In the Blog
Illustration: Erin McPhee
Tammy Thorne reflects on how GMOs have altered life on her family’s farm.
When my dad reveals the mutants he is surprisingly calm.
He speaks in normal tones. I sense slight bemusement in his voice. But that could be me projecting. We’ve had a “family feud” of sorts for over a decade now when it comes to the discussion of genetically modified corn. And that’s what we’re looking at now. He might be expecting me to say something like “I told you so.” But I don’t.
He’s not worried about the fact that this corn has mutated into something he’s never seen in his 60 years on the farm, nope, he’s just worried about his yield – or lack thereof due to these mutant cobs.
This field now represents a loss of money to him, not an otherworldly breach of genetic code with implications for life, as we know it – which is how I’m thinking of it.
His concern is valid: It costs him a pretty penny to pay for all this seed (that he’s legally not allowed to keep year after year) and the special fertilizers that go with it. This combo – known as “round up ready” – includes Bt corn that has been genetically modified to withstand a special herbicide that will kill pests and weeds, but not the corn.
This is corn used for cattle feed and to produce other products. “It’s not people corn,” my dad says but it does go into things that people ingest, like glucose fructose. He used to grow a row of “people corn” alongside the “cow corn” when we were kids. Now my aunt grows corn in a small plot by the house for us to eat.
But he feels like it’s too late to turn back. He felt he had to use the Monsanto seeds to stay competitive, and when you run a small farm (we had only about 100 acres and about 70 head of cattle at the peak of our production) you do need to be competitive. It was easy for Monsanto to sell the value of the genetically modified seed to him and all of his farming neighbours. Once one farmer is using the “superior” seed the pressure becomes real for the rest to follow (gotta keep up with the Joneses).
Altering “life as we know it” is too dramatic of a statement for my dad to buy into standing in the middle of the cornfield – yet this is what Monsanto has done. The small family farm ceases to be a viable way of life, since genetically modified corn and soybean crops are now the norm. Key to the “success” of this GM seed is that farmers are not able to save seeds and use them again – this is of course contrary to thousands of centuries of traditional agrarian practice around the world. “Round up ready” isn’t normal – it’s new and improved. Or at least it’s sold as being an improvement to regular seed.
What I’m looking at today with my dad is not an improvement.
Corn stalks usually grow one or two cobs to the stalk. This mutant has three or four teeny tiny cobs (that aren’t harvestable) and are also growing spotty black mold.
Photo by Tammy Thorne
“They don’t care,” my dad says when I ask him if Monsanto (or in this case DuPont/Pioneer) will give him his money back for this faulty seed.
Well then, can’t he just plant regular seed again?
Probably not. He had to sign his TUA agreement again this year, which says he won’t save any of his seed. This TUA – Technology Use Agreement – also stipulates that he has waived what they call his “farmers’ privilege” which outlines in a two-page document all the ways he could be breeching this contract by using the GM seed or seed that is perceived to have been bred from it, a second time. It amazes me – and not in an impressive way – how easy it was for Monsanto to control my dad and all his fellow farmers, in such a short amount of time.
When Monsanto first came knocking, I’d already left the farm for the city. I’d already met vegans and animal rights activists and had given up my driver’s license and car. In other words, I was already considered “an outsider” to my family back on the farm. So any time I would disagree with my dad, it became a bit of a family joke. (Like that time I tried to encourage them to install a windmill, which they now wish they had done when they still had the property and the offer.)
It also amazes me to see how these old-school farmers still have no instinct to rise up. Yet we “educated city folk” are the ones bringing the battle against GMOs to the front lines by demanding organic food at the supermarket. Heck, there was even a cautionary article about GMOs in the uber traditional Canadian Living magazine’s March 2015 budget issue.
The thing is, my dad doesn’t realize he’s been organic since before us city folk got wind of the term. He raised his cattle with the minimum required medicine and no extra antibiotics. He fed them corn and feed he grew himself in small batches on our own land. The cattle had free roam.
But back to these cash corn crops – his sole form of income now. He farms fields – harvests corn and soya beans – for city folk now. A lot of urbanites have purchased farms and if they keep some of the land for crops, they get a tax credit. Enter old- school farmers like my dad who will do that planting and fertilizing and harvesting for a fee. But it is a small fee, which means he needs to turn a profit on the corn itself to make ends meet.
“Dad,” I say: “Pioneer owes you money for this failed field. They need to pay you out for your lower yield.”
