Why farmers buy (OMG!) GMO seeds from (WTF) ‘evil’ corporations

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Around our home, spring is also known as planting season. Starting in a few weeks, and lasting a couple months, we will be planting full time. From early in the morning until late in the evening, our farmers will be in the field planting our corn and soybean crops. You can bet that those seeds are going to be genetically engineered varieties. Some of the seeds may even been varieties developed by Monsanto. Or Monsatan, according to its harshest critics.

But what you may not realize is that’s exactly how we as farmers want it.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be! Before farmers can plant their crop, they have to pick out their seeds. I’ve heard this criticism many times: farmers are either forced to choose genetically engineered seed by the big bad biotech companies, or we’re too stupid to make better choices. In other words, we aren’t making an informed and knowledgeable decision to cultivate genetically engineered crops; we’re being told we have to plant them.

In reality, farmers do have a choice – many of them – when it comes to the seeds we purchase.

Which seeds to use is probably one of the more complicated questions that a farmer has to figure out. The decision sets the stage for how well the crops are going to turn out and, quite literally, whether the farm is going to be profitable. Obviously, other factors will come into play throughout the growing and harvesting season, but choosing the right seeds is a crucial first step.

The salesman

Believe it or not, few (if any) farmers buy seed directly from Monsanto or any of the large biotech companies. Instead, each of the companies have subsidiary companies and also sell seed through regional dealerships. The regional dealership then usually has individual sales people that consult with farmers regarding the seed that might work best for the area. Those regional dealerships may sell seed from just one seed company, or they may sell from multiple companies.

At our farm, we have sales people that approach us each year from different regional dealerships that all service our area. Sometimes we buy all of our seed from one company and sometimes we buy from a few different companies. In any given year, including last year, we may plant seed from Monsanto/DeKalb, Sygenta/NK, Dupont/Pioneer, and Stine. Despite what you may  have heard, these companies are not twisting our arm to get our business or dominating the market in some other way. In fact, the companies are actually competing with each other to make the sale.

My dad’s preferred seed company this year, and for the several past years, is Stine Seed. You can check out an online version of their catalog here.

All those traits

No doubt we have all been to the local grocery or hardware store and come across the display stand for seeds – flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Want to grow carrots this year? Just grab the seed bag with the fresh carrots on the cover. Tomatoes? Aside from choosing blueberry, cherry, or regular, there probably are not a lot of options.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth when it comes to picking out seeds on the farm.

Once a farmer has picked a seed company to purchase from, there is another round of decisions that needs to be made. Above, I linked to the 2015 Stine Seed catalog. The catalog only features Stine’s corn and soybean seeds for this growing season. It has 48 different varieties of soybeans and 56 different varieties of corn. Each of the varieties is unique and have meaningful differences.

The differences between each variety highlights some of the issues and concerns farmers deal with during a typical season. Each variety is listed with a rating of how it performs for various factors. Let’s stick with corn for a minute. How long does the crop take to mature? Does it do well with high populations? How tall will the stalks get? What color is the cob? How quickly will it dry down? How strong is the root? How susceptible is it to different diseases? How will it respond if I have to plant corn two years in a row?

It doesn’t take much to realize that the process of selecting the seed can get a bit complicated. What happens if a particular field has really sandy ground? It may be necessary to pick a seed that performs well in dry conditions, even if that means sacrificing a variety that doesn’t do as well with harvest standability.

Oh, and while all of those factors and differences are being weighed, keep in mind that there are also biotechnology traits that need to be considered. If a farmer wants a crop that is herbicide resistant, there are several varieties and options available aside from the popular Round-Up Ready varieties. Will choosing Liberty Link over Round-Up Ready make a difference when it comes to the various factors already discussed? Maybe.

Other considerations

While all of that may seem like enough to consider, there are also other things that may influence what types of seed are chosen.

