse other beings. This is a result of the imperfect world we live in, and that is not going to change anytime soon. But we can fight against these things, and farmers are committed to stopping abuse. Please do not judge the majority of us by the actions of a few of us.***

Slavery, Deprivation of Rights

Opponents of animal agriculture believe that livestock farming can be compared to human slavery. I believe this is flawed because of the core statement of animal agriculture found in the introduction: “Most livestock animals would not have the opportunity to live if they were not born into livestock operations.” Humans, on the other hand, are capable of surviving, multiplying, and thriving outside of “slavery” and we can see that pretty clearly.

Opponents of animal agriculture also believe that animals are deprived of their rights when raised on livestock farms. I firmly disagree with this opinion as well. As I have mentioned already, humans are different than animals. Human rights are outlined in various constitutional documents. I think we all understand basic human rights. Animal rights on the other hand, don’t really exist in nature. Animals will rip other animals to shreds in order to survive. Nature can be pretty nasty. However, because we are humans and have a concept of what is right and fair, I believe there are certain “animal rights” that animals should have in the realm of livestock farming:

  •             Adequate food and water
  •             Adequate space
  •             Adequate comfort
  •             Adequate emotional contact (exploration, interaction w/ other animals, etc.)

I believe that this “quality of life” is provided on the vast majority of livestock farms and I have detailed that in this and in previous sections.

Summary

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Livestock farmers must treat their animals well to stay in business. Although animal agriculture is not perfect, I believe that the current state of animal welfare on livestock farms is adequate and ethical 99% of the time.

Livestock animals, regardless of the sector they are in, live good, enjoyable lives that make it worth being born. In fact, animals on farms live more enjoyable lives than a lot of humans, which I will talk more about in the next section (link below).

However, this does not mean there aren’t improvements to be made. It also does not mean consumers cannot choose a specific way they want their livestock to be raised. I am not against “free-range,” “grass-finished,” “antibiotic-free,” demands, as we live in a free market society and if that is what you are interested in, you should be able to get it (and pay extra for it). However, as this blog outlines, other forms of livestock production are acceptable as well, and those producers should be allowed to make decisions based on that. Eating and using animal products will be a huge part of meeting the needs of a growing population and we will need all types of livestock farms to help meet those demands.

Read part 3 here: Conclusion: The Welfare of Livestock Compared to the Welfare of Humans, Pets, Wildlife

Conclusion: The Welfare of Livestock Compared to the Welfare of Humans, Pets, and Wildlife

 

  1. Why Do We Raise Animals for Food and Products?
  2. The Welfare of Livestock Today
  3. Conclusion: The Welfare of Livestock Compared to the Welfare of Humans, Pets, Wildlife

Humans: Many humans live extremely luxurious lives. However, there is more human suffering in our world today than many realize. There are 30 million human slaves still living in the world. 80% of those involve sexual exploitation. There are 3 billion people living in poverty. 1.3 billion of those people live on less than $1.25 a day. There are 870 million people who are chronically undernourished. Each year, 4 million women suffer from domestic abuse and 3 million children suffer from child abuse. 3.5 million people in the United States are homeless. Millions also suffer every day from diseases, injuries, emotional trauma, and mental illness.

Livestock: There are over 10 billion livestock animals in the United States. These animals (including the “factory farmed” ones) are provided with plentiful food and water. Livestock animals are never homeless, undernourished, or sexually abused. Most of their lives are spent eating, standing, lying down, or sleeping. They are in most cases protected from predators, harsh weather, and each other (power struggles can result in injury or death). The goal of every livestock farmer is to minimize stress as it results in the greatest growth in production. So, while a few cases of abuse to livestock animals are reported each year, this practice is certainly not the norm, and would be considered extremely rare in every livestock circle. The majority of livestock farmers take better care of their animals than some parents take care of their kids. Disease, injury, and illness affect livestock animals in similar ways to humans, but farmers and veterinarians do everything they can to prevent these causes of suffering. As many are quick to point out, livestock animals are indeed slaughtered at the end of their lives, but today’s slaughtering methods are as humane as possible (no pain or stress to the animal) and provide food and products to millions of people around the globe.

Wildlife: Animals in the wild spend their entire lives hunting for food and water. They endure disease, injury, illness, and pain just like humans and livestock. They also must fend for themselves from the weather. Each wild animal (that is not on the top of the food chain) is at the risk of being ripped apart and eaten by predators and/or killed off by animals of the same species in power struggles. Human activity (Cities, roads, industry, etc.) threatens the existence of thousands of species each year. Millions of animals suffer and die in nature. The deaths of wildlife animals (excluding hunting) provide little to no benefit to humans in terms of food or products.

Pets: Most pets have extremely comfortable lives, similar to livestock. Food, water, health care, and protection from the elements are provided to pets. Pets spend most of their lives lying around in a stress free environment. However, 6-8 million pets are placed in animal shelters each year. 3-4 million of them are euthanized each year. The death of these pets provides little to no benefit to humans in terms of food or products.

In conclusion: We live in a world full of suffering. We should be doing everything we can to help to reduce and eliminate this suffering in every species around the world. However, we need to keep our priorities in check:

  • We should do our absolute best to take care of our pets, but they are more of a luxury than a necessity. (Their lives/deaths do not provide products to humans)
  • We should do all we can to protect the environment and ecosystems of wildlife animals, but how can we reduce the suffering that goes on naturally in nature? (The wild while natural and beautiful is also a gruesome, dangerous place)
  • Humans undergo the most suffering and abuse on the list. That is extremely sad to me. We should do our best to take care of our own and think of helping others more than we think of pleasing ourselves. Reducing human suffering should be of the highest priority!
  • Livestock animals, on the other hand, are among the creatures that undergo the least amount of suffering on this list. Yet so many people complain and point fingers at the treatment of these animals. Where is the uproar about human suffering? Why aren’t more people human activists? There are definitely ways we can improve our treatment of livestock animals and we should pursue those. However, to expect perfection in livestock production (or any of these categories) is unrealistic in an imperfect world. The use of livestock animals provide food, products, money, and labor to billions of people. Their lives (and inevitable deaths) are what many humans rely on to survive in poverty-stricken countries.

