Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Organic Agriculture -Insecticide Technology and GMO seeds

(Perhaps fortunately) I really don't have any childhood stories to share regarding massive labour savings that freed me up for entire summers because we started using these products.

Frankly, we (and most other farmers) mostly try not to use these products if we can at all avoid it because, unlike most herbicides, most of these products are readily dangerous to the applicator as well as to the environment if they are misapplied. However, I am familiar with quite a number of them, particularly some of the insecticides used on field corn and cannery sweet corn and other crops.

Being located in the warmest fraction of Canada, the part of southern Ontario in which I grew up was filled with canneries, and in my youth nearly every farm alloted some acreage to grow canning crops. One of the pests which renders sweet corn nearly unsaleable to the general public, and completely useless to the canneries is corn borer. Control of corn borer was for many years elusive; crop rotations, tillage and fresh ground all helped, but none of these alone or together were even close to fully effective. At some point, I think in the 1960's or early 1970's but I may be wrong on this ( maybe a certain blog reader and personal friend with a lot of field crop expertise in the eastern Lake Ontario Counties could reveal himself and lend his expertise here), somebody came out with a systemic carbofuran insecticide (trade name I remember is Furadan) that was effective at controlling corn borer. The problem is that it was/is highly toxic to nearly everything else as well, including us; so much so that it's use was banned entirely in Canada some years ago, although it is still available for use on various crops here in the US. Unfortunately, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and for twenty years or more this (and other insecticides like it) was the only effective tool to manage corn borer in field and sweet corn.

In the mid-1990's seed companies began releasing GMO stacked trait seed corn, the first varieties of which incorporated bacillus thuringenesis (Bt) into the genetic make up of the corn plant. Bt itself is naturally occuring....it had for years been sprayed on corn by organic growers as a means of controlling corn borer, and it completely eliminated the need for costly and dangerous chemical insecticide applications to control these pests in all types of corn. Bt field corn is widely planted, but due to consumer backlash Bt sweet corn has never really taken off commercially and it mostly continues to be sprayed with various insecticides for pest control. Since it's unlikely that the industry is going to confess that when compared to some of the chemicals it regularly sprays onto these sorts of crops, GMO's that include Bt traits look pretty darn innocuous, I have doubts the technology ever will take off in human edible products, at least until such time as GMO crops show actual, measurable benefits to consumers as well as farmers.

Although I think the entire GMO debacle has so far been a public relations nightmare and that the consumer backlash against it is well deserved, I think that applied correctly, this seed trait technology has a LOT of potential to improve sustainable farming by making high yield chemical free crop agriculture a real possibility on a large scale, which might turn into a serioously good thing for everybody. I am a big believer in history and where I can and it makes sense to do so, I like to incorporate the old ways of doing things into my farm operation. That said, unlike many organic growers I have talked with, I don't believe that every idea since 1950 has been a bad one.....just most of them ! :)

1 comment:

Jack said...

Corn ear worm and bore bore certainly have impacted the sweet corn industry. People don't seem to like getting their meat and veggies in one package! Furdan was a very effective and potent insecticide.