Anti-GMO activists say farmers are not listening to their customers? Is that true?

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Tell me again, who is our customer?

I’ve often heard that farmers “push” genetically modified (GM) grain on the market, and that many of us won’t plant anything else.  That’s just not true, and I addressed that in a previous blog on the Genetic Literacy Project: no company is forcing farmers to buy genetically engineered seed.

I’ve also heard many people criticizing farmers for not listening to our customers, particularly families that are demanding that we grow non-GM food. All I can say is: our number one responsibility is to please our customers and we are listening carefully to what they want us to grow. Here’s how.

For arguments sake, let’s define our customer as the next person who is downstream in the supply chain that goes from the farmer to the family dinner plate. An argument has been made that our customer is the consumer, but in truth that is not always true. The end-user may be the consumer, but few farmers sell directly to consumers. For most of us, our customer is our grain buyer. In my case, most of our soybeans are sold through Cenex Harvest States, a farmer-owned co-op that owns a nearby river terminal, and our corn is split between the same CHS terminal and Grain Processing Corporation, a local corn processor.

From a producer’s standpoint, there are several types of customers, although most operations generally just deal with commercial sale of both grain and/or livestock. We do both here at Walton Farms: we sell a bit directly to families but most of our sales are to grain buyers and area processors. We raise corn, soybeans, hay, beef cattle and sheep for commercial sale. We also raise a small amount of sweet corn that we recently began to market directly through a small roadside stand and beef that we sell directly to the consumer. It’s a hybrid system that works well for us, and one that allows me to hear directly from both purchasing channels. I love to talk to my customers and try to understand exactly what they want from me, the producer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think all farmers are conscious of the end-user, the consumer, but consumers generally aren’t buying directly from us.  Farmers tend to focus on who they sell directly to, be it end-user, processor, exporter, etc. We also do the best we can to produce what our customers demand. It doesn’t do us much good to produce food someone doesn’t want to buy. For example, if I grow a variety of sweet corn that isn’t appealing to our roadside stand customers, this happens:

cowcorn

Sure the cows are thrilled at this sweet treat, but unsold sweet corn is pretty damn expensive feed.

I ran a bit of experiment this year and planted both non-GM and GM sweet corn. We wanted to see first-hand if it was worth the extra expense. The GM sweet corn seed is about three times more expensive than the current non-GM seed we plant. However, it is tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate and contains the Bt gene, which allows the plant to produce a natural pesticide that protects the crop against several pests, including the nemesis of any sweet corn producer, the corn earworm. It ensures that this doesn’t happen (note the ear on the right with earworm damage):

earwormdamage

To protect against earworm, and the resulting economic loss, we have two choices; we can apply multiple insecticide applications or use a GM corn. In 2013, I chose both options.

To test the opinion of the customer, at the roadside table we clearly marked each variety by name, type of corn (yellow, bi-color, etc) and whether it was non-GM or GM. To make sure we didn’t bias our own little market test, we priced all the corn exactly the same.

Interesting conversations followed. Initially, consumers were reluctant to try the new GM corn because they didn’t know much about it. There were no discussions by our customers about its safety. Maybe Iowans are just that smart, I don’t know, but it never came up. If it did, it was not a difficult conversation to have as the safety of GM crops has been well established by independent international science and regulatory agencies, as the Genetic Literacy Project has reported.

Our roadside customers chose the old standbys like “Bodacious” and “Incredible” mainly because they knew how they would taste and they were familiar to them. When asked to try the new GM sweet corn, “Passion,” the questions were always about taste, kernel color or what stage of maturity it was and not whether it was genetically modified.

Something very telling happened next… they liked it! The variety “Incredible” has always been the gold-standard for that sweetcorn taste. Although “Passion” didn’t quite match the taste of “Incredible” in the eyes of our consumers, they liked other things about “Passion,” such as the larger ear size, deep kernels and  best of all  no insect damage! “Passion” gained fans as the season went along; our customers returned for it, in fact.

That settles it. In 2014, based on customer demand, we are going to grow a mix of the old stand-bys “Peaches and Cream”, “Incredible” and the new GM sweet corn, “Passion”.

So where does this leave those who do not purchase directly from farmers? In an increasingly loud voice from what seems to be a vocal minority, some consumers—the final customer—are asking food companies for non-GM products. They also are saying they want farmers to produce the grain to supply them. But my customer, the grain processor, is not asking me to produce non-GM grain in any increasing quantities.

