Bob Hemesath has used GMO products on his farm near Decorah in Northeast Iowa for close to 20 years.
“GMO products have been an integral part of our farm operation,” he says. “We use them on just about all our acres … They have enabled us to use practices like no-till and minimum-till and cover crops.”
And that is in some ways the crux of the conversation about GMOs, at least for farmers. As Hemesath says, the science is clear.
Of course, history is cluttered with twists and turns.
“Clearly, it is an extension of the Green Revolution move toward high yielding varieties,” says Doug Hurt, a professor of history at Purdue University. “But in some ways it changed the dynamics of agriculture.”
The advent of GMO technology led to lower herbicide use, less water pollution and higher productivity. At least that’s the way Hemesath sees it. For some other farmers or consumers, it opened the door for science run amuk.
The truth depends a bit on who is talking.
Most of the foods consumers eat have been genetically modified, Hurt says. Historically, that was generally done through plant breeding programs. But DNA was discovered during the 20th century and in 1973 recombinant DNA (rDNA), or the idea of it, came about. A conference was held in 1975 where biologists talked about the future of genetically modified DNA. In the 1980s food and agricultural companies began extensive research into possible GMO products. In 1994, the Favr Savr tomato arrived on grocery store shelves with the promise of a longer shelf life.
During this same era Bt technology, an effort to fight European Corn Borer, came to the market. It was soon followed by glyphosate resistant products, referred to by many farmers as Roundup Ready.
For Midwestern farmers, the GMO revolution really started with soybeans and then moved to corn, says Dave Bubeck, a research director at Corteva. In those early days, researchers literally used a gene gun to shoot genes into a plant. They then began to use an agrobacterium to insert the genes. And as the technology advanced, so did the dreams of developing better plants. But it all cost money and and took years.
“It all took a long time in development,” Bubeck says.
And then came the blowback.
“Industry leaders were caught off guard by the backlash,” says Jessica Hyland, executive director of the Iowa Biotechnology Association. “The technology came out of academic research and those academic circles had a comfort level with it that consumers did not. Consumers did not understand what was going on with this technology, and some consumers may not have had the capability to understand it … there was not the level of understanding for the consumer of something that ends up affecting them daily, literally at their dinner table.”
Many companies had entered the biotech world thinking of farmers as their customers and not considering the end consumer as their customer, Hurt says. That led to missteps and mistakes in marketing and public relations. Today, most consumers in the United States are not especially concerned about biotechnology and GMOs, Bubeck says, but there is a minority of both farmers and consumers who are still concerned. And it is a bigger issue in Europe and some other parts of the world, thus impacting trade.
From an industry perspective, one other aspect of the modern GMO era is the dual impact of time and expense. Some companies have shied away from certain crops or products because they don’t think producing GMO products in those areas are worth the time and expense involved.
“There were dreams and imagination of a lot of possibilities (which haven’t all come to be),” he says.
Still, with an ever growing world population, Hyland and Hurt both say GMO technology will continue to be important in agriculture.