Most would agree that a human life is more valuable than any other life on the planet, but even if you disagree with that statement you must realize that if you want to reduce suffering here on the earth, it has to start with humans. It has to start with us!

Chemical Usage in Agriculture

Table of Contents

  • Part 1: What are the different chemicals used in agriculture?
  • Part 2: Why do farmers use pesticides? What are the issues related to using them?
  • Part 3: How do farmers apply pesticides? (VIDEO)
  • Part 4: Are chemicals such as pesticides used in agriculture safe? For our food? For the environment?

Part 1: What are the different chemicals used in agriculture?

The different types of chemicals used in agriculture are:

  • Herbicides (To kill weeds)
  • Insecticides: (To kill bugs)
  • Fungicides: (To get rid of disease)
  • Soil fumigants, desiccants, harvest aids, and plant growth regulators
  • Natural pesticides: Pesticides are not limited to conventional agriculture. Organic farmers also use a wide variety of natural pesticides to control weeds, insects, and disease. You can learn more about that here.

The term “pesticides” means “to get rid of pests” and refers to all of these groups at once. 80 percent of pesticides in the U.S. are used on the following crops (in order of use): Corn, soybeans, potatoes, cotton, wheat, sorghum, oranges, peanuts, tomatoes, grapes, rice, apples, sugarcane, lettuce, pears, sweet corn, barley, peaches, grapefruit, pecans and lemons.

1-pesticide-use-by-crop

Pesticide usage by crop (Source USDA)

Pesticide use (see chart below) peaked in 1981 and has been on a slow decline ever since. Reasons for the initial rise include no-till agriculture, herbicide resistant crops, and crops like corn and soybeans being planted over more acres. Reasons for the decline include more effective pesticides, better application technology, genetic engineering (GMOs) and new production methods like cover crops. (This is further explained in Part 2)

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Part 2: Why do farmers use pesticides? What are the issues related to using them?

Part 2 is answered in another one of my blogs that you can read here: Why do farmers use technology like GMOs and pesticides? (Benefits) What are the issues? (Costs)

In summary:

Benefits: Increases yield potential, allows a farmer to farm more acres, protects the soil through no-till and conservation methods

Costs: Weed resistance, greater pesticide use, large companies benefit, environmental concerns

Conclusion: Farmers (both conventional and organic) must use pesticides in order to produce enough food to feed the world. Pesticide use peaked in the 1980’s and will continue to decline as farmers and scientists develop new and more effective methods.

Hand Weeding Commercial Crops

Part 3: How do farmers apply chemicals?

In the following video, I will show you how we apply pesticides on our farm:

On our farm, we mainly use broadcast application. Most application in agriculture is done with a machine like you see in the video. Other forms of application include:

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You can learn more about types of application here.

Part 4: Are chemicals such as pesticides used in agriculture safe? For our food? For the environment?

There are several things to remember when it comes to the safety of chemicals in society:

We come into contact with chemicals all of the time. They are not inherently bad.

What do you think of when you hear the word “chemicals?” In today’s society the word “chemicals” has been turned into something we think of as harmful that we should stay away from. Some people are incredibly scared of chemicals and many try to claim they are living a “chemical free” lifestyle. The truth is, there is no way we can stay away from chemicals, they are everywhere! Chemicals make up the earth we live on, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the things we build. Every day you interact with thousands of chemicals. Even food in its most basic form is full of chemicals, like this banana.

ingredients of a banana

Chemicals are not inherently bad. Chemicals can be used to do a lot of good in a lot of different places. In agriculture we’ve used chemicals to help produce food more efficiently (as detailed in Part 1-2). But how do we know whether a chemical is good or bad for you? The answer is its toxicity.

Toxicity: The dose makes the poison.

Any substance can be dangerous depending on how much of it you are exposed to or consume. If you ate 100 bananas in one day you would probably get sick. If you drink 10 gallons of water, you will probably die. However, bananas and water are obviously not very dangerous. When it comes to the safety of any particular substance, the way scientists tell how dangerous it is comes from looking at its toxicity. If a substance is more toxic, it takes less exposure to it to be dangerous. If it is less toxic, it takes more exposure to it to be dangerous. The dose makes the poison.

So how toxic are the chemicals used in agriculture? Let’s look at the toxicity levels for different pesticides used in both conventional and organic farming, compared to household items.

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The most toxic pesticides are no longer used. Agriculture has transitioned to using safer chemicals. Most used today have very low toxicity.

When pesticides were first introduced, farmers were using chemicals that were very toxic. Those pesticides have long since been removed from application and today have been replaced by safer (less toxic) ones like glyphosate. Glyphosate (the most popular herbicide in agriculture) is the least toxic agro-chemical on the list. This is one of the reasons farmers have used it so much instead of other chemicals over the years. Another reason is because glyphosate resistant plants (GMOs) were developed so that farmers could control weeds post emergence with a safer chemical like glyphosate. Household items more toxic than glyphosate include baking soda, table salt, Tylenol, and caffeine.

“The science and our understanding of chemical risk evolves and EPA continues to reevaluate each pesticide’s safety every 15 years. EPA’s continuous reevaluation of registered pesticides, combined with strict FQPA standards, major improvements in science, and an increase in the use of safer, less toxic pesticides, has led to an overall trend of reduced risk from pesticides.” – E.P.A.

Insecticides and fungicides have, in general, a higher toxicity than herbicides. This is mainly because herbicides are designed to affect plants, not animals. This is another reason glyphosate is considered a safer chemical, because it is a herbicide. Over the last 50 years, the use of safer herbicides has risen while the use of insecticides and fungicides has declined.

Pesticide use over the years:

  • Herbicides in 1960: 18 percent of pesticides 2008: 76 percent of pesticides
  • Insecticides in 1960: 58 percent of pesticides 2008: 6 percent of pesticides
  • Fungicides: Have remained at approximately 7 percent of pesticides
  • (Soil fumigants, desiccants, harvest aids, and plant growth regulators make up the remaining 11 percent)

Pesticides (like any substance) are not dangerous if consumed at a low enough rate. Just because a pesticide residue is detected in food, does not mean the food is unsafe.

