For the $55 billion genetically modified seed industry, the news hasn’t been good lately. The great “successes” of Bt corn and cotton seeds are turning to failure as insects such as corn rootworms and cotton bollworms are developing resistance to the GMO crops. As a result, farmers have to spray more toxic insecticides to kill the resistant insects.
The situation has become so bad that the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed phasing out more than 40 varieties of Bt corn and cotton over the next three to five years as a way to reduce the insect resistance.
Meanwhile, herbicide-tolerant GMO soybeans are facing massive weed resistance problems. With U.S. farmers spraying 300 million pounds of glyphosate on their fields each year, weeds have naturally developed resistance. Monsanto and other biotech companies’ solution was to develop new GMO seeds that would work with dicamba and 2,4-D herbicides, which are more toxic than glyphosate and prone to drift, causing damage to other crops.
The result has been a disaster. Dicamba has damaged millions of acres of non-dicamba tolerant soybeans as well as other crops, fruit orchards, millions of trees, and gardens in the past four years. The largest peach producer in Missouri lost 30,000 trees to dicamba drift damage. He sued Monsanto, now Bayer, and won a $265 million settlement. One farmer even murdered another over a dicamba drift dispute.
GMO seeds are failing because GMO technology is short-sighted and supports a failing system of agriculture. GMOs still dominate U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton production but I believe their days are numbered. They are going against the trends in agriculture, which are toward regenerative and organic methods.
A growing number of farmers are focusing on practices to build soil health such as planting cover crops and diverse crop rotations and grazing livestock. Because of those practices, regenerative farmers find they no longer need the GMO seeds, and they are also able to slash their use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
An example is Rick Clark, who farms 7,000 acres in Indiana, and grows non-GMO corn for Dannon’s non-GMO yogurt program. Clark has focused on soil health for the past 10 years and plants diverse species of cover crops. His use of chemical inputs dropped to zero, and he is now transitioning most of his land to organic. He stopped growing GMO seeds years ago, telling me in an interview: “I just prefer to not plant GMO seed, and I want to have a symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature.”
Another example of a farmer ditching GMO seeds is Steve Tucker, who farms 4,000 acres in western Nebraska. Like Clark, Tucker is using regenerative practices. He stopped growing Bt corn years ago, and now saves money buying non-GMO corn hybrids at half the price. Tucker told me: “We are so diverse with cover crops that there’s no need for that (Bt) stuff.” He also says his yields are also better than his neighbor’s GMO corn.
There are many other examples of farmers like Rick Clark and Steve Tucker who don’t need the GMO traits because their soils are healthy and weeds and insects aren’t an issue. Gabe Brown, the most famous regenerative farmer in the U.S., has a similar story, as does David Brandt in Ohio, and Darin Williams in Kansas, who was featured in a New York Times article about soil health.
Of course, these are just a few examples but these farmers are becoming more influential and in demand as speakers about soil health nationwide.
The main point is that soil health and regenerative practices are the leading trends in agriculture today, and as farmers journey on the path to soil health, many don’t see the need to plant GMO seeds.
GMO seed technology was designed to work with a system of industrial agriculture whose toxic effects—pesticides that threaten human health, depleted and eroded soils, polluted waterways from fertilizer runoff, greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, among others—are becoming more apparent and threatening to the world. As more farmers move away from this system toward regenerative and organic practices, the use of ag chemicals and GMOs will fall away.
Biotechnology proponents point to the emergence of gene editing, and say that new gene edited seeds and crops will be developed. They say these crops will increase crop yields, produce more nutritious foods, reduce pesticide use, and help to “feed the world.” Wait, wasn’t that the promise of the “old” GMO seeds? Gene editing supporters say the technology is precise. But a study published in Nature magazine last July found that gene editing of human embryonic cells caused “chromosomal mayhem.” That isn’t precise. Similar genetic mayhem has been seen in gene edited rice and other crops. Gene edited crops will have the same problems as the older GMO crops, and consumers will likely reject them.
The good news is that a seed industry independent of the big biotech/pesticide companies—Bayer, BASF, Corteva, and Syngenta—is growing stronger, worth an estimated $10 billion. This includes organic seed companies such as Albert Lea Seed, Great Harvest Organics, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and others. There are also seed companies emerging to meet the demand for non-GMO corn including SureFlex Hybrids in Minnesota, Spectrum Non-GMO in Indiana, Hybrid85 in Nebraska, and De Dell Seeds in Canada, to name a few.
There are exciting developments in regenerative and organic seeds. Cover crop seeds are seeing strong sales as more farmers plant them. Green Cover Seed in Nebraska sells cover crop seed mixes containing vegetable seeds whose harvested crops farmers donate to food banks. Heirloom seeds are seeing a resurgence in popularity as more people are growing their own food in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first commercial seeds of the perennial grain Kernza were released in 2020. Kernza and other perennial grains have the potential to revolutionize agriculture and accelerate the trend toward regenerative farming.
Developments like these give encouragement that agriculture will produce healthier soils and, in turn, nutrient-dense plants, which will help create healthier people and a healthier, carbon-sequestered planet.
This article originally appeared in Acres USA magazine, January 2021 issue.
Organic & Non-GMO Insights February 2021