A Peck on the Cheek for Industrial Agriculture

Do taxpayers need to be promoting GMO growers or is a new federal ad campaign a gift to big ag?

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The US Food and Drug Administration will be spending a few million dollars to ‘inform’ consumers about genetically modified food. It may not be long before Jane Doe from Indianapolis appears on a government funded billboard proclaiming to the world, “I just ate a healthful pork chop produced with patented soybeans genetically modified to withstand at least three non selective herbicides. Mmm-mmm, GOOD!”

Tax payers will foot the bill for the $3 million ad campaign after dozens of groups related mostly to corporate agribusiness lobbied for a chunk of the federal budget in the funding resolution recently passed by Congress. Defenders of the expenditure point out that’s not much money in Washington, but here in Langdon it would feed everyone for six lifetimes.

Sign me up for the next one.

The only resistance by consumers to genetically modified crops has been that, given a choice, a few will always opt for non-gmo or organic labeled food in the grocery store. This must be unsettling for the handful of corporations with their patented seeds that exercise so much control over farmers. But they have had an increasingly difficult time convincing consumers that sole control of the food supply should be theirs.

USDA recently announced that organic agriculture, the production of crops and livestock without use of most pesticides, commercial fertilizers, or genetic modification, grew another 15% this year. Undoubtedly, part of what drives that growth is increasing negative publicity about relatively old pesticides like glyphosate or atrazine in our water supply and even in food itself.

The reason glyphosate use has grown to this level is that crops have been genetically modified to tolerate it. But resistance to glyphosate, something weeds ‘teach’ themselves through evolution, has grown, too, so now more than just glyphosate is needed. That’s why another old pesticide once used only for corn, dicamba, has been added to the arsenal of genetically engineered tolerance of crops like soybeans and cotton.

Cotton isn’t just a fiber crop because its seed offers an alternative to oil seeds like soybeans and protein supplements in some livestock rations. That’s why cotton farmers have been lobbying the Trump Administration and Congress to include special price supports for cottonseed, because high input costs and depressed prices for cotton have left them short on money.

Two other crops, grain sorghum and wheat, have never been genetically modified and sold commercially because importers and consumers have resisted the idea in wheat, and grain sorghum, a cheaper alternative to growing corn in more marginal areas, is too small a market to attract investment from seed companies.

Grain sorghum has also offered an attractive alternative to corn for importing countries like China where they have their own prohibitions on GMO’s.

It clearly rankles companies like Monsanto, Dow Dupont, or Syngenta to see any shift in consumer support away from patented seeds and conventional pesticides, no matter how small. Even at 15% growth, organic agriculture is still a low single digit percentage of all farms, somewhere close to one. But still, it’s puzzling that FDA would spend money to promote crops fed mostly to livestock or used to make ethanol.

These are not new versions of golden rice with increased iron content for people in foreign countries who need that. In fact, of all the genetically modified crops we’ve seen patented over the last 25 years, golden rice is the only one with proven benefits to nutrition deficiencies.

The rest are just tweaks to cropping systems that represent a type of production some refer to as chemical agriculture.

I’ve been around, and used, pesticides my entire life. I know the miracle of watching weeds die among healthy plants I grow for a living. I also know the dismal feeling of a failed application of herbicide representing a significant expenditure and a big part of my budget.

If the timing, or weather, is bad and weeds don’t die, farmers don’t have a lot of choices. That’s why farmers in many parts of rural America, organic and conventional alike, increasingly rely on the hand labor of migrants, not just for picking fruits and vegetables but for weeding too.

So, if GMOs are worth advertising, maybe the FDA should also point out the value of big diesel farm tractors and machinery wide as a football field. Or maybe advocate for Brazilian fields larger than an Iowa county, where grain harvesters drive north up the row for half a day and circle back south after lunch.

Why not tout the value of concentrated animal agriculture and 20 thousand head hog herds on ten acres?

Here’s another maybe.

With president Trump calling for almost $5 billion in budget cuts at USDA, and with FDA and some other critics wanting to shift full power and responsibility for food inspection and regulation to the agency by the same name, maybe, just maybe, the advertising campaign is a $3 million dollar peck on the cheek for industrial ag.

After all, they love their GMOs.

 

 

 

 

 

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