As mentioned in part 3 of this blog, when farmers spray crops the spray is very diluted and only a very small amount of active ingredient is used per acre. Of that amount, most is activated by the plant/soil, does its job, and becomes non-active and unable to do any harm. There is always a possibility that a very small amount will not activate and will persist and could possibly make it into the food supply as a residue.

Therefore, it is true that very small amounts of pesticides may remain on fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods. This is why you see a lot of information on the internet about “pesticide residues” in our food. However, these residues decrease considerably as crops are harvested, transported, exposed to light, washed, prepared and cooked. Because of this, the amount of pesticides found in the food and water you drink would be (and is) incredibly small. Based on the toxicity chart above, you would have to consume hundreds of pounds of food each day to reach a toxicity level of pesticides that would be dangerous to your health. The reason for this is because the chemicals would be so incredibly diluted by the time they reach the food supply. The EPA is responsible for managing our exposure to pesticide residues here in the United States. There are specific regulations that have been put in place to keep the level of synthetic pesticides found in food hundreds of times below what could harm you. (Source: EPA)

There are also many natural pesticides consumed by humans each day that are just as toxic or more so to humans, but are still below the rate that would be considered dangerous to our health:

“About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators. We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.” – Dr. Bruce Ames (Source: California Berkeley)

If synthetic pesticides were truly causing all the things they have been claimed to cause (cancer, disease, etc.), farmers would be having severe health problems.

Farmers have been working with synthetic pesticides for the last 50-60 years. Farmers have a much greater risk of skin or lung exposure to pesticide, as it would be much more dangerous because it has not been diluted yet. This is why farmers wear protective gear when applying pesticides. There are no statistics showing farmers are having severe health problems from pesticides more than the general public. Our family even eats our GMO, pesticide-sprayed, corn straight from the field, after washing it of course (See video below) and we have not had any health issues.

Eating organic does not necessarily mean you will be exposing yourself to less pesticide residue.

As we’ve talked about in previous sections of this blog, organic farms can and will use natural pesticides to fight off pests in their fields. And as you can see in the toxicity chart, there are pesticides that organic farmers use that are much more toxic than pesticides conventional farmers use. Eating organic food will significantly lower your exposure to synthetic pesticides, but you can still be exposed to pesticide residues just as high or higher than regular food. But remember, as stated above, the EPA keeps both of these residues far below the level that could cause you harm.

Environmental concerns about pesticides are real and should be taken seriously.

There are many environmental concerns about pesticides and there are many people working on finding solutions to the problems associated with their use. As technology (better application, better chemicals) has developed, pesticide usage has and will decline, which will hopefully reduce some of these issues.

Keep in mind that much of human activity has a negative effect on the environment. Industries (exhaust from vehicles, planes, manufacturing plants, etc.), human/animal waste, construction, deforestation, mining, and a growing population in general are all harming the environment more than pesticides are. The best thing we can do is try to find solutions for all these problems and minimize our environmental impact as much as possible while still functioning as a society and minimizing human suffering (providing people with adequate food and shelter).

Eat healthy food, exercise often, and talk to the experts about your food.

As you can see, there are a lot of misconceptions about chemicals in agriculture and chemicals in general. It is best to talk to experts about these things and not just rely on what you see on the internet. Those experts include scientists, dietitians, toxicologists, and farmers.

There are a lot of things that contribute to the health epidemic in America and around the world. We eat too much sugar. We eat too many bad fats. We eat too much in general. We don’t exercise. We are too busy and operate under high stress levels. We eat out and don’t cook for ourselves. Chemicals are most likely not what is causing the main health problems. Even if they are, it is much more likely the chemicals we use around the house (cleaners, etc.), the chemicals in the air (pollution), medicines (side effects) and the chemicals we don’t think about (caffeine, tobacco, alcohol) that are causing the problems, not the extremely highly diluted pesticide residues you find in food.

In conclusion, food is never 100% safe. Neither is life. We must continue to use chemicals to have a functioning society and feed a growing population. It is important that we regulate these chemicals to prevent misuse and abuse. It is also important that we look for ways to use less chemicals and develop chemicals that are less toxic. However, as long as there are weeds, bugs, and diseases, there will be pesticides. And unless you grow your own food and hand pull the weeds and stomp on the bugs, you will have to deal with the reality of what we’ve talked about on this blog. I hope you’ve learned something from reading this, please leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer it!

 

 

 

Advocating for Truth: GMOs

Table of Contents

  1. What are GMOs?
  2. What are GMOs not? 
  3. Why do farmers use technology such as GMOs and pesticides? 
  4. My perspective on the safety and sustainability of GMOs 
  5. My perspective as a Christian on GMOs 
  6. Questions and comments from readers answered
  7. Additional Resources

 

What are GMOs?

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, will also be referred to in this blog as GM Food, GM Crops, GM Products, Genetic Engineering, and Biotechnology. Genetic engineering does not just exist in food, products such as insulin, aspartame, and the Hepititis B vaccine are all GMOs. This blog will mainly focus on GM crops, or biotechnology. Biotechnology in plant agriculture is the process of intentionally making a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism and using it in another plant. Humans have been intentionally changing the genetics of crops since the beginning of their existence. In fact, every single fruit, vegetable, and grain that is grown by farmers today has been genetically altered (through hybrids and selective breeding) to produce better taste, yield, or disease/drought/insect resistance. While GM Crops are slightly different than hybrids, they are simply the newest form of this type of technology and have been around since the early 1990s.

Comprehensive list of GM Crops in the USA

  •   Corn (88 percent of USA crop)
  •   Soybeans (93 percent of USA crop)
  •   Cotton (94 percent of USA crop)
  •   Canola (90 percent of USA crop)
  •   Sugar Beets (90 percent of USA crop)
  •   Papayas (75 percent of USA crop)
  •   Alfalfa
  •   Squash

Wheat is not a GM crop, but as mentioned previously has been significantly genetically altered since the beginning of human history. If you know a farmer that grows one or more of these crops, there is a very good chance they are a GM crop farmer.

Who Grows GMOs?

