How genetically modified seeds are changing agriculture
In a wide, brown field, Bret Davis opens a pocketknife with a click, kneels down and scrapes through a furrow of dirt. He uncovers a purple corn seed. He measures about six inches to his right, scrapes the dirt again and reveals a green seed. Their appearance in the field is not a prank nor evidence of some agricultural disease. The corn’s identity resides in those colors.
Green means the corn is a genetically modified organism, often referred to as a GMO, and carries traits that repel insects and protect it from the herbicide RoundUp. The purple ones, just 5% of the planted seeds, are fodder for the insects, a way of keeping pests from developing immunity to the green corn’s ability to kill them.
These green and purple seeds are monsters to some, miracles to others. To Davis, they are tools. “It’s made raising a healthy crop easier,” said Davis, who farms 3,600 acres of corn and soybeans in Delaware County. “We can do it non-GMO, but we’d need more pesticide and labor. (GMOs) make it a lot easier on the farmer. “We all want safe, economical food, and this is how we can do it for the masses.”
For Davis, the science is settled. He believes GMOs make his farm more sustainable and profitable and his crops safer for consumers and farmers. Since he’s used them, he said, he no longer has to blanket his cornfields indiscriminately with insecticide. “When I started, the bag (of insecticide) itself had a skull and crossbones on it,” he said. “Does that tell you how harmful it was? It was poison.”
According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2014, the use of insecticide on corn declined 90 percent between 1995 and 2010. The USDA also said the active ingredient in RoundUp — glyphosate — is less toxic than the herbicides it replaced. Davis bought his first GMO 23 years ago — RoundUp-resistant soybeans. Since then, subsequent hybrids with the trait have boosted his yield by 50%.
“The hardest thing to swallow was the price of the technology,” he said. The GMO soybean cost double that of the variety it replaced. He didn’t regret it, and he’s never looked back. He started planting GMO corn about 12 years ago.