Fall 2016 Logan County
Farm Outlook Magazine

Agricultural science and technology: Have we gone too far?
By Nila Smith

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[November 02, 2016]  When we look at grain production in central Illinois and the methods by which we produce larger yields, is it time to ask the question have we taken science too far? Is technology too advanced?

There is definitely a separation of opinion on this topic. Some will say emphatically “Yes.” We need to return to some of the ways of our past generations, in order to preserve Mother Earth. Others will say “no,” we have to continue research and advancement if we are going to preserve the human race by continuing to feed the world population.

In the last decade or so, “organic” has become a consumer buzz word at the supermarket, but in early September when PrairiErth Farm owner David Bishop hosted a University of Illinois crop research field day, the talk was more than a little reminiscent of days-gone-by. Guest speakers talked about returning to crop rotations that included a third cash crop and or a cover crop to protect soil from winter erosion.

Instead of using synthetic chemicals to control weeds, one guest mentioned the return of the field cultivator as well as “walking fields’ for weed control. For those in attendance who grew up on the farm in the 1950s, 60s and even 70s, those were all too familiar words reminiscent of long hot days trudging through the fields pulling or hoeing out weeds by hand. It brought to mind, are we farming organic or are we returning to ways of our dads and granddads, or is it all just two ways of saying the same thing, “go back to our roots, go back to the old ways?”

There is a lot to consider here. Organic farming has merit when it comes to soil conservation, and protecting water. It also has some serious pitfalls, such as lower crop production, and more dollars invested in labor.

Protecting waterways and ground water is a big issue. In this day and age, we are seeing more waterway contamination than ever before. It is coming from various sources, but it sometimes appears that it is the American Farmer that is shouldering the majority of the blame for harmful contaminants in our waterway. Runoff from farm chemicals is an issue, but it isn’t the only issue. When we see legislation before the federal government, such as WOTUS (Waters of the U.S.), we as agricultural producers can’t help but feel we are being targeted and blamed for all the toxins in all the water, on all the earth.

When recently asked the question ‘have we gone too far,” Representative to Illinois Congressional District 18, Darin LaHood, said he wasn’t going to answer that specifically, but he would say the federal government has gone too far. The federal government, according to LaHood is regulating the United States right out of business, and WOTUS is an example. Hearing about the Illinois initiative for clean water, he said that he was very much in favor of letting the states determine their own clean water protocol and that getting farmers involved in the development of that plan was a plus.

In the year 2000, “GMO” became a consumer buzz word, by accident. It was an accidental dumping of StarLink Roundup Ready corn into a batch of food-grade yellow corn for production of taco shells that set many Americans on their ear. The Roundup tolerant corn was not intended for human consumption, yet there it was in the taco shells. The GMO (or Genetically Modified Organism) corn was just the beginning, as doubt about the validity of mutating genes in plants became a new soap box for environmental and health conscious consumers.

However, again, GMOs are not new, they just have a different name. For years, gardeners, in particular, have enjoyed “saving seeds” from plants they love. They have chosen the plants that performed well, and they tagged those plants, harvested the seeds, dried them and saved the seeds with different genetic traits for the next year.

Is GMO really any different? Scientists have isolated genetic traits of a plant that are most desirable, and have learned how to “save’ those traits for future crop generations. The result is plants that are stronger, more weather resistant, and greater producers. Scientists believe adding to that genetic structure, traits that help make the plant tolerant to certain chemicals, is just the next natural step in creating a better product.

There are those who will say we should have left well enough alone when it comes to scientific advancements. There are many foreign countries who will not buy our GMO grain products. Considering these facts, perhaps there is some merit to asking the question, have we gone too far?

On the other hand, consider this. There was once a lowly weed, considered toxic, with small marble size red fruit. With time, patience, and scientific breeding measures that weed is what we commonly know today as the tomato. From a weedy plant called teosinte with an "ear" barely an inch long has come our foot-long ears of sweet white and yellow corn; the product of centuries of season-by-season coaxed genetic modification.

Should we do more to conserve our soil? Of course, farmers don’t argue that point at all. It is in everyone’s best interest to keep the rich topsoil where it belongs in the fields. In organic farming, the plan to save topsoil includes cover crops that hold the soil in place and at the same time give back to the soil in the form of nutrients and reduction of soil compaction.

In July 2016 a Nebraska farmer who utilizes GMOs, Lisa Lunz wrote, “GMOs have allowed us and other farmers to use no-till practices, a way of growing crops year to year without tilling the soil, protecting it from water runoff and wind erosion. We can now hold 2 to 3 inches of rainfall, which is important because we want to protect our waterways.” From her point of view, both farming methods are working with the same goal in mind, preserve and protect what we have.

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In context of plant development concerns, Lunz also stated, "GMO technology is not an ingredient — it’s a breeding technique." And she defends GMO usefulness in the broadest scope, "GMOs allow us to drive toward a truly sustainable process in protecting our air, water, soil and habitat."

In a 2013 Technology Review article, Jonathan Jones, a scientist at the Sainsbury Laboratory in the U.K. and one of the world’s leading experts on plant diseases, stated of genetic modification, “It’s an overwhelmingly logical thing to do. The upcoming pressures on agricultural production," he says, “[are] real and will affect millions of people in poor countries.” He concludes, "It would be perverse to spurn using genetic modification as a tool.”

Even though there seems to be plenty of arguments for moving forward in scientific research, there are positive opinions about organic farming as well. Organic is a “cleaner product.” In livestock grains, there is nothing harmful. In food crops, there is no pesticide residue that can be consumed by humans. For wildlife, the lack of chemicals in the fields means less accumulated poisoning of the wildlife we enjoy. Without the use of pesticides, there is a preservation of the “good bugs” that we want to keep in the environment, such as pollinator insects. These attributes are inarguable points.

With the use of herbicides, American Farmers have done such a good job of eradicating certain weeds. However, the outcome also means less natural food sources for such as the monarch butterfly, a large concern for many entomologists. Pesticides, for the most part, are not species specific, meaning what kills the bug eating the corn is also going to kill the bee that pollinates the flower garden or next year's fruit and other productive crop blossoms.

So where should we, as a community surrounded by agriculture, land on this issue? Maybe on the fence. There are good arguments for both sides. But let’s cut to the bottom line. The agricultural producer is, though it sounds a bit cliché, the steward of the earth, and it is up to him or her to determine what that stewardship means, and how he or she will accept that responsibility.

Looking at our future, it is estimated that the world population will reach 9.346 billion souls by the year 2050. That is 3 B more than the population of the year 2010, and also a 50 percent increase: Three billion people who need housing, clothing, jobs, and of course, food. Cities around the world are going to grow. There will be land taken from the farming industries for housing, for factories and other business buildings. The acres of farm ground are going to shrink with every additional billion added to the world figure and the demand for food is going to grow.

So, how can we sustain ourselves and our neighbors, if we don’t use the best farm practices available?


Read all the articles in our new
Fall 2016 Logan County
Farm Outlook Magazine

Year in Review 4
Sustaining the farm 6
On-farm storage helps with profitability in 2016 10
How commodity prices and profits are affecting equipment sales 15
Agricultural science and technology:  Have we gone too far? 15
The benefits of crop rotation 22
Finding some profit:  The benefits of growing organic corn and soybeans 26
Growing alternative crops for more profit 32
Is the Illinois Nutrient Reduction Strategy counter intuitive to profits? 41

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