Agricultural Biotechnology: There is a Balance, But Is This Vertigo?

     Everybody should have a filter.  I know that I have, measuring every word as I write, ditto for every word I speak when I talk public.  That wasn’t something that was natural to me.  It came with age and maturity.  So when I look at this world now, I question many things.  Finding the right balance between what seems right and what seems wrong can be elusive. Life is one big gray area and agriculture is too.

I say that honestly and I apply that every day to my many decisions that I make in my own farm.  Over a period of 35 years I’ve seen many things come and go, many technologies, many ideas, many policy decisions and yes, quite a bit of snake oil. In 2012 I think farmers have it pretty good when we look into our management toolbox and see all the weapons we have to go to war with.  I no longer guess where I’m going; I have GPS to help me.  I can even fight off all those bugs and nasty weeds with some modern new biotechnology.  The world of agricultural economics in my mind gives me the decision rules to guide my path.  However, despite my best intentions sometimes I still live in a world of agricultural black-and-white.  Some people think it is this way, some people think it is that way and I am trying to find the balance to make it all work.

I find that particularly true when it comes to new biotechnologies being spawned in the laboratories of our universities, government agencies and our private corporations.  If there is profit to be had in biotechnology, you can bet that the very few oligopolies that control some of the technologies are for figuring out ways to garner extra normal profits.  Lost in the lust for greater corporate profits are the basic rules of modern productivity, that is in the agricultural sense greater yield.  At the end of the day our modern biotechnology is manifested in corn hybrids and soybean varieties, which have traits for all kinds of things except for what the consumer wants.  Needless to say, the consumer was never asked about this in North America.  Big corporate profits it almost seemed cannot be denied.

I think this way mainly because I studied the very mechanics of our various economic systems.  When I see monopolies, oligopolies and free enterprisers battling on the golden fields of agricultural biotechnology, it’s very easy to see what is going on.  Sometimes very few firms have too much power to fix prices.  Legal regulations get into the mix and we are left super weeds, higher costs and an uncertain future looking ahead.

I say this even though I grow genetically modified crops.  Last year my farm averaged a record 221 bushels per acre corn and 58 bushel per acre soybeans. There is no question in my mind that genetically modified corn has a very positive economic windfall for me and other corn producers.  I’m not so sure about soybeans, in fact I’m pretty sure biotech soybeans have been a net negative but I’m willing to be proven wrong.  I am very open to new things, new technologies and new methods to help me farm.  My challenge is to find the balance on what is good and what is not in the new agricultural biotech world.  The challenge for the industry in my mind is to provide a fair playing field for agricultural biotechnology to thrive.  As it is now, in my mind it’s dominated by the thirst for corporate profits and not much else.  I don’t drink the Monsanto Kool-Aid, I prefer the latte.

I also find it incredibly intolerant how some are treated if they are anti-GMO, because in my mind you can be that way and still be very pro-agriculture.  I think that people are being delusional if they deny the fact that agricultural biotechnology up to this point has been more about selling glyphosate than anything else.  At the same time I don’t think it is a growth industry to deny some of the benefits of genetic modification.  There is a great balance here and is one which has 2 sides with much dichotomy in the middle.  Each side needs to be respected, but unfortunately in my mind there is sadly a lack of that.

As farmers we have to be aware of our biases.  You-all know that I’ve been scarred by 23% interest rates in my youth.  Frankly, it’s something that I will always hold in my memory and it still affects my farm management decisions today.  It is the same for many of us on where we come from in the agricultural biotech arena.  If you sell seed or work for a big agricultural corporation or even a University, you might be biased toward the complex of genetic modification in our crops.  If you come from someplace else, you might not feel that way.  Clearly though, the agricultural playing field is being skewed and this tussle of agendas is being played out.  Needless to say, sometimes a balance of ideas gets lost in the shuffle.

Next year I will be adding 3 modes of chemical action into my burn down for soybeans.  I will be doing this because I have 2 new genetically altered super weeds in my fields. My costs because of this are rising significantly.  You can say ditto across North American farm country.

Regrettably, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.  At its inception, I thought the new world of agricultural biotechnology would pave the streets with gold.  I was so wrong.  It has got so out of balance.  It’s been a corporate profits free-for-all.  Now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, its like balance has been sabotaged and been replaced by vertigo.  Someday, we got to get it back.