The Planted Row: Perception can affect reality

Farm Forum

In case you have been wondering, I am squarely in the pro-genetically modified organism (GMO) camp. If we’re going to feed the world’s growing population, we’re going to need every tool in the shed.

I remember the first time I heard about the Bt gene. It was 1996, and I thought it was amazing. It seemed like magic that we could alter one gene in a plant and have it produce a protein that is harmless to humans and lethal to certain insect pests.

The first producers to take advantage of this technology in the U.S. were potato farmers. These farmers were losing millions of dollars every year due to insect damage, and the amount of pesticides they were using was staggering. When they began to use potatoes with the Bt gene, called NewLeaf potatoes, in 1995, their insect losses shrank dramatically, as did the amount of pesticides they were putting into the environment. Farmers saved money, and the environment benefited from modern science.

Everything was great until 1999 when the national media got wind that farmers were producing potatoes that made their own pesticides. There was a public outcry, and rather than fighting the public relations battle and explaining to people that GMO potatoes were safe, McDonald’s, Burger King and Frito-Lay decided they would longer accept NewLeaf potatoes. Since these are the largest purchasers of potatoes in the country, the farmers were forced to implement a system to keep GMO potatoes separate from regular spuds. Doing so proved costly, and the economic advantage of the NewLeaf potatoes disappeared. This variety was pulled from the market in 2001 due to lack of grower interest.

So the very first food with the Bt gene was basically killed due to a backlash from an ill-informed public. Farmers lose money, more chemicals end up in the environment, but the good people chowing down on their fries can be certain their junk food doesn’t contain a genetic trait put there by someone trying to make the world a better place.

This case illustrates that perception is at least as important, if not more important, than reality, This is something that opponents of GMO foods already know. Chipotle’s “Scarecrow” ad and online series “Farmed and Dangerous” use hyperbole and appeals to emotion to turn people against modern agricultural technology.

The stories we see in the mainstream media are not much better. Glyphosate-resistant weeds are called “superweeds,” as if they were a bioengineered menace taking over the country, and I saw one headline this week about Bt-resistant rootworms that read “Monsanto’s Bt corn — breeding superbugs and harming human health.” The article that followed that headline was full of assumptions, unsupported by facts.

As far as I can see, we all want the same things. We want safe, healthy, affordable food, and we want a clean environment. We disagree about how to get it. People who support modern agriculture have accepted the reality that there are fewer farmers now than at any time in history, and the global population continues to grow. To feed those people, we’re going to need modern tools that allow us to produce more with less, and if we want to reduce the amount of chemicals we’re dumping into the environment, we’re going to need GMO crops.

I believe we can use modern technology and sustainable ag practices to feed the world while remaining good caretakers of the earth, but that won’t happen if consumers never understand what’s really happening on farms.

Those who oppose modern agriculture want us to return to the farming methods used 100 years ago. They think they can continue their lives in their offices and factories while there will always be enough people growing food and the grocery store shelves will always be stocked. If opponents of GMO foods ever get their way, I hope they own a good pair of work boots when reality hits them.