These days it is hard not to hear about Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. The label appears in nutrition books, blog articles, grocery store shelves and may even pop up on your child’s school lunch menu.
So what is the deal with GMOs and where do we primarily find them? Corn and Soybeans are found in virtually every aisle of the grocery store as well as in many non-edible items like cosmetics, insecticides, paints, pharmaceuticals and candles to name a few. These seeds are at the center of the GMO v. non-GMO debate. I have many questions and mixed emotions about the dangers, use of and reasons for GMOs and that was my primary interest when visiting the Jeschke Family Corn and Soybean farm earlier this month.
Donna and Paul Jeschke welcomed a group of about 20 IL Field Moms to spend a day touring their family farm. Immediately, I could sense their excitement and passion for a business that has supported generations as far back as the early 1900s in their families. We saw the size and investment today’s farmers make in high-tech machinery such as this $160,000 sprayer.
I was also surprised to learn that a large majority of the corn and soybeans grown on this farm, and most of Illinois farms, are exported to Europe and China. This is because of the close proximity to the IL River, which ultimately flows to the Gulf of Mexico and allows for cost-effective shipment overseas. Both of these factors play a huge role in the farmer’s decision to plant GMO or non-GMO seeds.
First, let’s back up a step, what exactly does GMO mean? As described by Tim Newcomb, a sales manager for Beck’s Hybrids, a seed becomes genetically modified if at least one component of the DNA has been altered. The reason for altering the seed DNA is to create a new germination with superior traits. The ultimate goal is to create a seed that will produce highest yielding crop. However, I had no idea the extent of modifications that are made. Tim told us that each year his company may create up to 20,000 GMO varieties for trial and only 6-8 of those are seed types that actually go to market. The different seeds try to balance disparity of soil, insecticide and herbicide issues as well as increased water utilization (drought resistance).
My hesitation about GMO crops has been driven primarily from a health perspective. In particular, I am concerned about the toxicity of so-called “Bt corn” which carries a gene Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to break open the stomach of insects and kill them. Another GMO product is the “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans with a key ingredient of glyphosate. These toxins have been shown to have damaging effects particularly on the human digestive system and healthy gut bacteria which doctors are now beginning to understand have a tremendous impact on immune function. Many Americans experience any number of chronic health issues such as cancer, autoimmune diseases, mental disorders, allergies, etc. The list goes on and unfortunately, it is not a simple 1+1=2 equation, but much of my research comes back to the same principle of ineffective immune function at the root of the problem.
During my day at the Jeschke farm I was fortunate to have a very candid and honest conversation with Paul Jeschke, the owner and father of the family business. I was interested to know if he understood my direct health concern about GMO seeds and what his thoughts were. He stated that he appreciates hearing from the consumers as it gives him a market focus perspective and that while he stays up-to-date with the latest information released from the Food and Drug Administration about product safety, he does not have a deep understanding of the relationship between the immune issues I discussed above and GMO seeds. He shared his perspective about why they choose to grow GMO seeds. First, the GMO corn and soybeans enable the farmer to spray less pesticides and herbicides on their crop. Remember that $160,000 sprayer pictured above…that means the farm is able to save money on the amount of liquid sprayed, number of times it is sprayed and overall places less wear and tear on expensive machinery. Another reason is because of the increasing world demand for his crop. As I mentioned, most of their corn and soybeans are exported to Europe and South Asia. As world population increases, so does the need for food. His very straight forward example was that mothers in China that have children to feed do not care whether the seed was GMO or not, they simply need something to put into their bellies. When faced with the moral dilemma it is clearly a tough choice.
Like most things in life, decisions are complex and varied depending on the goal in mind. For my family, we will continue to lean towards non-GMO products when given the opportunity. However, considering roughly 90% of the crop grown in the U.S. is GMO versus only 10% non-GMO, it is important to me to balance the cost of unnecessary stress and financial impact of striving for 100% compliance to the cause.
Mt. Prospect, Illinois
Amanda is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.