Price is a big one. A bag of genetically engineered corn seed can be significantly higher than the seed for a non-GMO variety. (Yes, despite what you may have heard, we always have a choice to purchase non-GMO seeds.) But the non-GMO variety is likely to have lower yields and may require more herbicide or pesticide applications throughout the growing season. The GMO varieties offer higher yields and less applications of herbicide in the fields, which translates to less fuel, less wear and tear on equipment, and less time.

Even the type of planter a farmer is using may influence the seed buying decision! For example, some planters work better with a specific type of seed, such as large round or small flat. Some planters are also  equipped with the ability to apply insecticide through the planter, which will also influence whether or not a farmer buys seed treatments or what kind of seed.

As you may have figured out by now, choosing which seed a farmer is going to plant is not one that can be taken lightly. It takes planning. It requires a good understanding of how the various traits can influence a crop. It means a farmer needs to be familiar with his fields, the weather, and the soil. It’s no wonder we need crop consultants!

Each farm is unique. To find the right seed, it usually also takes a little bit of experimenting. Do one company’s seeds perform better than another company? Are there some traits that work better in one kind of field, while others maximize yields for a different field? Is there something about the growing season that’s different this year and needs to be accounted for?

It also probably takes a little bit of luck.

No matter what the situation, however, it starts with a choice. Farmers have a choice to grow genetically modified crops or not to grow them. Considering all of the other factors and considerations that weigh into the decision, it takes an understanding of how all these different dynamics work within each unique farm. The choice is about doing what is right and works best for each farmer.

While the process of choosing a seed may be ridiculously complicated, the reality is simple: farmers plant genetically modified crops because they want to plant genetically modified crops.

Amanda Zaluckyj, an attorney who blogs at TheFarmersDaughterUSA, is from Southwest Michigan where her family farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans. For 26 years, Amanda and her family ran a roadside market selling their own fresh fruits and vegetables. Her Twitter handle: @farmdaughterusa

  • Peter Kleiss

    If your primary concern when choosing seed is profitability, I can fully understand why a farmer would choose GM crops.

    • agscienceliterate

      Um, please explain. Should there be another concern that is a driving factor?
      (if you don’t already know, farmers also buy gmo seeds because of gmo environmental sustainability characteristics; less tilling of the soil (a biggie), less pesticides, less-toxic pesticides, less passings over the soil with a tractor that would otherwise result in compaction of the soil.

      So yes, increased yields and profitability are a huge decision point, logically. You’re surprised at that? In our area, some sugarbeet farmers growing GE sugarbeets have seen a 40% yield increase. Combined with the environmental advantages, I’d say that’s a win-win. P.S. processed sugar from GE sugarbeets has no genetically engineered material in it (no protein).

    • Scott

      If us farmers only cared about profitability we’d all grow organic. However, it’s a good thing we care about things like feeding the world, sustainability and the environment so we instead use GMO’s.

    • Vee

      Dude, if you don’t make money farming, you won’t be farming long. If you don’t take care of your soil, you won’t be farming long either. (Especially if you’re renting land) GMO is a factor that helps in both those areas.

    • Steven Blackthorne

      Of course, profitability is a primary concern in farming, just as it is in any business. Individuals make similar choices when choosing between job opportunities. Fortunately, the situation in the choice of GMO vs non-GMO seeds is not one of choosing an evil, but profitable path, vs a virtuous, but less profitable path. As agscienceliterate pointed out, there are many other factors that favor GMO seeds, environmental benefits being a big one.

    • Bugsy

      Dare I say that the Randje’s and Peter Kleiss’s of the world help us sharpen our well-reasoned, scientifically-supported, and ethically based arguments that chip away at the inarticulate, pseudo-scientific, and fear based arguments of their camp. Bravo! Encore! Encore!

    • AZComicGeek

      Total costs, from seed to harvest, are a big reason to choose GMO. Fewer man hours, fewer chemicals, bigger yields are the reasons most of these were designed. Or are you making the argument that only non-profit organic communes should try and feed the world?

