Ask A Farmer: How Biotech Changes Lives

Interview with Bill Horan, family farmer and chief operating officer of Horan BioProduction

For 43 years, Bill Horan has grown soybeans, corn, specialty crops and other grains on a family farm in North Central Iowa. He was an early adopter of biotech crops – he began growing GM soybeans a year before they were commercialized, and has continued to grow GM crops ever since.

We spoke with him recently about the benefits of growing biotech crops. While many people discuss the environmental and economic benefits of plant science, Bill is especially passionate about the less-recognized, but very compelling sociological impacts of plant science. He also has some interesting perspective on recent studies and news articles that question the effectiveness of and need for biotech seeds.

bill_horanYou’ve been farming for more than 40 years – and were an early adopter of biotech, or GM, seed technology. What is your experience with agricultural biotech?

Anyone who is familiar with GM seeds knows the environmental and economic benefits of the technology. When I first began farming, we used large amounts of broad based herbicides and pesticides, and today’s technologies are safer and cleaner for the environment and for farmers. Yields have increased and we’re better able to battle the elements, weeds, pests, and viruses. Healthier plants have meant greater yields, which has translated to more income for myself and other biotech farmers. But what is less known or discussed is the sociological impact on farmers’ families.

When I was growing up, I spent my summers in the soybean fields, weeding and working. Spending time off from school doing hard work on the farm was the norm for farm kids like me. We didn’t have the typical childhood of lazy summers with lots of free time. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans have completely changed the need for hand-weeding and field work — meaning today’s farm kids are spending less time working on the farm in the summers and are now playing baseball, competing on swim teams (or just enjoying the pool during summer) or taking dance lessons — and better yet, their parents are there, watching them.

When my father farmed, he literally lived in the fields the entire growing and harvest seasons. He worked day and night on the corn harvest and we didn’t see him at all while he focused on tending to the crops. Today, you’ll see farmers spending their Friday nights in the high school gym watching their daughter or son play basketball. My father and some of the older farmers ask how we can do that – and I tell them that biotech has changed the growing season to such an extent that this is possible. The corn is hardier and I don’t need to live in the fields to make sure that we don’t lose the harvest.

The difference in family life for American farmers has been nothing short of astonishing. I’m a better husband and father – and more present in my family’s life – because of this technology. When you take those changes to the developing world, the changes are even more fundamental and important

In what way?

Well, in Africa, for example, women do most of the farming, and many have never learned to read or write. In many cases, they aren’t able to read the directions on a bag of seed, and lack reliable access to clean water and equipment to apply crop protection products. But if you give that woman a kernel of Bt corn and a sprayer, she can grow more corn than she’s ever grown before.

And if she can double yields and is able to grow more than she needs to feed her family, she can sell the excess corn, buying shoes, medicine and school books for her family. Plus, her children don’t need to work in the fields to hand weed — that means they can attend school regularly for the first time in their lives. That is life changing. For that farmer, GM crops will literally change her life and the lives of her children forever.

With improved livelihoods for smallholder farmers can come even more socioeconomic advancements. As incomes for a family or village improve, you can begin to see them embrace other technologies that were not available to them before. For example, GM crops coupled with refrigeration can completely change the game in Africa by completely changing nutrition for a community’s children. Many families lack refrigeration in the home, which results in a limited diet that is low on protein. If you can provide children with milk, meat and eggs, the extra protein can have a dramatic effect on their cognitive skills. If you can add just one of these to a kid’s diet, cognitive skills improve by 20 percent. Add two to a child’s diet and you can see improvements of 40 percent or more.

With these dramatic positive impacts, how do you explain negative perceptions and press coverage that claims GM technology doesn’t have any benefits?

As an Iowa farmer reading these articles which claim biotech crops don’t increase yields or benefit the environment, nothing I see here matches my experience or the experience of the other farmers I know who are reaping the benefits of this technology.

Overall, these articles that position GM seed as not worth using are incredibly insulting to farmers. American farmers are excellent business people. We have to be – in today’s business environment, where margins are tight and agricultural trade is increasingly competitive, every dollar counts. Farmers would never spend more on GM seed if there was not a clear business benefit. By saying that there is no benefit to using GM seeds, these studies and articles are insinuating that farmers can’t make simple business decisions.

Often these articles point to Europe, where growing GM crops is virtually completely banned. I’ve been to Europe many times – and have had many European farmers visit my farm in Iowa. Every one of them has told me that they want the technology. If there is no need for it, then why do all of these farmers want it? They know they are falling behind in a global competition. That’s very telling to me.

So are you questioning the accuracy of these studies cited in the media?

I question the methodology of some of these comparisons. What baseline were they using? Which years were used in any comparisons being made – and what weather events took place during those years? In truth, you can make these studies come out any way you want to.

I think it is interesting to see how things are positioned. In a test plot or a greenhouse, where the environment is tightly controlled, you can plant GMO and non-GMO corn and see yields that are the same. Herbicide-tolerant corn, for example, increases yields primarily because it protects the plant from weeds. Insect-tolerant and virus-resistant crops can protect entire fields from devastating pests and viruses. Without the stresses from weeds, insects, and viruses in a test plot, you’re not accurately measuring the capabilities of the plant. But in the real world, where weeds, insects, and viruses are an unpredictable fact of farming, you are going to see a big difference. This isn’t usually explained in these articles.

How should people read these studies and articles?

There is a lot of fear and emotion in these articles. But facts are facts. Technology is making a difference. For example, for the first 20 years that I farmed, we had to change up the combinations of herbicide we used every two to three years because weeds would develop resistance constantly. Opponents of plant science like to call these “super weeds” to scare the public, but there is nothing “super” about them – and they happened before biotech crops were introduced, and they still happen with conventional crops.

These are minor genetic differences in weeds that required changes to herbicides — this is part of natural selection and is a survival mechanism. Glyphosate has been effective for more than 10 times as long, and we are only now beginning to see some resistant weeds develop, which we can easily address with the older, broad-based herbicides in limited quantities. Mother Nature is always going to try and outsmart us, but we’ve been far more effective than ever before.

In other cases, GM is adding nutrition to a plant, or protecting it in some other way. Biotech technologies address a host of challenges that farmers face – and is changing the game both in the U.S., and in the developing world, where people really need the increase in availability and variety of food. I would ask people to search out the farmer’s point of view. We are the ones working with the technology and can share our experiences. From American family farms like mine, to smallholder farms in India, Africa, and Central America, farmers are experiencing the life-changing benefits of plant science technology.

We, farmers, have to point out the inconsistencies in these articles and discuss the facts whenever we can. Once we point out the weaknesses in the research and discuss our direct experience, the premise of these studies and articles falls apart because the truth is, and any farmer will tell you this, is that biotech crops deliver serious value.