Being a farmer these days can be tough.
In times past, most people had some connection to agriculture and may have even worked on a farm at some point. But the demographics of our society have changed drastically, and today most people have never even stepped foot on a farm. In fact, most consumers are now several generations from a farm and have very little experience with modern agriculture. With only about 2 percent of the United States population actually farming, the message of agriculture has been shaped by those outside of the industry, including those with an agenda.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the topic of genetically modified crops. A type of breeding tool, genetic engineering allows scientists to produce crops with desirable or beneficial traits. While the technology has already yielded several crops with benefits to the environment, farmers, and consumers, not everyone is so excited about the technology. Many well-funded special interest groups and activist organizations have launched all out wars against the genetic engineering, especially on social media.
If farmers and those involved in agriculture want to see this technology used in the future, we need to do a better job of communicating the safety, efficiency, and benefits of this technology. Fortunately, there have been a handful of recent reports and studies that have demonstrated the point for us. I suggest keeping these handy for discussions with customers, neighbors, friends, and family.
In May of 2016, the National Academies of Science released an exhaustive report from more than 50 scientists, researchers, and agriculture experts reviewing more than 900 studies and data covering the 20 years since GMO crops were first made commercially available. The conclusion: genetically engineered crops are safe for humans and animals to eat and have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, GI illnesses, kidney disease, autism, or allergies. While the scientists did not find evidence that GE crops directly increased yields, they did find that the crops had saved farmers money overall. GMOs had also lowered pest populations, particularly in the Midwest.
Economically, the technology is also important. Economists at Purdue University, a powerhouse agricultural school, also took a look at the topic and analyzed what would happen if the technology was banned completely. Banning the technology in the United States alone would result in higher food prices, a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and major loss of forest and pasture land. More specifically, we would see average yield declines of 11.2 percent in corn, 5.2 percent in soybeans, and 18.6 percent in cotton. As a result, we would have to convert 102,000 hectares of United States forest and pasture into cropland to make up the difference.
In 2014, another study confirmed the environmental benefits of biotechnology. Reviewing the available data, German scientists found that the use of genetically engineered crops had reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, while increasing crop yields by 22 percent. The confirmation of reduced chemical inputs was important, as many in the anti-GMO camp claim that the opposite has happened since the widespread adoption of the technology.
Of course, if all of that is not enough, budding scientists can access the Genetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA) database, which conveniently collects peer-reviewed research on the relative risk of GMOs into an easily searchable database. Add to the collection the nearly 2,000 studies compiled by Italian researchers to analyze risk assessment of genetically modified crops since 2002. Upon review, the researchers found that “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.” The researchers noted that more needed to be done to educate the public and disseminate these types of findings to preserve the future use of the technology.
We need to do a better job of conveying and explaining this information to the masses. Those opposed to the use of biotechnology in agriculture have hijacked the narrative and are already imposing production bans, passing labeling requirements, and trying to impose stricter regulations on use. As farmers, we know that technology is a good thing on our farms. But if we want to continue to implement it, we need to do a better job of connecting with consumers and the curious public.
Trust me, if we don’t, someone else will.