Helping Farms Thrive

How Would the Ancestors of Modern Farmers Feel About Pesticides?

Question:
I know that farming and agriculture is a tradition in some families. How would the ancestors of modern farmers feel about the growers spraying their crops with pounds of pesticides and herbicides just to yield more product and therefore profit? Question submitted to GMO Answers by: ConcernedCitizen11

Expert Answer:
When my children were little, I had to watch them suffer through chicken pox. It was very difficult. When I was a child, my parents almost lost me to a severe case of the measles. I share this because advancements in medicine have reduced health issues tremendously. If vaccinated, kids don’t need to experience these diseases anymore. The same goes for biotechnology and the remarkable advancements it has introduced to farming through the generations. Using pesticides and herbicides has always been about growing the best and healthiest crops possible. Science leads the way.

About the Expert
Mary Mertz, Farmer

Growing up in Chicago, Mary knew very little about agriculture and food production. As a consumer in an urban setting, there weren't many opportunities granted for dialoging with farmers. That is until she met and married one in 1986. Moving from skyscrapers to silos wasn't an easy transition. But now, after raising a family and living on a grain and livestock farm for 27 years, her roots are solidly transplanted in Kansas. The fifth-generation farm consists of corn and soybean acreage, as well as a Simmental cattle operation. Mary has a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Ethics. Her husband, Bob, and she have two adult children and host a "farm to fork" event called Feast of the Fields twice a year.

I believe our ancestors would be proud of how we are facing the future. We have been able to grow and maintain the land in our care for over 100 years. Embracing the innovations that have been introduced to help keep America’s food and fiber industry viable is important to us all. If my family’s ancestors were here today, I know that they would be extremely impressed by both the technological advancements that have been made to improve the efficiency of farm equipment and our current ability to produce more crops while being better stewards of the land.

When my husband’s grandfather farmed our family’s land back in the 1940s and ’50s, the grain harvested would have been considered organic by today’s standards. He owned less than 500 acres. Weeds were pulled by hand or reduced by tractor cultivation/tilling of the soil. This was labor intensive and time consuming. Insects were hard to control and could destroy acres of crops, and weather conditions determined whether or not a harvest would take place.

As time went on and my father-in-law inherited the family farming business from his dad, smaller farms sold out to neighboring ones. Many operations went under because of the enormous amount of hard work it took to make a living from farming. Generations of farm kids decided to leave the agricultural life behind them for jobs in towns.

As farms sold out throughout the next couple of decades, the remaining farms bought the land and increased in acreage (and debt). Simultaneously, people left rural areas and moved to urban settings — and city people needed food. Technology had to advance in the area of crop production. In the 1960s, chemical application emerged to more efficiently reduce weeds, pests and plant fungi. The initial chemicals marketed had a long, residual effect — some never completely dissipated — whereas today, herbicides break down completely over the course of 30 days. Instead of the pounds of pesticides and herbicides once used, today our farm uses measured ounces per acre. Herbicides are sprayed once, and then the plants grow tall enough to provide their own canopy of shade to inhibit weed growth.

The number of farmers in America has continued to decrease over the past several decades, and the average age of farmers has gone up (58 years). The farm families that last well into their fourth and fifth generations have had to triple the size of their operations since the days of their ancestors in order to make a living. This requires a more sophisticated and efficient method of crop production. Working with biologists and agronomists, we strive to keep our crops safe and healthy. Because of intensive research in the field of biotech and significant improvements in chemical applications, farms now use fewer pesticides and herbicides than they did in the past.

Life evolves, times change, and we need to adapt in order to survive. Can you imagine a world without the Internet or air-conditioning or chemotherapy? Agriculture is necessary; the growing world population depends on it. The crops that are grown in America are abundant and nutritious. Levels of pesticides found in foods (from both organic and nonorganic methods) are minuscule and pose no known health problem here in America. And proper handling/washing of food products keeps us safe and healthy.

As far as profits go, my family is able to pay off land notes only when we have a crop to sell. We are able to put food on the table and pay our bills. I’m sure that in my lifetime, debt will be an ongoing issue, due to the expense of acquiring and maintaining farm ground and machinery. Being a farmer has never been about making money as much as it is a livelihood that is life itself to those who choose it.

Originally published on GMO Answers.