by Stephen Wagner
“Let’s see a show of hands! Who among you was doing work before 1995?” asked Eric Rosenbaum, executive director of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers Association. He is also executive director of the Pennsylvania 4-R Nutrient Stewardship Alliance. “Okay, then you can help me out when it comes to talking about insecticides and herbicides, because you remember what it was like to put Accent on corn when it was off-label, when it was two feet tall, and the injury we saw from that.” Rosenbaum was leading the GMO tour of Penn State’s Farming for Success all-day seminar at its research station in Landisville, PA.
“This conversation really starts with hybrid selection,” he said. Opinions from attendees resulted in the traits you should look for in hybrids: yield, stand-ability, length of growth, season vigor, silage quality and disease resistance. Another one is ear height because the deer can’t reach it. “What was not on the list? I didn’t hear anyone mention genetic modification. We’ve had genetic modification for so long we take it for granted,” he said. Those who weren’t in the field prior to the 1990s sometimes fail to understand second generation European corn borer and some of the stand-ability issues prevalent during those years.
Once again, Rosenbaum picked his listeners’ brains: why do they plant GMO? Risk, said one. Convenience was another. Protection was yet another.
“Higher quality crops,” Rosenbaum added, “meaning fewer ear issues, fewer ear worms, fewer mycotoxins. Two others are production risk management and convenience. I plant Roundup Ready Corn on my farm because of convenience, because I know I can reduce my chemical use and get good weed control simply by planting on an application of Roundup when the corn is a foot or a foot-and-a-half tall. We plant Corn Borer Bt and Rootworm Bt because we like the risk management practices that gives us.”
Why then would people plant non-GMO crops? The seed is cheaper, but market is the number one reason (the cost of production is second and personal beliefs are third). “Forty-nine percent of American consumers believe that GMO crops are either harmful to their health or harmful to the environment,” said Rosenbaum. “Arguments against GMOs include increased hours used, intestinal problems, autism and birth defects in humans and animals.” This is emotion, he said, because in talking to parents about autism and birth defects, they’re often all ears. Everyone wants their children to be safe.
“It harms aquatic systems. I was reading on a website that a study was done in Indiana. Six months after corn was harvested – which means the study was done in May or June – they found that 85 percent of the streams they studied had either components of GMO corn or proteins of GMO corn in the surface water a full half year after corn harvest,” he said.
Furthermore, that presence of GMO protein was causing decreased growth in some of the macro-invertebrates that were present in the creek.
Genetic contamination is a fretful concern. “Inevitably,” Rosenbaum said, “on every website I’ve visited to learn why people are anti-GMO, about two-thirds down the page it comes back to glyphosate. You read that there are dozens of reasons why glyphosate is bad. Glyphosate increases fusarium disease in corn. Glyphosate is an antibiotic that is applied to our fields. Glyphosate induces manganese deficiencies in our soybeans which will end up creating issues in our hogs that we feed those manganese-deficient soybeans to.” Much of this “information” is unproven or driven by emotions rather than founded on fact – or, as Rosenbaum says, “Somebody can put an emotional comment on social media that takes 140 characters which takes somebody 10 seconds to read, but it will take me two hours to rebut that with logical information as to why that 140-character comment was incorrect or inaccurate or didn’t quite portray the whole truth.”
Truthful arguments in favor of GMO are usually dry, lacking in fireworks. Who cares if GMOs increase yields 5 to 24 percent worldwide? Where in your emotional bank can you tuck away the tidbit that GMOs reduce pesticide use by 35 percent? And who will run with the fact that GMOs are nutritionally equivalent to traditional crops?
It should also be clarified that there has never been a genetically-modified crop to increase yield. In other words, “nobody has modified corn to produce 26 rows of corn around an ear. Nor have they modified corn to produce three ears on a plant. Instead, we are modifying crops for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, improved quality in the case of some of our soybeans and some of our corn, and water use efficiency,” according to Rosenbaum.
About 95 percent of both the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are GMO crops.