    • Only in agriculture do people assume that we should be doing all of this for fun. Do you go to work for free? Making a profit isn’t a bad thing but, as I demonstrated in the article, not the only consideration at all.

  • Farmer Sue

    Amanda, thank you for your clear and concise article, explaining the many reasons farmers choose gmo seeds, and also the many complex factors they need to consider in choosing which seeds they will buy for the next year’s crop. This is an excellent explanation. Thank you on behalf of all farmers, regardless of what individual farmers choose to grow.

  • Larkin Curtis Hannah

    Amanda, many thanks for taking the time and explaining all of this. As a member of a large family farm, I can say we go through all the same steps. As yes, we can use non-GMO seed but greatly prefer the GMO seeds for all the reasons you state. Having a smaller carbon footprint is important to us. Curt Hannah

  • Great article Amanda! BTW I met Harry Stine, the founder of Stine Seed, at a meeting last fall. He is a real character and also a very important individual in the history of the seed industry

  • morelambchops

    Bravo, Amanda! Well said and thanks for sharing this. We too choose GMO for the decreased use of pesticides and herbicides. Thanks to our asgrow/DeKalb GMO seeds we haven’t had to apply insecticides in 5 years! If people out there are concerned with pesticides, they should be praising them, not fighting against them! We are industry professionals and know what we are doing. Yes organic uses pesticides and its so sad that the organic industry lies to consumers and scares them about this brilliant farming technology to boost their own profits. Thanks for getting this information out there 🙂

  • Bolirvia

    For the cropping system in my region, one of the primary issues is choosing a suitable break crop to reduce the burden of soil borne disease in future cereal crops. The key is a crop which will allow the control of grass weeds. Roundup Ready Canola offers that ability. This year canola doesn’t look all that profitable, but it will be sown anyway to benefit the following crops.

  • William

    Excellent article and great insights.

  • Randje K Randje

    A lawyer, Amanda? I’ll try not to let that influence my reaction. Though the ‘art’ and success of lawyering is known to be focused on persuasion of a certain perspective, not necessarily getting to the truth. Its more than interesting that, among all those here who weighed in as farmers, not one viewpoint considered the consuming public to whom this food goes out–much less their health & well-being–to be a factor in the decision to use GMO’s or not. As though the safety of GMO’s is a given. Because the makers of GMO’s say it is. And the FDA–which does not test GMO’s and is riddled with GMO corporate insiders–gave it a green light. Nothing to see there. I realize and acknowledge there are two sides to this issue. But the side I have seen right here is utterly & completely self-interested. Not at all concerned in the welfare of the consumer, in any way shape or form. Please spare me your attacks, and sarcastic responses. I know you are ‘up against it’, and doing the best you can with the information you have. The system you operate in has been designed to make your survival the chief (and frequently only) consideration. But is what you are doing in the best interest of the whole? Many believe it is not, and in regard to GMOs the world at large operates from a different root assumption. (Yes there is a larger farmer viewpoint than America’s). And I am thankful for those in your profession for whom the health of the general public is a fundamental consideration. Question for Amanda: is your success wholly dependent on keeping the knowledge of the (non)nature of what you are selling away from the potential buyer, as in non-labeling of GMO’s? That amounts to government-sanctioned fraud. A reasonable person would detect more than a slight discrepancy in that.