List of GM products

While it is possible (difficult, but possible) to avoid foods containing GM crops, it is practically impossible to avoid GM products altogether:

  • Food for Human Consumption: While the majority of GM crops to go biofuels and animal feed, GMO ingredients are found in many food products in the grocery store. (Aside from the organic food aisle) Link: List of GM Foods
  • Food for Animal Consumption: The majority of U.S. corn, soybeans and alfalfa grown using GMO seed (as mentioned above) are used for livestock feed. Unless the meat is labeled “certified organic,” the chance that the livestock had consumed GM Crops is very high. Livestock by-products account for thousands of products you use every day. Link: Livestock By-Products
  • Other Uses: GM products are used in fuel for your automobiles, fiber for your clothes, medicines, road/building construction materials, printer inks, adhesives, etc. An average person has more than likely consumed GM crops or used GM products every single day in the last year.

What do GM crops look like? Are GM crops “poisonous” or “toxic?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj79vecUZv4

What are GMOs not? (Debunking common myths)

Under researched

  • There have been over 2,000 independent, peer-reviewed studies done on the safety of GM Crops. Link: GMO Safety Study
  • There have been over 1 trillion meals consumed by livestock containing GM products. Not a single sickness or death has occured. Link: Trillion Meal Study
  • After reviewing thousands of studies, the following medical organizations support GMOs: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Medical Association, American Society for Microbiology, Australian Academy of Sciences, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, British Medical Association, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, European Commission, European Food Safety Authority, Federation of Animal Science Societies, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, French Academy of Science, Indian National Science Academy, Institute of Food Technologists, International Council for Science, International Union of Food Science and Technology, Italian National Academy of Science, Mexican Academy of Sciences, National Academies of Science (United States), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Royal Society (United Kingdom), World Health Organization
  • Click this link for: Over 600 published safety assessments

Different in Appearance and Nutritional Value to Non-GMO:

  • GM Crops are identical to non-GM Crops in appearance as well as nutritional value. When compared next to each other, there is literally no difference in physical makeup. Nutritional value of a crop can vary due to many factors, but if raised with similar methods and in the same location as a non-GMO counterpart, GMO crops show little to no difference in nutrition.
One side of this picture is GM soybeans, the other side is non-GM. Can you tell the difference? (Picture from Missouri farmer Austin Lawrence)

One side of this picture is GM soybeans, the other side is non-GM. Can you tell the difference?  (Photo from Missouri farmer Austin Lawrence)

Only produced by Monsanto

  • There are hundreds of seed companies that a farm family like mine can purchase seeds from. While Monsanto is the largest of all of these companies, by no means do they have a monopoly on the market. As far as GMOs go, there are 3 main seed companies you can buy GMO seeds from, mainly because it is so expensive to bring GMOs to market. The point is that farmers have absolute freedom of choice in the company they buy their seed from. They are not forced to buy from Monsanto.
  • Read my full blog about Monsanto here: https://petersonfarmblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/15-myths-about-the-former-monsanto-company/

Banned in other countries

  • While certain countries have banned the production of GM Crops, most countries (Including the EU) at the very least allow imported goods to contain GM products. The reason GM Crop production has been banned in certain countries is not due to safety concerns, but rather because of negative public perceptions and emotions.

Owned by the seed company while in production

  • I have never met a farmer who feels like they or their crops are “owned” by a GMO seed company. Seed companies do require “stewardship agreements” of farmers to make sure they are not stealing a product the seed company spent millions of dollars to research and produce. In other words, farmers are not allowed to reuse their GMO seeds, but they do own the crops from the purchase of the seed to the sale of the grain. Check out this great blog from a fellow farmer, Brian Scott: My Family Farm Is Not Under Corporate Control

Causing farmers to commit suicide

  • This was a widely publicized rumor about farmers in India who were growing GM Crops and is simply not correct. Read more here: India Farmer Myth

Tumor Producing

  • This was a widely publicized study that claimed rats developed tumors after digesting GMO corn. The study was funded by an anti-GMO organization, was heavily criticized by the scientific community, and was eventually retracted. Read more here: Retracted GMO Study

Pesticide (chemical) Producing

  • The term “pesticide” simply means to get rid of insects and pests. It does not mean that a GM crop contains or produces synthetic chemicals. Take Bt corn for instance. Bt corn produces a protein called Bt. The Bt protein is toxic to bugs, because bugs cannot digest it, so they die. Humans, as well as livestock, can digest Bt proteins, so they do not die (or get sick).

Increasing pesticide/herbicide use

  • GMOs are not responsible for the sudden rise of pesticides and herbicides, but rather the decline in usage since the initial rise. (See section below: Why do farmers use GM Crops?)

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

(By both Greg and Nathan Peterson) There is a lot of information here dealing with crop, soil, and weed science. A lot of this is information I have been taught in high-level college courses I have taken. Even after taking these classes, I still feel like I don’t know everything about these topics. That’s what the experts are for. There are experts doing research on the specific things we are discussing at universities (the professors who were teaching me) and research facilities (scientists) around the world. These are the people we should be going to with questions about GMOs, pesticides/herbicides, etc. Not celebrities, soccer moms, and “doctors” who are also talk show hosts trying to market their show. I would also like to clarify that farmers are not unintelligent; they usually know their stuff! They’re using information and products that have been tested and developed by individual scientists/professionals in each area of farming. A farmer is not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a product without knowing how it works. So if you are not able to visit with a professor or a scientist, the next best thing would be to talk to a farmer, whose information base comes from personal, real-life experience, not Internet blog-reading experience that can be unreliable.

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: Herbicide/Pesticide 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

GMO technology can actually help reduce the amount herbicide/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 herbicide/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. Farmers and agricultural researchers will continue to learn how things like cover c

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: Herbicide/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. 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. We’ve talked about all of the great things that are happening and why they are happening. We’ve also talked about the issues that are happening, and how we are working to solve them. Next, we will talk about the health, safety, and sustainability of GMOs.

My perspective on the safety and sustainability of GM Crops

My perspective on the safety and sustainability of GM crops is an opinion that I’ve formed based on the facts presented above. There is nothing wrong with having a different opinion than me! New information can change someone’s opinion, and I will try to keep an open mind about this if you do as well. I will now address the three main questions about GMOs.

