A Farmer Struggles to Remain GMO-Free
George Naylor has been growing non-GMO corn and soy on his Iowa farm since 1976. He talked to Green America editor-in-chief Tracy Fernandez Rysavy about his fight to stay GMO-free.
Green America/TRACY: Why did you decide to go GMO-free?
George Naylor: I chose not to raise GMOs, period. I just refused to buy products where corporations are messing around with the building blocks of life with their profit motive. Doing so without taking into account the environmental and health consequences is wrong.
3.9 billion years of evolution provided us with enough diversity that we shouldn’t have to try to go against the principles of ecology to produce crops. On the other hand, my just raising and relying on corn and soy isn’t a truly sustainable thing either. I’m always looking for some way to do something different. I’m going to have to take the plunge and decide how much income I can live with and whether I can grow something else in a different way.
TRACY: Has finding non-GMO seed been a challenge for you?
George: Yes, but you can find it. I rely on one company for very good seed, but more are offering non-GM every year.
As for soy, since 95 percent or more is engineered to be Roundup Ready, the various companies are not putting research or their best genetics into creating conventional varieties. The choices are very slim and often not good ones.
|George Naylor has farmed GMO-free corn and soy in Iowa since 1976. Photo by Chris Henning.
TRACY: Do you receive a premium for growing non-GM crops?
George: I’ve gotten a premium for non-GMO corn and soy. With corn, I don’t actually need a premium [to make ends meet]. My non-GM corn yields as good or better than my neighbor’s GM corn. Non-GM soy doesn’t yield as well due to the seed and a much bigger problems with weeds. So the premium does help with that.
I’ve been receiving a soy premium for four to five years because of consumer demand in Europe. European companies turn my soy into non-GM soy meal and soy oil. There’s enough clarity in the market that European consumers want livestock products from non-GM feed.
TRACY: What do you hear from other farmers about their experiences with GMOs?
George: I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence where farmers are now asking for conventional seed varieties because they’re paying through the nose for GMOs, and those GMOs are not working. They’re getting superweeds. New varieties of GM corn were supposed to combat corn rootworm, but it only took a few years before rootworm became resistant, so the farmers are paying for this trait that doesn’t work anymore. It’s dubious whether it worked well in the first place.
Big companies advertise products with same kind of misrepresentation that any other corporation advertises consumer goods. For instance, Monsanto, when it brought out seeds with rootworm resistance, had pictures in magazines where someone was holding up one corn plant with scrawny roots and another that had beautiful root systems. It implied that if you didn’t buy Monsanto corn, you’d end up with the scrawny root plant. That was totally misrepresenting the truth.
I think farmers are wising up now. It’s dawning on them that they are paying a lot to Monsanto and Dupont, Syngenta and Dow, for features that aren’t working.
TRACY: Have any of the farmers you know run into the Monsanto “seed police”?
George: My seed cleaner, the guy that cleans my soy seed that I save from year to year, has implied that he’s aware of Monsanto people following him around. Monsanto forbids farmers from saving its soy seed. So if it finds evidence that a seed cleaner is cleaning Roundup Ready seed to be used again, it would pursue a lawsuit.
TRACY: How big of a problem is GMO contamination, from where you sit?
George: My non-GM corn is right across the fence from my neighbor’s GM corn, so it’s clear there is going to be some contamination. If I’m going to continue to market my corn as non-GM, I definitely have to worry about contamination from my neighbor. Corn pollen can blow for miles.
You have to worry about contamination throughout the whole system. One year, I was going to raise soy for a company that processed it here to send to Japan for food products. I had picked a variety that I knew would do well. Before planting time, when I was supposed to get my seed delivered, the seed company said we can’t find enough seed that isn’t already contaminated with Roundup Ready. I had to pick another. The choices weren’t as good. The yield was terrible, and my premium didn’t make up for the yield loss at all.
Within the bigger system, contamination can happen. Seed companies won’t guarantee the purity of their non-GM seed. They have done what they can to make sure it is non GM, but they won’t guarantee it.
So far, I haven’t had any crops rejected by the people who buy my corn and soy. But I know farmers who have had crops rejected by the same buyers due to contamination.
TRACY: What about superweeds? Are the GMO farmers in your area having issues with those?
George: Oh, yeah. It’s not as pronounced as in the southern US or in places where they’ve done a lot of notill farming and used Roundup as a burn down. Roundup used to kill virtually every green plant in the field except the GMO crop, but now farmers are having to add more chemicals to their spray tanks to combat the weeds that escape Roundup.
When you raise just one crop on same piece of land, you’re encouraging the pests to come back with a vengeance. It’s an unecological approach to agriculture.
And when the unecological effects come about, the biotech companies get to sell more products and pesticides to deal with that problem. Biotech companies now have products in the pipeline that will not only be resistant to Roundup but to 2, 4-D and dicamba. Those two herbicides present other terrible problems for farmers. Pesticide drift, especially with dicamba, and its potential to hurt other crops is huge.
With traditional herbicides, you have a small window in which to spray crops at the right time to kill weeds. Herbicide won’t kill weeds if they get too big. But later on in the season, you might get a whole new flush of weeds and can’t spray again [because it’ll harm the crops]. So you try to spray when weeds are small but late enough that the crop will canopy over and prevent new weeds.
With the Roundup Ready system, Roundup will kill weeds whether they’re small or big, so there’s a bigger window in which to spray a hell of a lot of acres. Some farmers will think they can prosper by farming more and more acres this way.
What this does is intensify competition between farmers. Basically, the farmers that are willing to do the most unecological things are going to win competition for land. That means fewer farmers and fewer ecological farmers. And a total loss of biodiversity. Factory-farm-raised livestock depends on corn and soy meal. Processed foods depend on corn starch and soy protein and vegetable oil. So as long as the system cranks out feed as cheap as it can, that’s going to encourage more of the same—more factory farmed livestock production.
Farmer prices are based on supply and demand. Big agribusiness is expanding supply all over the world. So you can see we’ll be in a farm crisis again where prices of corn and soy do not meet cost of production. Anybody who’s invested in the idea that prices will stay stable will be in big trouble. Every food product price is somewhat tied into every other one. The collapse of the most basic food items will bring down all food product prices.
I’m hoping that consumers will become as informed as those in Europe and start saying they don’t want GMO food. They will recognize they’ve been buying inferior products that have huge consequences on our environment and our society. They will also demand better public policy.
TRACY: How hopeful are you that this could happen?
George: I think there’s some good signs that people are getting educated. The campaigns to label GMO crops have educated a lot of people. A friend of mine used to say the truth will set you free.