With Promises Flagging, Some Farmers Start to Shift Away from GMO Seeds

In the winter issue of Modern Farmer magazine, Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN) reporter Elizabeth Royte writes that some farmers around the nation are starting to turn away from genetically modified seeds as their productivity flags. They are planting conventionally bred seeds instead, feeding a small, but growing market for these crops.  The story, “The Post-GMO Economy,” is online today at Modern Farmer and on our Web site.

Royte’s story focuses on Chris Huegerich, a farmer with 2,800 acres in central Iowa, who had eagerly embraced GMO seeds. “Five years ago the traits worked,” Huegerich tells Royte, referring to genetic traits designed to fend off pests or create herbicide tolerance in a crop. “I didn’t have corn rootworm … and I used less pesticide. Now, the worms are adjusting, and the weeds are resistant. Mother Nature adapts.”

Huegerich, who is now planting both conventional and GMO seed, has to spray both crops with herbicides and pesticides, despite the GMO seeds’ theoretical pest resistance. Total on-farm herbicide use has increased 26 percent as weed resistance has grown, Royte reports, citing figures from the environmental group, Food & Water Watch. Today, 61.2 million acres of cropland, including much of Huegerich’s, is plagued by herbicide-resistant weeds.

The decision to move back to conventional seeds is also being driven by economics, Royte notes, because GMO corn seed can cost $150 more per bag than conventional seed. Aaron Bloom, a farmer and crop consultant, tells Royte he has been experimenting with non-GMO varieties for five years on land around Cherokee, Iowa. “We get the same or better yields, and we save money up front,” he says.

The economics are also attractive, Royte reports, because farmers receive a premium for non-GM crops, either from export markets, grain mills, or, in Huegerich’s case, a Cargill plant that pays a premium for non-GMO corn used to make plastic bottles.

Royte says that consumers are also a driving force behind the move toward non-GMO varieties, citing Whole Foods’ decision to label all foods containing GMOs by 2018 and Target’s introduction of a line of foods that will be GMO-free by the end of 2014. This comes as more than 20 states are recently considering GMO label laws.

GMO corn remains the focus of larger companies because it still accounts for 90 percent of the market. But smaller regional companies that specialize in non-GMO seed have stepped into the breach, feeding demand for conventional seed.

You can read the full report here on our Web site or at Modern Farmer magazine. This story also appeared on LongReads.