Are GM Foods Healthy (Nutritious)?

In my opinion, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. As mentioned earlier in the blog, GM products are exactly the same in nutritional value and physical makeup as their non-GMO counterparts. The argument of whether or not GM products are “healthy” can’t really exist in my opinion, because they are literally the same thing (nutrition-wise) as non-GMO products. A nutrition label on an ear of GM corn would be exactly the same as the label on an ear of non-GM corn. Inserting a gene into a plant does not change its appearance or nutritional value. 

Now, please realize that there are going to be unhealthy foods containing GM products in them (Energy drinks for example). However, this does not mean that the raw GM products (like corn) in these drinks are unhealthy. It is the processing, cooking, and/or mixing of other ingredients with the GM products that can create an unhealthy food or drink. This is one of the main misconceptions I see with the organic food industry. While organic farmers work extremely hard and create nutritious, valuable food products, the original core products of organic food and regular food are the exact same in composition. It is the end product (as well as the production methods used to grow them) that separates the two in the grocery store. You can cook just as wholesome of a meal with GM products as you can with organic food products. But we’ll save that conversation for a separate blog post coming soon.

To summarize, if you are determined to find a reason to stop eating GM food, it should not be because you believe it is a less nutritious product (because it’s not), it should be due more to safety and sustainability concerns, which I will address next.

Are GM Foods safe?

As of today, all signs point to GMOs being safe to consume. There have been over 2,000 independent studies over the last 20 years on this topic. (Link: 2,000 Studies) As shown in the “Eating GM Crops from the Field” video, I have been around GMOs my entire life and I have never seen any indication of any type of danger associated with their production and consumption. I believe most (if not all) GM crop farmers feel the same way. Are there issues with GMOs? Yes, of course. Many of those were explained in the section above (Why do farmers use GMOs?). However, in my opinion, the evidence that *currently* exists does nothing but support the stance of GM foods being safe.

I do realize that this does not guarantee the absolute safety of GMOs. There are new tests on GMOs being performed every day and it may be that some day one of them will come back with a negative side effect. At that point, I would change my opinion on GMOs, because new evidence would show me that there is new truth to be believed. However, until then I will remain convinced that they are indeed “safe.”

I put safe in quotations because, you see, most of what we do in life isn’t safe.

For instance, is it safe to:

  • Ride in or drive an automobile? (Reckless drivers, malfunction)
  • Wear “safety” belts in an automobile? (Seat belts are not 100% effective)
  • To be outside? (Heat, cold, earthquakes, poisonous animals, etc.)
  • To be inside? (Mold, poisonous spiders, etc.)
  • To use medicine? (Side effects anyone?)
  • To use a cell phone? (Where are the long term studies?)
  • To fall in love? (Broken relationships can be detrimental to your health)

Hopefully you get my point. Nothing in this life is really “safe” and without risk. But we participate in these activities because we feel the benefits truly outweigh the perceived risks! Seriously, if you only worry about living “safe” all the time then you probably aren’t truly living. Life is full of risk. Every type of technology comes with risk. That includes GMOs. GM food has never been shown to be dangerous, but that does not mean the risk isn’t still there. I realize there are alternatives to GMOs that some people believe carry less risk, and that is where the organic food (non-GMO) industry comes into play. (Although there are still risks taken by consuming organic food as well) However, not every consumer can afford that choice. That is why one person’s beliefs should not determine another’s beliefs and choices. Every farmer and consumer should be allowed the freedom of what to grow and what to eat! (I talk about that more in the section below, “GMO labeling”)

Are GM Foods environmentally sustainable?

The decision of whether or not to eat GM products is up to you. It is your personal choice. If you choose not to eat them, you can purchase food from the organic aisle in the grocery store. I have no problem with that! Organic producers are some of the hardest working people out there, and I have a lot of respect for them. I just hope you know why you are making that organic food purchase. It cannot be because GMOs are “evil, unhealthy, toxic, poisonous, etc.” They aren’t. It should instead be because, in your specific situation, the possible risks of eating GMOs outweigh the outlined benefits. This is not true for everyone, and I talk about that more in the section below (“GMO labeling”).

What I do have a problem with is people trying to ban GMOs from being produced. Especially when they use false information to accomplish their agenda. (See: What are GMOs not? Debunking GMO Myths) Until there is sufficient evidence that GMOs are harmful to people or to the environment, farmers should be allowed to produce them and consumers should be allowed to consume them. First of all, because we live in a free country. Second of all…

Sustainability. Both for humans and the environment. The population of the world is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. To feed this population, it is estimated that we will need to produce twice as much food then as we are producing now. Available farmland is shrinking back each day due to issues such as urban sprawl. How are we going to sustainably feed this many people? There are 2 options (that I can see) to accomplishing that:

Option 1: Revert back to smaller farms and more farmers. I believe this is what believers on the organic side of things desire. It is definitely the most romantic of the two options. However, there are some issues with this option:

-You see, the amount of farmers and people who want to become farmers is declining each year.. The average age of a farmer is 55 years old and has been increasing for the last couple of decades. Where are the millions of extra farmers (that I think would be required to farm entirely organic) going to come from in 30 years when the older generation of farmers passes away? Farming is a very difficult job, and most people would rather be spending their time working weekdays 9-5, enjoying free weekends, and relying on others to grow their food.

-Another problem is that the current structure of the agricultural industry would have to be overthrown. It’s hard to explain this in detail as the agricultural industry is ridiculously complex, but transforming the operating systems, transportation, storage, etc away from large farms and technology like GM crops would cost trillions of dollars, huge government involvement, and simply isn’t something that could happen over a few years or even decades.

-Finally, a free market system like we have in the USA does not cater well to smaller farms. Just like in every other industry, it favors larger, more efficient farms that can produce food at a lower cost. It is also not possible to force farmers to downsize their operation and to grow their food organically. Farmers are never happy when they are told to change their operation after they have worked for decades to try and perfect it. I could go on and on with more issues. The point is that, in my opinion, option 1 is highly unlikely to ever happen. However, I have no problem with people trying to make it happen, as long as they go about it ethically. (This means no false, agenda-driven information, focusing on solutions and benefits to this option, not attacking Option 2. Remember, over 90% of farmers in Option 2 are family farmers like me. It makes me sad when people attack the farm families who are part of the foundation of our society.)

