I went to a very interesting meeting at the NFU headquarters at Stoneleigh earlier this month to meet some farmers from America representing the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA) to talk to us about their experience with growing genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant (HT) soybeans. That’s Roundup Ready soybeans to you and me.
The organic “movement” has been very vocal about it’s opposition to GM and being an organic farmer attending many organic conferences and meetings, I have heard pretty much all of the arguments about why GM crops are the work the the devil, so I was keen to go to the meeting with an open mind to get a balance to those views.
Most of the meeting was conducted by two hands-on farmers from the Association who I have to say delivered their presentations with openness and honesty.
We were told that in 2010 93% of soybeans grown in the US were of the HT trait from a base of only just under 10% in 1996, so plainly American farmers adoption of GM soybeans has been nothing short of monumental.
For UK farmers, the ability to spray a single pass of glyphosate on a growing crop to tidy up the ever increasing list of herbicide resistant weeds, saving time and chemical costs has long been a dream, and it is what I have always considered to be the major selling point of HT crops. But, with only a little delving during the meeting and a frank discussion with one of the US farmers in the lunch break, the single spray myth was soon dispelled.
The reality is that many weeds in the US have now become resistant to glyphosate, mainly due to the fact that early adopters of the technology cut application rates of the chemical to save money thus selecting “super-weeds” which reproduced, set seed and spread. To deal with those miscreants “conventional” chemistry now has now been reverted to.
The herbicide strategy adopted by most soybean growers now revolves around a 3 to 4 spray system. The first spray is with a residual herbicide, the second with paraquat pre-emergence and then a full rate of glyphosate post-emergence. I was told that you had to put your glyphosate on when the weeds got to about 4 inches tall, as any taller than that they become difficult to kill and you may find you have to go back with a second dose.
According to the farmer I spoke to, the biggest advantage of HT crops was that it allowed him to use No-Till techniques which gave him three major advantages. With No-Till there are no seedbed preparations so he makes considerable savings in machinery and fuel costs, helping him to lower his carbon footprint. Secondly, not cultivating the soil can improve the structure of the soil and thirdly, the technique was helping to build up organic matter with all the benefits that it delivers. When he started No-Tilling 30 years ago his organic matter levels were at 1%, they were now 2.5%.
A major complaint was that US chemical companies had rested on their laurels for too long thinking that developing GM crops and glyphosate was the complete way forward. This has meant that research and development into “conventional” herbicides has fallen on to the back burner. Now that glyphosate resistant “super-weeds” were becoming more difficult to control, it was felt that more focus should be put on other herbicides to fill that gap.
If you are able to dismiss the multitude of environmental arguments that are levied against GM crops, the farmer representatives of the Illinois Soybean Association felt that the argument for the environmental benefits of HT soybeans of “reduced labour, savings in diesel fuel, reduced machinery wear, increases in earthworms, organic matter, soil moisture and in soil condition, reductions in soil erosion, improvements to water and air quality” should be the selling point that the peddlers of GM crops should major on to encourage adoption by the doubters.
Interestingly they did not talk much about yield increases. The graphs that we were shown showed an increase in yield of about 2% per year from the mid 1990’s, but from the late 1980’s it looked like about an average of 1% per year. Even though yield in UK crops seems to have flattened over the past few years, conventional UK agriculture could boast a similar performance.
Having heard the presentations and discussed the ins and outs with the ISA farmers, I found it difficult to understand why any farmer in the UK would want to adopt genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops. There seemed to be very little savings in herbicide costs and no great yield benefit. As far as all the environmental benefits are concerned, most UK farmers now adopt at least Min-Till techniques which address most of the No-Till environmental advantages.
So, why were soybean farmers over here extolling the virtues of a crop that at present we are unable to grow in beloved Blighty?
When I discovered that the other farmers in the room were predominantly involved with large livestock operations the penny dropped.
Up until the last couple of years the EU has been the largest importer and consumer of soybeans. It is also one of the slowest to authorise the avalanche of new GM varieties that could potentially arrive from over the pond. On average it takes the EU up to 45 months from application to approval of a new GM variety. Apparently we are still questioning the first generation of GM crops while the biotech industry are moving onto the second generation.
This is enormously frustrating to American farmers as their second biggest market is not playing ball. One slightly feels that it would have been better to ask your customer what they wanted first rather than trying to persuade them what they need after the product has been loaded in the delivery van ready for despatch with all the costs involved. But hey, that’s what we farmers do, stick it in the ground and hope somebody wants it come harvest time.
It is also hugely frustrating to UK livestock farmers, especially ones whose systems require huge amounts of imported protein to grow even more protein, as most of the soybeans out there are GM and are increasingly GM varieties that the EU is still working through the system. This is a supply and demand situation that adds risk and cost to their intensive operations.
The only solace that US farmers can take comfort in is that their new biggest customer is China. Any boat that arrives at Europe's shores that is found to contain a GM material not approved by us can sail full steam ahead to Shanghai where it takes the Chinese approximately 45 minutes for approval. A slight exaggeration maybe.
I know that I might seem like a stuck record (see my previous blog about the Processors and Growers Research Organisation - PGRO), but given the increasing global demand for protein and if we are really serious about food security surely we should be encouraging the government or our levy bodies to invest in more research and development into proteins that can be grown successfully at our latitude. We need to be doing something to stop the decline in the pea and bean acreage and the only way we can do that is to develop higher yielding, higher protein, better disease resistance and more palatable varieties.
UK livestock farmers have to become less reliant in imports and look more to home grown protein to feed their animals or change their system.
Interestingly, the chair at the meeting was Jonathan Tipples from the Home Grown Cereals Authority who was surprisingly enthusiastic about quickening the pace of importing GM soybeans and adopting GM crops in the UK. It might have been more interesting if the NFU had persuaded someone from the PGRO to do the job instead.
Blog for National Farmers Union website - September 2011