by Tamara Scully
“What we do today, impacts what we’ll have tomorrow,” Glen Brunkow, a farmer who narrates the recently released video from the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), says in the clip. “Technology plays a huge part in sustainability.”
The animated video, aimed at introducing consumers to the benefits of today’s agriculture via a brief cartoon, talks about global positioning systems (GPS), technology to track livestock activity, irrigation improvements to help conserve water, and the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are presented as “advanced seeds” which allow farmers to use less pesticide, and produce larger crop yields.
“Sustainability is about farming smart. Smart farms help us keep the land and air in better condition for the next generation,” Brunkow says. “Because at the end of the day, we grow and raise food to take care of those who eat it.”
The video, “Farm On: Sustainable Food Production,” www.fooddialogues.com/videos is a result of the USFRA’s enhanced attempts to better educate food companies and consumers about the use of technology, particularly GMOs, in modern agriculture.
Touting the benefits which GMOs bring to farmers, along with the improvements in conservation made possible by precision technology, the USFRA’s “Straight Talk” campaign was a rebuttal to The Dannon Company’s recent vow to remove genetically modified ingredients from some of its yogurt, and to clearly label products containing GMO ingredients.
The Dannon Pledge is a result of the company’s desire to make “the best yogurt that we can, with as many choices as possible,” Michael Neuwirth, spokesperson for the company, said in the briefing last July. “For us, this is a commitment to re-imagine how we make yogurt. How do we do it differently to provide more choice to consumers?”
USFRA held a press conference in October to “step up and more assertively defend the technology” that allows today’s farmers to produce more food with less environmental impact via GMOs and other technology. “We’re not trying to limit choice for farmers or for consumers,” but just want accurate information to be available, Randy Krotz, CEO of USFRA said.
“GMOs allow us to conserve soil, to use less pesticides, and to conserve water overall,” Krotz emphasized. “Consumers want to hear about soil, air, water and habitat. We really believe that the right to know needs to be a fully accurate conversation.”
USFRA membership consists of over 100 farm organizations. Randy Mooney, dairy farmer and chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation, along with Dr. Marty Matlock, executive director of the University of Arkansas Office for Sustainability, and Nancy Kavazanjian, crop farmer and chairwoman of USFRA, also spoke during the press conference.
“Modern technology is transforming what’s going on in U.S. agriculture,” Kavazanjian said. “We want to make sure that food companies understand what is happening on today’s farms. We want to make sure that we keep the farmer and rancher voice in all of those conversations.”
Kavazanjian spoke of her own Wisconsin crop farm, where the use of GMO seed allows them “to produce better crops, more sustainably,” and enabled them to implement no-till practices successfully for many years. Fewer chemical inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers are needed due to GMO technology, she said. “We do need all these modern technologies. It’s really about the fact that we need every tool in the tool chest to let us be more sustainable. This isn’t about one production method over another.”
According to Mooney, Dannon’s move to produce yogurt that does not contain GMO ingredients can set agriculture back decades. It will inhibit farmers from implementing the best practices to produce safe and sufficient food, accessible to everyone, and mislead consumers.
“Dairy farmers all across the country are very concerned, and very frustrated, by Dannon’s pledge,” Mooney said. Biotechnology “dramatically improved the sustainability of American agriculture over the past 20 years,” and is a choice which “has allowed us to grow more and better crops, using less energy, with fewer and safer pesticides, using less water, and improving soil conservation.”
Dannon’s pledge is sending the wrong message to consumers, by making GMOs seem unsafe, Mooney said. By presenting GMO-free food as a more natural option, consumers are mislead about the role GMOs play in agriculture, and the environmental benefits that result from GMO technologies are overlooked.
“They should be cheering agriculture biotechnology, not demonizing it,” Mooney said.
Journey to Sustainability
The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is a collaboration of agriculture, environmental, food and retail organizations focusing on developing a set of metrics to define, measure and improve sustainability in our food system. Social, economic and environmental parameters are included, and transparency is valued.
Dr. Matlock shared statistics indicating that row crop production has become significantly more efficient and sustainable since 1980. Soil erosion in corn has been decreased by over 30 percent, and water usage by over 50 percent. Soybean production has similar trends, as do other row crops such as cotton and wheat. Conservation tillage, made possible by GMO crops, has had the biggest impact on soil conservation and sustainability.
“Sustainability is about continuous improvement,” Dr. Matlock said, and the “tools include biotechnology.” Efficiency means that inputs are reduced, and sustainability increased. Biotechnology has helped to make U.S. agriculture “the most efficient production system in the world.”
The USFRA’s “Straight Talk” campaign is meant to offer the food industry, as well as consumers, a real look at agricultural practices. It is a year-long effort, and will use social media to engage consumers, offering them a look at how sustainable practices include technological advances, including the use of genetically modified crops.