by Adam Riesselman
Summary: The advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has rippled through the fields and homesteads of the United States, changing the way farmers conduct their operation. Fueling both the industrialization of agriculture as well as an organic food response, GMOs have pushed the culture of farming in new directions.
An Iowa sunset on the family farm.
I’m one of the kids that left. When I go back home to my little slice of paradise in rural western Iowa, things are familiar, but never the same. The sun still beats down on our 240 acres of corn, soybeans, and oats. The faint smell of diesel smoke drifts through the yard as tractors pace the dark soil, planting the new season’s crop. Both our farm and our neighbors’ have always been open to new agricultural technology, and novel seed genetics—particularly genetically modified varieties—have altered the way farming, and rural America, operates.
Genetically modified (GM) crops have been rapidly adopted by the American farmer. Transgenic traits in corn and soybeans conferring the ability to resist the herbicide glyphosate are an omnipresent variety found in fields today. Released in the 1990s, the Roundup Ready trait (see this article) is present in nearly 90 percent of soybeans and 70 percent of corn grown in the United States . The Bt trait, expressing the Cry1ab protein (see this article), makes the transformed plant resistant to insects, and this trait is found in nearly 80 percent of US corn . These traits are often stacked, meaning the plant has both insect and herbicide tolerance .
This technology carries substantial cost savings for the grower. Adoption of herbicide-resistant crops, as well as stacked varieties, has been shown to reduce farm labor per acre . Since farmers only have to spray one broad-spectrum herbicide with this technology, complicated herbicide spraying regimens, as well as manual weed removal, can be avoided. This allows farmers to expand their operation or spend more time off the farm with family or on other jobs.
These additions slowly crept into the lives and work of the farmers in my community. The savings were obvious enough to us, and the seed dealers, as well as the agricultural specialists at the co-ops, recommended it. Growing up, I would go to the farm expos and farm service extension days during my time off from school to learn just what was down the research pipeline.
Getting close to harvest — field of corn transforms from green to brown.
I remember coming back from college to the annual pancake breakfast held every spring by our church. Looking across the community building floor, a sea of graying farmers–husbands and wives–dug in to their syrupy celebration, and I noticed how much older my neighbors had become. There were also very few young parents priming to pass on the family business to the next generation. Over the past 30 years, the average age of the US farmer has increased from 50 to 58 years old. Moreover, fewer men and women are entering traditional large-farming operations, while the number of years a farmer continues their operation is steadily on the rise .
I’m not the only one who left the farm; the population of farming counties began to stagnate in 2004 and declined from 2010 onwards due to increased migration out of the region and diminishing interest in rural development . By decreasing fieldwork costs and introducing larger machinery to spray and harvest a uniform crop, genetically modified organisms have reduced the need for a labor force in rural areas. Agricultural companies are currently developing drones and other remote-controlled tractors, planters, and sprayers to combat the dearth of laborers in large farming operations .
These agricultural practices have also facilitated the consolidation of farming operations. Increased efficiency and economics of scale allow farmers to control planting practices and machinery on more land. The median size of a farm increased from 589 to 1105 acres between 1982 and 2007, predominantly in the Corn Belt region . Even with such drastic growth, 96 percent of crop-producing farms today remain family-operated .
However, it remains to be seen whether or not Roundup Ready plants will prove a long-lasting antidote to weed-free cultivation. Recently, glyphosate-resistant weeds have begun to arise in farmers’ fields. If Roundup Ready crops become increasingly inefficient, recent trends in farm size and labor input may reverse .
A rural drive.
These challenges are at the top of the list for America’s next generation of young farmers. Coming back to the farm to become a grower has always been my fantasy. I daydream of the freedom of running my own operation, and managing new technologies, techniques, traits, and varieties to produce something that will feed others.
As the son of a farmer, I have access to the land, machinery, and experience required to maintain a profitable corn and soybean business, but entering this industry is much more challenging for folks without direct connections. Costly machinery and even more expensive land prices have forced many young farmers out of the market . For example, the price of a single acre of Iowa farmland, about the size of a football field, has hovered around $7500 for the past few years .
However, new niche agricultural markets and growing techniques for small farms are emerging across the United States. Organic farming has steadily increased across the country. Tossing aside genetically modified crops in favor of their traditionally-bred relatives, organic farms can now sell their harvest at a price that averages 47 percent higher than that of conventionally grown produce . Correspondingly, the amount of land devoted to organic cultivation increased fivefold between 1992 and 2011 .
Small vegetable farms also provide another avenue of entry for novice farmers. Even without organic certification, the smallest fruit and vegetable farms enjoy some of the highest revenue per managed acre . Small farms benefit from increased crop density and agricultural intensity, as well as the fact that genetically modified niche crops of lower yield can carry unique benefits. GM apples suppress fruit browning; GM beans, squash, peppers, and tomatoes resist viruses; GM melons and tomatoes allow controlled fruit ripening; and GM potatoes halt both insects and leaf wilt . These varieties can fill niches in the small farmer’s operation where traditionally-bred varieties fail.
Technology continues to shape the lives of those that pursue farming as a career. Genetically modified crops are just one tool in a growing arsenal that allows farmers to maximize yields in both row-crop and vegetable agriculture.
I’m excited to see the new genetic innovations that will arise in the future. We all shape the course of farming’s history with the products we buy and the industries we support. A select few will control the means of production of our food supply. I’m one of the kids that left.
Adam Riesselman is a Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics Ph.D. student at Harvard University.
This article is part of the August 2015 Special Edition, Genetically Modified Organisms and Our Food.
1. Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/business/energy-environment/04weed.html?pagewanted=all
2. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications: Gene: cry1Ab http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/gene/default.asp?GeneID=26
3. Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us.aspx
4. Genetically Modified Crops and Household Labor Savings in US Crop Productionhttp://www.agbioforum.org/v12n34/v12n34a06-gardner.htm
5. Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1156726/err152.pdf
6. The Rapidly Aging U.S. Farmer http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/02/24/us-farmers-are-old-and-getting-much-older
7. How Is Rural America Changing? http://www.census.gov/newsroom/cspan/rural_america/20130524_rural_america_slides.pdf
8. Farms of the Future Will Run on Robots and Drones http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/tech/farming-with-robotics-automation-and-sensors/
9. High Costs Make It Harder To Grow Young Farmers http://www.npr.org/2011/09/23/140631752/high-costs-make-it-harder-to-grow-young-farmers
10. Iowa Farmland Values Drop 15 Percent Over Two Years http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2015/03/31/iowa-farmland-values/70725978/
11. The Cost of Organic Food http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2015/03/cost-of-organic-food/index.htm
12. USDA: Organic Production http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/organic-production.aspx#25762
13. GM Approval Database http://www.isaaa.org/gmapprovaldatabase/