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Illinois Farm Families Blog

Mar 14 2014

GMO 101: The View from Our Farm

More and more questions are being asked about GMOs and their safety. Today, I’m answering some of the questions I get as an Illinois farmer. 

What are GMOs and why do we plant them on our farm?

Some would argue gene modification has been happening for centuries, resulting in seedless watermelons, seedless grapes and chocolate cherry tomatoes. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are plants that contain a single gene from another organism so that the plant can do something it couldn’t before. 

Today, only eight crops with genetically modified varieties are commercially available to farmers – corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets and squash; with most conversations today focusing on corn and soybeans. 

If you’ve got a garden in your backyard, you probably know how easy it is for pests to damage your fruits or vegetables. It’s the same with our farm. Prior to using a genetically modified seed, one insect, the European corn borer, caused serious losses for corn farmers. Plant scientists found a naturally occurring soil bacterium (Bt -bacillus thuringiensis) that is toxic to the corn borer, selected the gene and inserted it into corn DNA. Now, instead of spraying the crop with a chemical multiple times, the plants fight the bug themselves. Organic corn farmers who don’t use GMO seeds can also have problems with the corn borer. They can use an approved Bt insecticide on their farms. The same result is achieved, but using different farming methods. 

Another crop we grow is soybeans. You may have heard of Round-up Ready soybeans. They are soybean plants that can tolerate being sprayed with Round-up, a chemical meant to kill weeds. But why would plant scientists make such a thing? To use fewer chemicals. On our farm, we’ve reduced our application of herbicides (chemicals that control weeds) by half. Fewer chemicals being applied means less traffic in the fields, less fuel, less soil erosion . . . all beneficial for our farm.

I highly recommend this particular blog post for a more in-depth, but easy to read look at this question, “What are GMOs?”  

We also plant non-genetically modified corn and soybean seeds. Planting a variety of hybrids and using a variety of farming methods like tilling the soil in different ways, crop rotation, weather analysis, and weed control by simply mowing grass on the outer edge of a field can help control the number of pests. Pests, including insects, weeds and disease, have been evolving for years. With or without genetically modified seeds and pesticides, they will continue to evolve.  So farmers must ready their tool belt and genetically modified seeds are one of many tools we’re using today. 

Are we told what to plant by “BIG AG”?

We have never been forced to plant, forced to buy, or forced to do anything on our farm. Farmers have choices, so consumer can have choices too.  

I am a fourth generation farmer and my husband is the seventh generation in his family. In America, 94 percent of farms and ranches are still owned and operated by families. To say that agriculture is in our genes (and jeans) is an understatement. We take exception to the insinuation that we don’t have a choice as to how we farm.  Decision-making on our farm is a serious task. We rely on generational, experiential and educational knowledge to make decisions for our farm. We spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing, researching, meeting, reading, talking and listening to experts on seeds, equipment, pest control, soil, water, marketing, etc. The evidence was the pile of seed catalogs (not unlike garden seed catalogs) that sat on my desk this winter.  

Are GMOs safe?

Yes. The World Health Association, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the American Medical Association, the European Food Safety Authority and the National Academy of Sciences, to name a few, have all deemed ingredients derived from a genetically modified crop are as safe as ingredients derived from crops raised in another manner. 

On average, a genetically modified seed takes almost 15 years to come to market because of the safety and regulatory measures mandated by the USDA, EPA and FDA.  

I found this article from motherjones.com, No GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health, to be very well-written without the emotional turmoil that comes with a GMO discussion: No

For further information about GMOs and other farming and food topics, I’d encourage you to visit watchusgrow.org to find out more about how real moms are connecting with Illinois farmers to get their questions and concerns answered.

Katie Pratt
Dixon, Illinois

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.


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