Why, considering the loud outcry from some consumers, are the processors and grain buyers that I sell to not asking for more non-GM or organic?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 12% of all corn produced goes to make food for humans. Most of that goes to make sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, starch products and alcohol. Only 1.8% goes to direct-to-consumer foods, such as breakfast cereal, tortillas, corn chips, hominy etc.

Click for full view.

Click for full view.

Overall, 88% of our corn is used for livestock feed, industrial use and ethanol for fuel. What that means is that in the traditional grain delivery system, 88% of our customers—mostly grain buyers— are asking for corn but they are not asking for non-GM or organic grain in any great quantities.

Farmers have listened to our biggest customer, grain buyers, grain processers, and livestock producers. They purchase the vast majority of our corn and farmers have responded to their needs. Corn, and lots of it, grown in a sustainable manner to assure a consistent supply for the future.

Dave Walton, a contributing columnist to the GLP, is a full-time farmer in Cedar County Iowa, growing GM and non-GM corn, soybeans, alfalfa and pasture on about 500 acres of the world’s most productive soils.

  • Lee Hunsberger

    Well said, Dave. Very well said. The organic or natural market has grown like a rocket in the last 30 years. It grows as fast as its customers support it. Check out what Joel Salatin and his kids are doing on Polyface Farm, a spread about the size of yours. But not everyone wants that. Until your customers are all making demands like Joel’s, keep doing what you do. And thank you for articulating it so well.

    • David Walton

      Thanks Lee.

      It’s a not so subtle point that is sometimes missed in the discussion. Farmers are VERY adept at shifting to meet market demand.

      You want it, and the our buyer asks for it? We’ll grow it if it fits into our goals for environmental sustainability and profitability.

  • prism

    A nicely researched and written article. Most people actually are not anti-GMO since they are educated and know they are not harmful or dangerous. It is a minority mostly uneducated about GM or about plant genetic engineering technologies, and mostly self educated or educated by other anti-GMO people, who are against it. Farmers would naturally go for what the consumers want, and that is low prices, better quality, lower chemical insecticide usage and more taste. Great article.

  • quicksilver

    Dave puts the farmers point of view extremely well. He also finds his customers after initial reluctance seek out GMO over non-GMO crops.

    This is great and Dave is honest in labelling his products.

    If commerce did the same then I fear the complaints would overwhelmingly disappear.

    I personally do not want GMO products or even products that were treated or fed with GMO but that is just me.

    In France the government DOES NOT want GMO products but has to accept millions of tons yearly by World Trade Agreements.

    Why does industry spend a fortune to prevent labelling then?

    And my own knowledge that GMO means adding bacteria (eg E Coli) adding viruses (eg SV40) and two antibiotic markers would be a scientists theoretical idea for harm that even those involved in GMO development seem unaware of.

    They add to their ignorance by thinking growing GMO by organic methods would remove any harm they deny and dont bother to test for.

    One person or group of people tested just one GMO (Monsanto Corn) for ten years to find harm and had the paper attacked and retracted in record time.

    Meanwwhile even 90 day studies often are only slightly even considering safety over other issues.

    Mixing food for a herbivore with food from animals was considered the cause of Mad Cow Disease. Surely mix and matching anything with anything cannot be therefore considered safe with this recent failing in cattle welfare?

    New illnesses arrive every year and retroviral illness and E Coli illness were all but unknown before GMO development.

    • Jon Entine

      Citations in first line peer review journals, please.

      • quicksilver

        Citations to what?

        That we need bacteria in GMO plants for example?

        This is the basics of GMO engineering.

        The CDC did a study of people who fell unconscious, had allergic reactions, had to be hospitalised etc after consuming GMO food.

        All conveniently disproved of course but the fact that one person did not reply (perhaps dead or not?) and was not followed up shows the laxity of the study proving the GMO food was not to blame.

        http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehhe/Cry9cReport/pdfs/cry9creport.pdf

        The trait was not licensed for food use by humans but is now in the food chain whether we like it or not.

        Last year for example it was proven to be still in our food supplies albeit at low levels.

        Here lies the problem that unlike release of radiation – Chernobyl and Fukushima which fades away in time biological releases tend to propagate and as the industry claims the yields are higher as no living pest can eat it and live safely.

