Agriculture is one of the leading industries in Wisconsin, so it is disappointing to see institutions hiring speakers that spread misinformation about agriculture. I attended a presentation given by Vandana Shiva, a well-known anti-GMO activist, at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. It was definitely an eye opener to understanding why people are so disconnected with American agriculture.
Shiva, like American farmers, is passionate about the environment, but the way she portrayed the image of farmers and GMOs to the public was very concerning. Her opinion is that the world is being treated as a machine and that the Earth’s freedoms are being pressured by the population she refers to as “industrial ag.” Well, behind her label of “industrial ag” are real people and families that raise food for 100% of the population, while they make up less than 2%.
In the U.S., 97% of farms are family owned, so why wouldn’t they want to protect the environment? Farming is a way of life, that for many, has been passed down from generation to generation. Yes, farmers want to make a living off the land but they also realize that in order to be successful and profitable, they must care for the resources on which they depend.
American farmers are tasked with feeding 325.7 million people in the U.S. alone, plus millions more worldwide. Because of all the people who rely on American farmers to provide food, agriculture is a large scale industry, but farm families are the backbone of ensuring we have food on the grocery store shelves 7 days a week, 365 days each year.
Shiva also believes that “industrial ag” provides 30% of food to the market and uses 70% of the resources. Do you believe this? According to the United States Department of Agriculture the proportion of the land base in agricultural uses has declined from 63% in 1949 to 51% in 2007, a direct result of urban sprawl. With the number of acres available to grow and raise food products declining, farmers have implemented technology and conservation practices to help sustain resources such as land and water.
The message Shiva wants her listeners to take home is that GMO’s are bad for the planet. This is simply not true and I can’t believe she gets paid thousands of dollars to say that…..and that people believe her! GMOs are not scary, they are not some weird science project gone wrong, but they do provide many benefits for the environment.
First, let me explain the basic idea behind how a GMO is created. Scientists are able to pinpoint the exact place in a plant’s DNA that must be ‘modified’ in order for the plant to be more resilient in drought, have a higher nutrient concentration, be resistant to pests, etc. The scientists are then able to make the necessary modification to that one, single gene resulting in a plant that looks identical to a non-GMO plant, but will provide benefits to farmers and consumers. GMOs allow farmers to grow more food on less land, drastically reduce the use of weed and insect control, utilize safer methods of controlling weeds and insects, reduce waste and so much more.
Shiva also, falsely stated that agriculture is the leading cause for soil erosion and water quality issues. Proper stewardship is of utmost importance to farmers, so in every way possible they will help to protect these valuable resources. In the state of Wisconsin, we have Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grants that are intended to give financial support to farmers willing to lead conservation efforts tailored to their own watersheds. The emphasis is on innovation and practices not already covered by other state and federal programs, and the intent is that participating farmers will reach out to other farmers to help them adopt conservation practices.
Use of GMO seeds has helped reduce soil erosion by allowing farmers to more easily utilize no-till or minimum-till techniques that help preserve the topsoil. These techniques also add more organic matter to the soil, which makes for better soil quality. It is also important to note that crops which have been modified to withstand drought conditions are reducing the amount of water needed by farmers. Overall, the crops are able to grow more abundantly because they don’t have to face setbacks from dry weather, weed and insect pressure or a number of other factors, which reduces the amount of land we need to grow crops.
The thing I thought was funny is that we have been modifying the genes of plants for thousands of years, way before the idea of the GMO ever existed, through traditional plant breeding. For thousands of years, farmers and researchers have been breeding crops that exhibit a desirable trait with those that don’t exhibit that trait, over time they create a plant that exhibits the desired trait. Throughout this process several genes are being changed because we don’t have precise control over how the modifications are being made. One example of this is seedless watermelons. Many people believe that seedless watermelons are a GMO, when in reality, they are a hybrid that was formed by cross pollinating different watermelon varieties. So the take home message is that GMOs are similar to traditional plant breeding, but we have precise control over which genes are being edited – no freaky science project stuff here.
I am glad I challenged myself to attend a presentation that made me see things through a different lens. Often times we, in agriculture, just listen to the news we want to hear but there are many people out there spreading false information about the work we do. Agriculture really must stand up for itself, but why should it be this hard?
Advocating and voicing the truth is so important, it will determine the future of our amazing agriculture community. If you have questions about food, talk to a farmer that provides it for you, they will be happy to share factual information that just might pleasantly surprise you. If you are a farmer, take the time to have a conversation with the consumers around you. No one likes to be educated, so remember to engage folks in a conversation about what is important to them and find some common ground. Most importantly, I challenge everyone to look through a different lens and see things from a different viewpoint.
While I am disappointed that UW-Oshkosh spent thousands of dollars on an event that spread misinformation and fear, my eyes were opened to the importance of farmers and agriculturists being present, engaged and willing to stand up for American agriculture.
Amanda Sandmire is a Winnebago County Farm Bureau board member and co-chair to the county’s YFA program. She resides outside of Omro with her fiance, Tyler, and their daughter, Kenzy. Amanda is a companion animal nutritionist for Doctors Choice Supplements and has been involved with Farm Bureau for five years.