Option 2: Use technologies like GM crops to continue to increase yields, reduce chemical usage, and improve efficiency. The benefits of using technology to farm have been clearly outlined in this blog. Is there risk? Yes. But the risks that are possible are, *in my opinion* completely overshadowed by the benefits of technology. If GM crops are supported, they will provide a huge impact to farmers in underdeveloped countries in the future. They will be able to solve a lot of hunger crises throughout the world. (Link: GMO impact in underdeveloped countries)

The agricultural community is a community that has fought through many difficulties together and I believe we have the tools to solve this dilemma. However, we must be allowed to use those tools.

Conclusion: What then should we do?

Today, in 2014, we enjoy the safest, most abundant, food supply in the history of the entire world! Never before have we seen the amount of choices of food we have today and the ease of which it’s available. It’s quite amazing to be honest. But yet, millions of people spend their time complaining about their food supply. I don’t get it! I realize that farmers and agribusinesses should be held accountable and that questions should be asked about the safety and quality of food, but at some point thankfulness needs to come into play. Be thankful for farmers! Be thankful for choices! Be thankful for freedom!

For some perspective, picture in your mind your ancestors from the Great Depression, or the people from the original thirteen colonies of America, or even the people from ancient times. What do you think they would say about today’s food supply? I don’t think their first response would be negative. They would be blown away by the quantity, diversity, and availability of the food in our grocery stores.

People today (including myself) take so much for granted and complain about things we have. We repeatedly bite the hand that feeds us. A middle class person in America lives a more comfortable life than 99% of people in the history of humanity. Can’t that be enough? When are we going to be satisfied? When are we going to be thankful for what we have? I realize farmers and the food industry needs to be held in check. Asking questions is great! Attacking us based on false information? Not so great.

Farmers are working harder than you know every day trying to feed you. The least you could do is say thank you. Not complain about what they’re feeding you. (Asking questions and keeping us in check is not complaining) If you do feel we are making bad decisions, then you are absolutely free to grow your own food or buy from another type of farmer (organic). But I hope that you can understand that each farmer, no matter what the type, is doing the best they can, and we are making the decisions we feel are the right ones, not only for us, but also for the environment and for the consumer. That’s why we feed our families what we grow!

It’s Time to Find A Real Problem to Fight Against

Whether or not you agree with what I have to say about GMOs in this blog post, the real truth I want to get at here is that you really shouldn’t be wasting your time fighting against GMOs. (And to be honest, I shouldn’t have to be spending time defending why our farm grows them) Why has this become such a priority? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? Here is a list of some of the real issues that I believe each and every one of us, including myself, should be investing more time and energy into stopping:

  • Human Slavery: There are 30 million human slaves in the world today. 30 million.
  • Poverty: 1 billion children are born into poverty. 22,000 children die each year because of it.
  • Hunger: 805 million people do not have enough available food to live a healthy, active lifestyle.
  • Abuse: 6 million children are reported to have been abused in the United States alone. 1 in 4 women will experience some type of abuse in their lifetime.

A lesser, non-proven issue? GMOs: Responsible for 0 deaths and 0 sicknesses since they were introduced.

Reading those statistics will probably make you feel sad. There are two things we should all do after seeing those. 1. Be thankful for what we have. 2. Stop wasting our time complaining and start doing something positive to help reduce some of those numbers! A song I think of when I write this is Matthew West’s “Do Something.”

The Reality of Sustainable Food Production

As human beings, we have to understand that this world is not perfect. Completely sustainable food production, while theoretically possible, is never going to be perfect either. Are GMOs perfect? No. Is it possible that someday we will find a better alternative? Yes. (Organic is a better alternative for a small population, but it is not the ultimate solution!) Until the day comes when we no longer need the technology, all types of farmers must continue to improve our methods of production. I believe GMOs to be better for the soil environment, better for farmers, better for poverty-ravished communities, and overall better for producing safe, high-quality, affordable food. That’s why I grow them, eat them myself, and promote the truth about them. In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the possible risks (for now)!

Thank you so much for reading. I will appreciate hearing feedback from all of you. Let’s get this conversation started and find some solutions to the real world problems we are facing today!

Additional Blog: My perspective as a Christian on GMOs

Click here to read: My perspective as a Christian on GMOs

Questions and Comments From Readers Answered

If GMOs are so good, then why not label them?

My immediate answer to that question is: I believe GMOs are “good” (not proven to be dangerous), so therefore I do not think they need to be labeled. However, I am pro-freedom of choice for consumers. I believe consumers should have freedom to avoid any type of food product if they want to, and so I am not necessary against the idea of labeling. However….

-Consumers today are very uneducated about a lot of things in the food production system. Many people google search their questions about food, health, etc. and rely on answers from random people on the internet to base their views upon instead of facts and true expert opinions. I would be all for labeling of GMO products if it meant that as a result consumers were educated (correctly) about what they are, why farmers use them, and what benefits/risks they impose. The problem is the average consumer has no idea what GMOs are and therefore would be scared of a label that says “genetically modified.” Marketing companies take full advantage of this. We need people to be educated about their food, not scared of it!

-Most of the labeling of today has nothing to do with nutrition. It has everything to do with marketing. Terms placed on labels are misleading and are designed to sell a product by making consumers think that the anything that doesn’t have that label is bad for them. If we were to put a label on every GMO food product, I think the same would hold true. Consumers would assume that “GMOs must be bad if they have to put a label about them. I better buy non-GMO instead.” Again, this is fear based marketing instead of fact-based education. I am all for consumers having freedom of choice! If you have been informed correctly with facts about GMOs and still want to buy non-GMO, go for it! However, I am not for consumers being scared into avoiding a product they know nothing about.

-Nutritional labels are supposed to show nutrition! Biotechnology (GMOs) is not dealing in nutrition. As mentioned earlier in the blog, GMO and non-GMO are the same in appearance and nutrition. Biotechnology is dealing with the technology used to grow the food. Are we are going to start labeling every single type of technology used to grow our food?

