More than likely, your food has been grown with chemicals. Your morning avocado toast could be made with avocados that were sprayed with pesticides. Your favorite latte might contain GMO milk. That delicious pizza you ate last week could consist of toppings that were grown using herbicides. But despite the stigmas that surround them, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pesticides, herbicides and insecticides are sometimes needed to grow your food.
“When it really comes down to providing food for the world, without [GMOs and chemical solutions], we won’t eat,” says farmer Campbell Cox of Cox Brothers Farms located in Monroe, North Carolina. “From a farmer’s standpoint we throw our hands up when everyone says they’re bad and say, ‘show me how.’ When you really put your hands to the dirt, you have to have them.”
Two of the biggest problems that farmers face when it comes to growing crops are weeds and insects. The optimal solution is something that will kill the weeds and insects without causing any damage to the crops. Most of the time farmers respond with either conventional (synthetic) or biological (naturally occurring) solutions, which vary from using organic chemicals to simply hoeing and plowing the land. No matter which option they choose, the solution must be safe for the plants, the environment and the humans that will ultimately be consuming them, and, contrary to popular belief, some organic solutions can be more harmful than synthetic ones.
Synthetic pesticides and other chemicals have been around for thousands of years, developing over time with advancing technology and newly emerging science, and some farmers benefit markedly from using them in order to produce enough crops to sustainably feed the population.
At Cox’s farm, they use pesticides to kill off bugs and herbicides to get rid of weeds. Cox says that without those chemicals, he would make half the yield or less, and his harvested crops would be mixed with noxious weeds, which can be harmful to the environment or animals.“Without those to control the competition, we couldn’t grow our crops in today’s environment,” says Cox. “So you either use that technology or you can’t grow crops.”
Paul Rea, a vice president at the German chemical company BASF Agricultural Solutions in North America, says that advances in crop protection have had a net positive effect on the amount of crops farms produce. In the last four decades, crop yields have nearly doubled, with improvements in farm efficiency, productivity and effectiveness.
Another solution to sustainable crop protection starts at the source, with GMOs, a critical point of research at BASF’s agricultural solutions plant. Kurt Boudonck, a greenhouse researcher at BASF, says GMOs are beneficial to farmers and undergo nearly 15 years of testing to ensure they’re safe for human consumption. But when the idea of GMOs first emerged in the 1970s, there wasn’t much information available about how they were made and how they affected our food, causing general misconceptions about what they do and how they’re created.
“GMOs have an unfortunate reputation, but they aren’t bad,” Boudonck says.
To make GMOs, BASF starts with 120,000 strains of bacteria from soil, which are placed into vials with insects to see which organisms contain the proper DNA to kill the insects. Researchers then use gene transferring agents know as agrobacteria to transfer that DNA material to the embryos of plants (soybeans, in BASF’s case) and let them grow in their vials until they’re large enough to move into pots. BASF monitors the plants in controlled greenhouses to discern which of the DNA materials are effective.
Following more studies, tests and safety trials, including field testing in real environments, BASF can sell its genetically modified seeds to farmers. It’s only through intense research and safety studies that BASF is able to market GMOs as being equally as safe as non-GMOs. They effectively solve problems farmers are facing in our current environment and climate, ensuring that they can continue to farm sustainably into the future.
GMOs aren’t necessarily always linked to chemicals, though, another public misconception. If an herbicide is applied to a plant, it doesn’t automatically make it a GMO, notes Cox. He maintains that there are naturally occurring molecules in some chemical solutions that will affect certain plants but not others, meaning you can save the crop while killing everything else.
NC State University’s Agricultural Institute also advocates for agriculture research and development, and undertakes a lot of studying for BASF internally. “They’re very instrumental for the entire North Carolina farming industry,” says Cox. The college hosts hands-on trials for BASF to assist with the company’s chemical R&D.
While there are still negative connotations around GMOs and synthetic chemicals, Rea sees it as positive that consumers are beginning to ask questions about where exactly their food comes from and how it’s grown.
“If farmers don’t produce high-quality food that’s done in a sustainable way, they won’t have a farm, so they’re really committed and determined to do it for the long term,” Rea says. “Consumers thinking about it from that perspective is a good place to start a conversation about food and what farmers do.”