This won’t be the usual blog post listing all the reasons why genetically modified seed is an important tool to us on our farm. I promise. But it doesn’t hurt to refresh.
Using genetically modified seed has helped us reduce our application of herbicides by half. Fewer applied pesticides means less traffic in the fields, less fuel use and less soil erosion. That’s our experience on our farm. Every farm and farmer is different with different experiences and different reasons for using one tool over another. Genetically modified seed is just one of those tools a farmer can choose to use.
But I digress, because this isn’t going to be that post.
Recently I was asked, “Why do farmers keep planting GMOs if consumers don’t want them?” A valid question to be sure. Certainly along with soil type, climate, geography, weather, market access and local infrastructure, market demand has something to do with what a farmer plants and why.
In the case of GMOs, there has yet to be a definite swing in demand on the farm side for non-genetically modified grain over a genetically modified hybrid.
The market for non-GMO commodity crops, in spite of what seems like a loud demand coming from the masses, is actually quite small in terms of number of bushels contracted, and is somewhat saturated with farmers already filling the available contracts.
In fact, according to Phil Thornton, Value Enhanced Project Director for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and Illinois Corn Growers Association, the majority of the non-gm corn grown in the United States is exported. Japan alone imports three million metric tons (120 million bushels) of non-gm corn which is only a fraction of the 15 million metric tons imported annually.
Thornton said that the U.S. market for non-gmo corn, in particular, is small and that many 2015 contracts have already been filled. It is a difficult market for a farmer to break into, especially if looking to gain a premium. Many specialty grains will garner a premium over general market price. The assumption is that because it seems like everyone is debating GMO versus non-gmo, a high premium exists. But, Thornton said, these days with corn prices at $3.00 per bushel, premiums might be as low as $.10 or even a nickel. In other years, when corn prices have been good, premiums have risen to $1.00.
The reality is a farmer’s choice to plant non-gm seed or gm-seed has very little to do with the premium or the market, and everything to do with what is right for his/her farm. Thornton pointed out that much of the non-gmo corn on the market today is not sold for a premium or even marketed with the non-gmo label. For the bulk of the market, both domestic and global, corn is corn is corn.
There will always be specific contracts for non-gm corn, and there will always be farmers growing a crop to fill that market demand. But for us and the decisions we make on our farm, until that demand outweighs the cost of not using a genetically modified seed, we will continue to seek out strong hybrids first and beneficial genetically modified traits second.
Katie and her husband, Andy, are seventh generation farmers. Together they raise two adorable farm kids and grow corn, soybeans and seed corn in Illinois. Katie's family still raises pigs, cattle, goats and horses only a few minutes away. Katie was named one of the 2013 Faces of Farming and Ranching by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). Read more from Katie on her blog, Rural Route 2.