-Labeling of GM Products is so much more complex than people may realize. As mentioned in the “What are GMOs?” section of this blog, GMOs are found in so many products that labeling each and every one of them would be a costly (See: Cost of Labeling) decision.

-Labeling is desired almost exclusively by consumers who don’t want to buy GM products. It is a niche market. It wouldn’t make sense to label everything when only a small percentage of the population cares, especially when consumers are not well educated on them and there has been no proven danger. Instead of labeling all GM products, we are currently labeling all the products that are GMO-free, giving people who want this choice the option to choose it! This provides a compromise between anti-GMO agendas (get rid of all GM products) and pro-GMO agendas (no need to eat non-GMO). If we get to a point where the majority of consumers have been adequately educated on GMOs and still desire labels on everything, then I would be for labeling everything.

The (educated) consumer is always right.

Additional Resources

FAQ About GMOs

GMOs: An Introduction

600 Plus Safety Assessments on GMOs

Ex Anti-GMO Activist Mark Lynas On Why GMOs are Green and Sustainable

10 Truths About GMOs and Organics

This Is Why It Is Okay To Feed Your Family GMOs

Planting the Four Billionth Acre of GM Crops

GMO Facts and Fiction

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.

 

My Perspective on the Safety and Sustainability of GM Crops

(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.)

Alright, now that we (hopefully) have some common ground in terms of the facts about GMOs, we can talk about the 3 biggest questions I know everyone has: Are GM foods healthy? Are they safe? Are they sustainable?

Are GM Foods Healthy (Nutritious)?

I believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes. As mentioned earlier in the blog, GM products are exactly the same in nutritional value and physical makeup as their non-GMO counterparts. The argument of whether or not GM products are “healthy” can’t really exist in my opinion, because they are literally the same thing (nutrition-wise) as non-GMO products. A nutrition label on an ear of GM corn would be exactly the same as the label on an ear of non-GM corn. Inserting a gene into a plant does not change its appearance or nutritional value. 

I’ve eaten GM food since I was a kid. Millions of people have eaten GM food since they were kids. In fact, there have been over ONE TRILLION meals containing GMO products consumed over the past 20 years with absolutely no negative health impact found. (Read more here: Trillion Meal Study) There have been zero instances of sickness or death. The debate on the “health” of GM products should be really put to rest, in my opinion. Inserting a gene into a plant does not change the “healthiness” of a food.

Now, please realize that there are going to be unhealthy foods containing GM products in them (Energy drinks for example). However, this does not mean that the raw GM products (like corn) in these drinks are unhealthy. It is the processing, cooking, and/or mixing of other ingredients with the GM products that can create an unhealthy food or drink. This is one of the main misconceptions I see with the organic food industry. While organic farmers work extremely hard and create valuable food products, the original products of organic food and regular food are the exact same in composition. It is the end product (as well as the production methods used to grow them) that separates the two in the grocery store. You can cook just as wholesome of a meal with GM food products as you can with organic food products. But we’ll save that conversation for a separate blog post coming soon

To summarize, if you are determined to find a reason to stop eating GM food, it should not be because you believe it is a less nutritious product (because it’s not), it should be due more to safety and sustainability concerns, which I will address next.

Are GM Foods safe?

As of today, all signs point to GMOs being safe to consume. There have been over 2,000 independent studies over the last 20 years on this topic. (Link: 2,000 Studies) As shown in the “Eating GM Crops from the Field” video, I have been around GMOs my entire life and I have never seen any indication of any type of danger associated with their production and consumption. I believe most (if not all) GM crop farmers feel the same way. Are there issues with GMOs? Yes, of course. Many of those were explained in the “Why do farmers use GM Crops?” blog. However, in my opinion, the evidence that currently exists does nothing but support the stance of GM foods being safe.

I do realize that this does not guarantee the absolute safety of GMOs. There are new tests on GMOs being performed every day and it may be that some day one of them will come back with a negative side effect. At that point, I would change my opinion on GMOs, because new evidence would show me that there is new truth to be believed. However, until then I will remain convinced that they are indeed “safe.”

I put safe in quotations because, you see, most of what we do in life isn’t safe.

For instance, is it safe to:

  • Ride in or drive an automobile? (Reckless drivers, malfunction)
  • Wear “safety” belts in an automobile? (Seat belts are not 100% effective)
  • To be outside? (Heat, cold, earthquakes, poisonous animals, etc.)
  • To be inside? (Mold, poisonous spiders, etc.)
  • To use medicine? (Side effects anyone?)
  • To use a cell phone? (Where are the long term studies?
  • To fall in love? (Broken relationships can be detrimental to your health)

Hopefully you get my point. Nothing in this life is really “safe” and without risk. But we participate in these activities because we feel the benefits truly outweigh the perceived risks! Seriously, if you only worry about living “safe” all the time then you probably aren’t truly living. Life is full of risk. Every type of technology comes with risk. That includes GMOs. GM food has never been shown to be dangerous, but that does not mean the risk isn’t still there. I realize there are alternatives to GMOs that some people believe carry less risk, and that is where the organic food (non-GMO) industry comes into play. (Although there are still risks taken by consuming organic food as well) However, every farmer and consumer should be allowed choices of what to grow and what to eat, and that is why I will now address sustainability.

Are GM Foods sustainable?

The decision of whether or not to eat GM products is up to you. It is your personal choice. If you choose not to eat them, you can purchase food from the organic aisle in the grocery store. I have no problem with that! Organic producers are some of the hardest working people out there, and I have a lot of respect for them. I just hope you know why you are making that organic food purchase. It cannot be because GMOs are evil, unhealthy, toxic, poisonous, etc. They aren’t. It should only be because you believe there is less risk involved in your purchase.