        • Jon Entine

          You’re funny! In the Starlink case, you present the report, not the conclusion: the CDC studied the blood of the 28 individuals alleged to have allergic reactions and concluded there was no evidence the reactions these people experienced were associated with hypersensitivity to the StarLink Bt protein. Any food can cause allergies. GMOs do not cause allergies; specific foods do. For example, organic nuts and organic kiwis kill people all the time, but they are still approved. There is zero evidence that any food made from GMOs presents any unique dangers. The NAS and other organizations have stated that because GM foods are tested and conventional and organic foods are not they are safer than organic and conventional foods as as allergenicity is concerned.

          • quicksilver

            Hi Jon.

            I think you are mistating the facts of this environmental pollution of the food supply.

            The particular type of GMO material was SPECIFICALLY excluded from human consumption because of its potential to cause IMMEDIATE adverse health effects.

            In theory it should not be in anyones food but it came to eaten by many who had the adverse effects including hospital admissions. The CDC downgrade these known adverse effects to ALLEGED. They also filter out MOST of those cases that came to their attention. They even neglect to check on those they filtered into their studies. Leaving us to guess why one case was FORGOTTEN about. Surely people are tracable in the USA if needs be?

            Everyone then admits to the adverse health effects to the point of EXCLUSION from the food chain.

            BUT many did suffer and were found to have eaten this type of GMO material. Further to this day the GMO material is turning up in our corn.

            The experience tells us that GMO material once in nature has the unhappy ability to turn up where it is not wanted.

            The report is certainly not from untrustworthy sources and is an object lesson in showing us that material of this type does not quietly go or not go just where industry, government or farmers say it should or should not go but the stuff just does as it pleases.

            So harm is called alleged, there is no dispute the stuff was eaten and so is an alleged case of harm as people are eating this stuff even though in theory they shouldnt be eating it.

            And if the CDC can deny harm or just call it alleged their report does indicate nevertheless SERIOUS concern.

            And if sudden harm is so easily dismissed or called alleged what chance for harm that is delayed for more than 1 hour?

            Food tests for safety are poor when for the statutory 90 days or LESS. But excluding people who came to harm who didnt react in the first hour after eating the food is a DISGRACE.

            Even 100 year old science tells us for example that antibodies take more than an hour to build up.

            And in GMO science despite nearly 50 years of experience those directly concerned are still finding their way amongst the complexities and lack of knowledge.

            The CDC while discounting a known allergen have no answer as to why these people became ill after eating the GMO material so we are left with just more NEGATIVES.

            We simply do not know.

            But observation indicates a problem much much bigger than that examined. Several people suffering and therefore excluding GMO harm seems far fetched.

            We will never accept GMO harm even if cases of harm found cannot be put down to non GMO causes.

            Meanwhile it doesnt take much observation to note several adverse health effects in the USA which are at higher levels than elsewhere and of course is this GMO or one of many other possibilities? To date the harm to people is evident and thenormal response is to blame the victim who suffers novel illnesses.

            Genetic animals have suffered from obesity, arthritis and early deaths and from even the lucky chance of even being born normally. Hardly a success story even though the animals will be famous for the rest of human history as the SUCCESS of GMO experiments in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

          • Jon Entine

            Actually we do; there is no possible biological reason for any ill effects from any protein made through GMOs in contrast to any protein created through conventional breeding, hybrid breeding or mutagenesis. And unlike those other forms of breeding, GM proteins are tested and evaluated, which is why global science organizations contend that GM foods are safer than non GMO foods. You may not like the science because of your ideological biases–and I know you think that you are smarter than the scientists at the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the European Food Safety Authority-but you are not.

          • quicksilver

            Hi Jon

            We are not talking proteins but the genetic make up of the GMO plants which incorporates fragments of at least one virus and one bacteria put into each cell along with antibiotic markers.

            As to the whether of not I am smarter as you say than EFSA then that is not open to debate. Certainly with money and influence I stand at ZERO but I have had cause to write to EFSA and ask if they have ANY scientific expertise at all.

            John Dalli for example was the Health Minister there who passed the GMO material as fit to eat at a rate which makes the TGV look like a snail.

            But what does the world now make of this man who passed GMO matter over the heads of the scientists at EFSA?

            See

            http://blogs.ft.com/brusselsblog/2013/04/30/dalli-and-the-bribery-scandal-that-wont-go-away/

            If you take money from beggars then what do you expect when billionaires need to lobby you?

            Or was John Dalli being scientific and honest with GMO but let himself down only over a bit of WEED?

            Compare his dealings at the EFSA with for example many of the worlds top scientists and many important nations whose views on GMO from ten year studies on one of thousands only of GMO material find it wanting.