    • Dean

      Randje, I’m a farmer and the consumer health and well being is an integral part of my decision making process. Why is it? Because myself and my family are consumers of the food we produce. What is also integral in my decision making process; sound science from reputable researchers (mostly tax payer based and not the likes of food babe or green peace), environmental stewardship of the land, environmental and financial sustainability.
      Labelling is already present in everyday food. If the label says organic, then it PROBABLY doesn’t contain gmo’s or sprayed with synthetic chemicals/fertilizers. If it’s not labeled organic, then it more than likely contains gmo breeding or has been in contact with synthetic chemicals/fertilizers in a regulated manner. What most consumers don’t understand is that non synthetic chemicals used in organic farming are less regulated and used at higher frequency and levels than ones used in modern day farming system. Just because it’s an organic chemical didn’t mean that it’s any safer. Take for instance botulinum toxin, it’s not a chemical used in organic farming, but something that is completely organic. It’s the most toxic substance known to man, but not made by man.
      I’m a farmer, my dad’s a farmer, my grandfather was a farmer, my great grandfather was a farmer….And more than likely my son and/or daughter will be a farmer. What ticks me off is people such as yourself that assume that if you Farm in the modern day, that we as farmers have no concern for the environment or the consumers we serve. I can probably speak for each and every farmer out there, that we’ve learnt from generations of family farming members that the well being of the land and food we produce is put in the forefront of what we believe in and do.
      I have a feeling I wasted my time with writing this reply. Maybe I should start a blog and post some computer science researcher findings on gmo farming. When I get enough followers I’ll write a bogus book and make a profit from selling conspiracy wisdom.
      If you have time, research “golden rice” and tell me all gmo breeding is bad and done for profit only. It’s an amazing opportunity to save millions of third world children, with a technology that will be given out for free from the creator.

      • JoeFarmer

        Well said, Dean!

      • Rick Sundberg

        Can’t believe you spent so much time explaining common sense Dean. It is really easy to critique how others run their land from the comfort of a sofa in a densely populated city or suburban neighborhood. The anti-GMO crowd wants to starve the world so a few bodies can eat what they consider healthy. Never mind that the life expectancy today is higher than it has ever been and it is trending towards longer life in the future. There’s never science, there’s always nonsensical rhetoric. Only way you can win these people over is if you grow organic marijuana and learn to play reggae music.

    • Good4U

      In addition to the rebuttal by Dean (below), I’m openly challenging your references to terms such as “best interest of the whole”, and your allegation about “government-sanctioned fraud”. Apparently you don’t address the best interests of the whole. You represent merely the best interests of the “organic” industry, which would like nothing better than to see biotechnology shut down so that they can enjoy an artificially inflated marketing advantage. The air-headed spewings of that TV entertainer Dr. Oz come to mind when I read your post above.

      Your post paints you as a bully, and I’m quite sure you are a pompous, sanctimonious, self-serving bully at that. You just don’t know very much about the regulatory framework that pertains to food crops, and you know nothing at all about agriculture. Ethical people such as the author of this article don’t need blowhards like you telling them how to grow food that the vast majority of people benefit from. If you really are an attorney, I’m sure you fit right in. On the topic of this article, though, instead of wasting everyone’s time banging away on your computer like a trained chimp, here’s a suggestion: Go out and make your own food. I mean ALL of it. Amanda & the other good growers who produce the vast majority of what feeds the world don’t need or want you as a customer.

    • AZComicGeek

      Can you offer one logical, scientific reason for differentiating between GMO and non-GMO products. There is no proof that they don’t cause harm but there is also no proof that dragons don’t exist. Show a credible study that shows GMO products contain harmful substances in significantly higher quantities than non-GMO. Mandatory labelling laws only help to further fear and ignorance.

      • Solutions not judgements

        Our testing instruments today can’t even detect the difference between table salt and road salt. So even saying they are safe is rhetoric.

        We are currently working on a formulated system to understand the trillions of microbes in our guts. We cannot even say they are 100% safe. Once you read this you will finally understand that many scientists are speaking only on observation. There is insufficient evidence when it comes to observation. It’s just asinine to make such claims.
        http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1002050

  • Very well written and I encourage everyone to bookmark this article when the myth that “farmers have no choices” comes up!

    • First Officer

      Dr. Bodnar brings up Interesting points about biodiversity even in a, “monocrop”, such as corn

      She mentions that the same farmer may use several strains in a single season for the different conditions he/she encounters in the planted field. Low lying areas may get a less drought tolerant strain while the drier areas do so, etc, etc.

