This post is sponsored by Texas Corn Producers.
Last month, I had an incredible opportunity to spend an evening at Schronk Family Farm near Hillsboro, Texas hosted by Water Grows Initiative (partnership of Texas Corn Producers) & USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). My experience with farm is almost non-existent except for that one time I went strawberry picking…pssstt it was 3 months back. I went to the event pretty much not knowing anything (or anyone who were attending) but was really looking forward to learning about the corn-industry, be at an actual farm, and engage in an open dialogue with local farmers.
Corn is a gigantic industry widely used in both food and non-food products and today, I am going to share my experience at Schronk Family Farm, looking into GMO vs. non-GMO farming practice, and the take away message about the industry as a whole.
Rodney Schronk and his family were gracious to host us at their multi-generational family farm that grows many crops, including corn, cotton, sorghum, sunflowers, and wheat. In the US, Texas plants more than 2 million acres of corn annually, ranking 12th in corn production & the majority of the corn is grown for livestock feed.
The evening began with Rodney giving us a quick tour of the corn field and we dived right into corn types, growing season, and how its grown – conventional vs. GMO crops. We also talked about sustainability, different challenges, and what it means to be a farmer today.
At Schronk farm, they grow two types of corn – field corn (used for livestock and other uses in food products like corn chips) & sweet corn (aka corn on the cob) and uses GMO farming practice. GMO is not a new term but let’s quickly review:
GMO – Genetically modified organisms whose genetic material is artificially manipulated in a laboratory via genetic engineering. It creates different combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through natural crossbreeding methods.
GMO was first developed in the early 1970s, first commercialized in pharmaceutical applications around 1980s, and then agricultural applications in the early 1990s. The term “genetically modified” sounds scary and I am there with you. By no means, this post is in favor or against GMO practices… but as a dietitian, educator, and consumer myself, I want to explore and understand this area more and share both sides of the story.
In case of GMO-corn such as Bt corn (a trangenic crop), it contains a gene from an inspect Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produces protein toxic to the European corn borer (ECB), an insect pest that eats and destroys corn stems and reduce crop damage due to ECB. During the tour, Rodney plucked two corn ears (GMO and non-GMO) from the ground (pic above) and gave us a brief explanation on how GMO corn is better protected from pests which means less pesticides needs to be used, and crop yield is higher due to less damage from pests. Additionally, when it comes to growing crops for personal use vs. make a living, farmers do have to consider yield, waste, resources used etc and that is something I didn’t think of before the trip.
Here are some short read more on GMO & pesticides:
GMO crops and use of herbicides/pesticides are not that black and white and from my understanding, the widespread use GMO crops has resulted in a decreased use of insecticide. There is an increase use of herbicides to control weeds but increased use of herbicides seems to be a trend occurring all over U.S. agriculture for all crops.
Another challenge is feeding the growing world population, which is expected to rise to more than 9 billion by 2050. With the climate change and spread of plant diseases, GMO looks like a promising strategy to feed the growing population.
Along with the increased yield, GMO can also be used to improve the quality, shelf-life, and nutrition. A classic example is “golden rice” which is a genetically engineered rice that contains beta-carotene (provitamin A) which is converted into vitamin A as needed by the body, It is intended to complement current strategies in the fight against vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and is intended to supply up to 30–50 percent of the estimated average requirement for vitamin A for preschool age children and pregnant or lactating mothers. It has been on the works for a very long time but you can stay updated on the progress and read more about golden rice here : http://irri.org/golden-rice
Currently no biofortified crops are available to the public yet but lots of research is being looked into
iron-biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes
zinc-biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize
provitamin A carotenoid-biofortification of bananas, sweet potato, maize and cassava
amino acid and protein-biofortification of sorghum and cassava
Should you be concerned about GMO? Crops like alfalfa, apples, canola, corn (field and sweet), cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets are available as GMO. While the intention of GMO crop is to improve the yield, be sustainable with resources like water, pesticides use, better the quality of crops to feed the growing population, there are some concerns regarding unintended consequences on health, environmental safety/conservation, labeling and consumer choice, intellectual property rights and need for more human scientific research on the matter.
Here is a great review published in 2013 titled “Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns—a review” : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3791249/.
We can go on and on about the GMO vs. non-GMO conversation but I think we need to do a better job on closing the knowledge gap between farmers, educators, and public about what exactly is GMO & be transparent about the research and it’s effect on our health, environment, and the future. There is a lack of trust and hesitation about the GMO practices among the public because of fear mongering rather than well-drawn conclusion from published research articles and credible sources.
Like most things, there are pros and cons to both GMO vs. non-GMO farming industry and instead of cherry picking and giving into fear mongering, I encourage everyone to be more open-minded about both GMO and non-GMO practices and look for credible sources. Also, as an educator in food and nutrition field, I left the event with a different perspective about the farming industry because it is much more complex than just nutrition & health. Talking with the farmers like Schronk Family and other corn farmers, it truly showed how much they cared about growing quality food and utilize sustainable farming practices for their livelihood, feed others. and take care of the environment.
What are your thoughts on GMO vs. non-GMO?