Biotech companies like Monsanto promise higher yields from genetically modified seeds (GMOs). They promise farmers that there will be fewer pests and weeds with the use of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup) and 2,4-D, an ingredient in the chemical defoliant Agent Orange. But despite the aggressive corporate farming agenda, some farmers are opting out of the system and returning to traditional farming methods. The main reason? Cost.
According to a recent article by Elizabeth Royte in Modern Farmer (“The Post GMO Economy”), farmers are finding they’re actually able to save money by switching away from GMO seeds and growing methods. “Two years ago, [a farmer] planted 320 acres of conventional corn and 1,700 with GMO corn” writes Royte. “To his delight, the conventional fields yielded 15 to 30 more bushels per acre than the GMO fields, with a profit margin of up to $100 more per acre. And so in 2013, he upped the ante, ordering six varieties of conventional seeds for close to 750 acres and GMOs for his remaining acres.”
Issues that the biotech industry promised would be remedied with genetically modified seeds were abated at first, but came back, stronger, farmer Chris Huegerich told Royte. “Five years ago the traits worked,” he said. “I didn’t have corn rootworm because of the Bt gene, and I used less pesticide. Now, the worms are adjusting, and the weeds are resistant. Mother Nature adapts.” But despite the resistance, opting out of the GMO seed business is not an easy choice. “Post-harvest, farmers face a barrage of TV and print ads touting the latest seed technology,” writes Royte. “There’s a subtler psychology at work, too. Farmers have close relationships with their seed dealers, who often live nearby and keep them company at local baseball games, PTA meetings or church”
A growing market demand for non-GMO food is also driving farmer interest. Consumers are willing to pay more for organic or GMO-free foods. And while several major GMO labeling laws have recently been defeated (California and Washington both lost GMO labeling ballot initiatives heavily favored to win), there have been victories. Both Connecticut and Maine recently passed conditional GMO labeling laws– they will go into effect only if neighboring states passed similar laws. It’s not ideal, but it shows just how the landscape is changing.
Whole Foods Market’s announcement earlier this year that it would be moving towards store-wide labeling systems for all products—including non-food items—that contain genetically modified foods has also inspired farmers towards producing more non-GMO crops. Consumer polls show 93 percent favor labeling GMOs, and when given the opportunity, consumers are opting for the non-GMO products. Target is even getting in on the non-GMO action with a line of products that will be 100 percent GMO-free.
While Whole Foods said it would not be immediately phasing out GMOs from its stores once the stores are in compliance with the policy (they have until 2018 to do so). But it will respond to its customers. Chobani, the best-selling Greek yogurt, recently experienced this when the chain announced it was pulling the brand from its stores nationally to make room for smaller yogurt brands focused on organic ingredients. Chobani was targeted in a campaign by the advocacy group GMO Inside over use of dairy from cows fed GMOs.
“The Non-GMO Project, which offers third-party verification and labeling for non-GMO products, has been inundated with requests from food purveyors for information about enrolling their products, and consumer spending on non-GMO-verified products rose from $1.3 billion to $3.1 billion between 2011 and 2013,” writes Royte, “this parallel seed economy is churning.”
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