By: Connie Groop

For a Tolstoy farmer, the issue of whether to grow GMO crops isn’t as clear cut as it is for many others.

While some in the agriculture industry believe genetically modified organisms provide the best advantages for growing crops, others believe that philosophy is badly flawed. Meanwhile, Corey Johannsen grows both GMO and non-GMO crops.

“For those promoting non-GMO crops, there are some truths about the concerns,” he said.

But, he countered, “For well over 90 percent of farmers in South Dakota, using GMO crops is how we make our money.”

“It’s a touchy topic,” Johannsen said. “When you mention non-GMO crops at meetings, I love to see eyes roll.”

He said he thinks producers need to spend more time educating themselves about the differences between GMO and non-GMO crops.

GMO technology provides seeds that are able to handle attacks from insects, resist chemicals used to curtail weeds and withstand drought conditions.

“I think what happens is that we may overuse the GMO traits as a catch-all to solve the problems that we may find in the field,” Johannsen said. “I believe that many times we may be using GMO traits that we might not need in a particular field or area. Many times, we don’t have much of a choice, as GMO traits are usually bundled in the seed we plant.

“I’m pretty passionate about this,” Johannsen said. “I’ve learned to tread lightly when I talk to people.”

As a farmer, Johannsen knows that GMO crops do what they are supposed to do. But he started questioning using them a couple of years ago when he went to a sustainable ag seminar.

“One of the speakers was Dr. Don Huber of Purdue University,” Johannsen said. “He has knowledge that goes on forever. When he spoke, I really learned a lot about biology and soils. The part that really interested me was do we need GMO crops, or can we grow the same with non-GMO?”

Johannsen said that red flags when up in his mind when Huber talked about his research on glyphosate. Huber’s studies focused on the continued use of glyphosate and how producers may be growing less nutrient-dense foods. Huber’s studies also suggest that glyphosate might hinder the growth of beneficial bacteria in the soil.

Glyphosate is a herbicide used to kill weeds.

In research that Johannsen has read, test plots show that it’s possible to grow crops just as well without the GMO traits. That’s why he thinks it’s important to make changes in his operation. He’s bookmarked and checked numerous websites to keep up with the latest discussions on both sides.

“It’s hard to even talk intelligently with some people about the two sides,” Johannsen said. “There are those who believe that GMO crops are harmful and vilify the Monsanto company. They think it’s a corporation that makes money at the expense of the health of the public. The leading GMO technology companies will tell you there are no harmful effects, but you can find science to argue both points. It does get tricky and usually turns into an emotional issue.”

Consumer choices

Johannsen believes there are good arguments for using GMO crops. But when it comes down to the consumer, some want non-GMO soybeans. There’s an economic benefit for him to grow non-GMO beans, and that’s why he got interested.

“The conventional soybeans I grow are a food grade for Whole Food Processing,” he said. “They (Whole Foods) supply the seed for this particular bean in our marketplace. More farmers are doing the same thing.”

Johannsen found that chemicals such as glyphosate are not working all of the time because some weeds have grown resistant to the herbicide.

He believes that glyphosate kills beneficial matter in the soil, and that doesn’t get talked about enough. He thinks continued overuse can result in “dead” soil. Proponents of sustainable agriculture often focus their discussions on the biology and the life of the unseen microorganisms that need to be present on roots so the plant can break down and absorb nutrients.

Sometimes people confuse non-GMO crops with organic crops. There is a distinction between the two. With organic crops, rules govern what fertilizers and chemicals can be used. For non-GMO crops, commercial fertilizer and chemicals can be used. The difference is in the seed genetics.

Half of the farm

Johannsen farms with his dad and brother, managing about 5,000 acres. Last year, about a third of the land was planted with non-GMO crops. This year, they plan to plant half of the farm to non-GMO crops. He doesn’t want to make the change too quickly.

“I feel like a recovering alcoholic in a small town where the only business left is a bar,” he said. “I’m addicted to GMO technology and traits, and this is what is readily available in the current marketplace. I have to search out of my area to find non-GMO seed. So like the recovering alcoholic, it’s one step at a time, and sometimes there are challenges and struggles along the way. I’ll probably never quit GMOs cold turkey, as I’m sure there will be a need at times for this technology in my farming operation to remain profitable. I guess I just hope to be a ‘social drinker’ in the future and keep my use of GMOs in moderation.”

Technology-driven genetics are a way to make money. However, Johannsen has found that the market is demanding non-GMO crops and that the market pays premiums for them.

“I know I’ll make some mistakes, so I have a five-year plan to proceed as long as the market is there,” Johannsen said. “I started connecting the dots on our farm. It was time to change the vision. I don’t want to use glyphosate as the only tool that I have to fight weeds.”

Originally Published: Aberdeen News