      • Mike C

        Planting slightly different varieties of corn in the same massive monoculture field does not equal biodiversity. The fact that this woman has a doctorate is kind of terrifying.

  • sharon abair

    thank you Amanda. this is very well written and very informative. I am not a farmer but I am a consumer, and a label reader. Farmers should know that those of us who are able, look for the little green, blue and white symbol signifying “non GMO project verified” on the food products that we purchase- especially for those of us with young children or young adults in their child-bearing years. It is nice to know not only what is on our food but what is IN it. choice and knowledge are wonderful things in our country.

    • RJB

      Choice and knowledge are indeed wonderful. Please describe how “non-GMO” protects you, & cite relevant sources.

      • sharon abair

        when GMO food is banned in nearly every country in Europe, the message to me is that there must be something going on. the only folks in this country who are touting the safety of GMO are owned by Monsanto so they do not count, as far as I am concerned. I prefer my food without round-up. it is simply a personal preference.

        • Sharon, not one European country bans GMOs. More than 50 GMOs marketed in Europe and another 19 ready for approval including food, animal feed and GM FLOWERS. You are reading too much propaganda. Politicians have moved to block some GMOs but more than 50 approved after health and safety reviews.

  • Rick Sundberg

    We all know this was written by a clever Monsanto agent masquerading as a common farmer.

    • RJB

      Excellent example of Shill Accusation Syndrome!

      • Rick Sundberg

        I was making an effort at comedy there. What the “other” side of the argument might say. It would be a good example of Shill Accusation Syndrome though.

        • RJB

          I suspected as much, thank you for the clarification!

  • Tracy Johnson

    Oh, I see that “Amanda” has a last name now. Up until earlier this year, she didn’t. Although according to Genetic Literacy Project, of it’s 37 contributing writers, she is still the only one that doesn’t have a last name. It would seem that “Amanda” may be a fictitious personification, bought and paid for by the US GMO industry. Yes, I know how crazy this sounds, but check out this “farmers daughter” for yourself. “Amanda Zaluckyj” doesn’t seem to exist.

    Also, I might suggest checking out the comments section of one of her other blogs. This is from Fitzala, a health and fitness website.
    http://fitzala.com/blog/organic-always-better-evidence/

    • I assure you, I am a real live farmer’s daughter and I’m flattered that you follow me so closely.

      • Tracy Johnson

        Yes, I’m sure that you are. Where is your family’s farm located?

  • Mike C

    Or here’s a thought: how about you farm according to the principles of nature instead of constantly trying to outsmart it in order to squeeze every last ounce of profit out of your land?

    The author states her family runs a 2000 acre corn and soybean farm. That’s the problem right there, and is why her family is so utterly dependent on Monsanto for their survival. Monocultures are completely unnatural and terrible for the environment and lead to all sorts of problems, the three largest being soil erosion, consistently-declining fertility that requires ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer, and continually increasing problems with disease and pests, which leads to a greater and greater need for pesticides. Go outside and look at nature, real nature, and tell me what you see. I bet it won’t be one single type of plant grown in hundreds of rows, hundreds of feet long, spread across thousands of acres. That system is never seen in nature, yet we humans expect to force nature to do it our way, and when it doesn’t, we douse the land in dangerous chemicals that harm the health of not only humans, but the environment as a whole.

    Read “The One Straw Revolution” or any other books on permaculture and/or biodynamic agriculture and learn how to farm the right way. People were growing food for millennia before Monsanto, yet now so many farmers like the author are completely brainwashed into believing they are completely helpless without an endless array of chemicals and GE seeds. You don’t NEED chemical pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or GE seeds. You don’t NEED a billion-dollar, profit-driven, monstrosity of a corporation to help you grow food. None of that is the least bit necessary. Just observe nature and do as it does, and you will have healthy, environmentally-friendly, bountiful food.