What I do have a problem with is people trying to ban GMOs from being produced. Especially when they use false information to accomplish their agenda. (See: What are GMOs not? Debunking GMO Myths) Until there is sufficient evidence that GMOs are harmful to people or to the environment, farmers should be allowed to produce them and consumers should be allowed to consume them. First of all, because we live in a free country. Second of all…

Sustainability. Both for humans and the environment. The population of the world is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. To feed this population, it is estimated that we will need to produce twice as much food then as we are producing now. Available farmland is shrinking back each day due to issues such as urban sprawl. How are we going to sustainably feed this many people? There are 2 options (that I can see) to accomplishing that:

Option 1: Revert back to smaller farms and more farmers. I believe this is what believers on the organic side of things desire. It is definitely the most romantic of the two options. However, there are some issues with this option. You see, there are fewer farmers each year and the trend doesn’t seem to be changing. The average age of a farmer is 55 years old and has been increasing for the last couple of decades. Where are the 10 million extra farmers (that I think would be required to farm entirely organic) going to come from in 30 years when the older generation of farmers passes away? Farming is a very difficult job, and most people would rather be spending their time working weekdays 9-5, enjoying free weekends, and relying on others to grow their food. Another problem is that the current structure of the agricultural industry would have to be overthrown. It’s hard to explain this in detail as the agricultural industry is ridiculously complex, but transforming the operating systems, transportation, storage, etc away from large farms and technology like GM crops would cost trillions of dollars, huge government involvement, and simply isn’t something that could happen over a few years or even decades. Finally, a free market system like we have in the USA does not cater well to smaller farms. Just like in every other industry, it favors larger, more efficient farms that can produce food at a lower cost. It is also not possible to force farmers to downsize their operation and to grow their food organically. Farmers are never happy when they are told to change their operation after they have worked for decades to try and perfect it. I could go on and on with more issues. The point is that, in my opinion, option 1 is highly unlikely to ever happen. However, I have no problem with people trying to make it happen, as long as they go about it ethically. (This means no false, agenda-driven information, focusing on solutions and benefits to this option, not attacking Option 2. Remember, over 90% of farmers in Option 2 are family farmers like me. It makes me sad when people attack the farm families who are part of the foundation of our society.)

Option 2: Use technologies like GM crops to continue to increase yields, reduce chemical usage, and improve efficiency. The benefits of using technology to farm have been clearly outlined in this blog. Is there risk? Yes. But the risks that are possible are, in my opinion, completely overshadowed by the benefits of technology. If GM crops are supported, they will provide a huge impact to farmers in underdeveloped countries in the future. They will be able to solve a lot of hunger crises throughout the world. (Link: GMO impact in underdeveloped countries)

The agricultural community is a community that has fought through many difficulties together and I believe we have the tools to solve this dilemma. However, we must be allowed to use those tools.

Conclusion: What then should we do?

(The following is repeated information from the “My Perspective on GMOs as a Christian” blog)

Today, in 2014, we enjoy the safest, most abundant, food supply in the history of the entire world! Never before have we seen the amount of choices of food we have today and the ease of which it’s available. It’s quite amazing to be honest. But yet, millions of people spend their time complaining about their food supply. I don’t get it! I realize that farmers and agribusinesses should be held accountable and that questions should be asked about the safety and quality of food, but at some point thankfulness needs to come into play.

For some perspective, picture in your mind your ancestors from the Great Depression, or the people from the original thirteen colonies of America, or even the people from ancient times. What do you think they would say about today’s food supply? I don’t think their first response would be negative. They would be blown away by the quantity, diversity, and availability of the food in our grocery stores.

People today (including myself) take so much for granted and complain about things we have. We repeatedly bite the hand that feeds us. A middle class person in America lives a more comfortable life than 99% of people in the history of humanity. Can’t that be enough? When are we going to be satisfied? When are we going to be thankful for what we have? I realize farmers and the food industry needs to be held in check. Asking questions is great! Attacking us based on false information? Not so great.

Farmers are working harder than you know every day trying to feed you. The least you could do is say thank you. Not complain about what they’re feeding you. (Asking questions and keeping us in check is not complaining) If you do feel we are making bad decisions, then you are absolutely free to grow your own food or buy from another type of farmer (organic). But I hope that you can understand that we are doing the best we can, and we are making the decisions we feel are the right ones, not only for us, but also for the environment and for the consumer. And that includes decisions about GMOs.

It’s Time to Find A Real Problem to Fight Against

Whether or not you agree with what I have to say about GMOs in this blog post, the real truth I want to get at here is that you really shouldn’t be wasting your time fighting against GMOs. (And to be honest, I shouldn’t have to be spending time defending why I grow them) Why has this become such a priority? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? Here is a list of some of the real issues that I believe each and every one of us, including myself, should be investing more time and energy into stopping:

  • Human Slavery: There are 30 million human slaves in the world today. 30 million.
  • Poverty: 1 billion children are born into poverty. 22,000 children die each year because of it.
  • Hunger: 805 million people do not have enough available food to live a healthy, active lifestyle.
  • Abuse: 6 million children are reported to have been abused in the United States alone. 1 in 4 women will experience some type of abuse in their lifetime.

A lesser, non-proven issue? GMOs: Responsible for 0 deaths and 0 sicknesses since they were introduced.

Reading these things will probably make you feel sad. There are two things we should all do after reading these statistics. 1. Be thankful for what we have. 2. Stop wasting time complaining and start doing something positive to help reduce some of these numbers! A song I think of when I write this is Matthew West’s “Do Something.”

The Reality of Sustainable Food Production

As human beings, we have to understand that this world is not perfect. Sustainable food production, while theoretically possible, is never going to be perfect either. Are GMOs perfect? No. Is it possible that someday we will find a better alternative? Yes. However, until the day comes when we no longer need the technology, we must continue to improve our methods of production. I believe GMOs to be better for the soil environment, better for farmers, better for poverty-ravished communities, and overall better for producing safe, high-quality, affordable food. That’s why I grow them, eat them myself, and promote the truth about them. I hope you have learned something from reading this blog. Please direct all questions and comments to the main blog: Greg Peterson – Advocate for Truth: GMOs. We will be answering those as part of the blog. Also, feel free to follow us on Facebook to keep in touch!

Thank you so much for reading. I will appreciate hearing feedback from all of you. Let’s get this conversation started and find some solutions to the real world problems we are facing today!

-Greg Peterson