“They won’t do nothing…They don’t care,” he says again. He also doesn’t seem to care. I wonder why. “They’ve seen this before and they don’t do anything about it. [They’ll] just say they’re studying it in the lab.” (It being the mutant corn, not my dad’s loss of money.) But there’s something else they are studying in that lab right now that is more important to them than my dad’s loss of cash crop: it’s called the mutant rootworm. The mutant worm is stronger than multinational pesticides. Sounds like something out of a horror film – creatures that build resistance to the chemical stew we impose on them and become stronger – but it’s real.
My dad and I have historically disagreed on a lot of things, but we still have conversations about those things. Like organics for example: he thinks it’s a bunch of hooey. Good marketing I concede, but still, organics are what people turn to if they want to avoid food made with GMOs. He points to the local farmer who has just launched an organic farm down the road and says, “It takes at least six months for soil to turn over and that farm he bought wasn’t organic before, so you explain to me how he gets to call himself organic now.”
Well to start, he’s using hybrid seeds that haven’t been genetically modified and chemical free fertilizer, but my dad does have a point – that soil is probably still contaminated.
Then, I bring up Mexico.
That country treats GM corn as a serious trade and business issue. Corn is a base or staple food for Mexican people. They have retained traditional varieties of maize for centuries. The richness of this genetic diversity of maize is central to Mexican life. In the U.S., most corn is now grown for livestock food and ethanol fuel, but in Mexico over 80 per cent of corn is for human consumption, and there is a ferocious battle to ban further production of GM corn in the country. Proponents of GM corn say the drought-resistant seed they have produced could help feed more people. Yet, even looking at North America we can see that the poor have not been fed and farmers are not prospering.
As the Canadian National Farmers Union (NFU) says, “Between 1974 and 2000, gross farm income tripled. Net farm income, however, fell. Input suppliers were able to capture 100 per cent of farmers’ increased gross returns. Because fertilizers, chemicals, and other technologies failed to fulfill their promises of farm profitability, many farmers rightly question the economic benefits of genetically modifying crops and livestock … More than any previous technology—such as fertilizers or tractors—patented seeds sold through contract and multi-page technology use agreements clearly erode farmers’ autonomy.”
When I visited Mexico I got to witness the sale and consumption of corn fungus – it is a delicacy. It is cooked as a soup or succotash called “huitlacoche” and translates loosely into “corn smut” – but it’s not as sexy as it sounds. Apparently the smut, the mold, has more protein in it than regular corn.
Fungus impedes the corn from growing, but in the case of my dad’s mutant corn, there was no smut per se, it was more of a black speckled rot. Even my father, who had become a sort of Monsanto apologist recognized how messed up this was. But the argument about genetically modified organisms versus organic food is a battle that continues between us, and between farmers who are waking up to this inequity they’ve been forced to take part in, around the world.
Mexico’s ban is not an outright ban as many online activists have been calling it –it’s just a step in the right direction. The country is moving to discontinue the planting of more GM seed, but it’s not about giving farmers equal rights or prosperity. It’s about saving the country’s staple crop from multinational control.
Food is genetically modified to make it resistant to insects or diseases (or herbicides) and this is all meant to produce larger yield, for profit. Other new GMO foods include bruise-free apples to appeal to aesthetics, and “super bananas” with more nutrients, with the intention of being able to more efficiently feed impoverished people in developing countries.
Both the bruise-free apple and super banana have been created using the same GM technology being used in Bt corn; they’re just not being unleashed for public consumption yet. So why have we so easily let corn and soya beans into our food system (via processed foods) en masse without any long-term health testing? Food security? I don’t know about that. Evidence is mounting that this GM technology has destroyed the small-scale economy that supports the way of life for so many small and medium-sized farms all over the world. Why have we let this happen?
Maybe it’s time for Canada to start thinking long-term – for human health, yes (even though there have been no long-term studies on health effects), but also for the economy.
I fondly remember growing up on the farm, doing chores, working outdoors (even picking rocks could be a thrill when you’d find a nest of snakes or a group of particularly leggy centipedes) and wouldn’t trade those years for anything in the world. Sadly, it’s a reality that doesn’t really exist any more.
My aunts and uncles and my dad all have diabetes now, and barely work outside – and they all struggle to make ends meet. We lost the family farm a few years ago to bankruptcy.
My dad now only harvests crops for people who own the farmhouses for weekend and summertime visits but live and work in the city. He doesn’t own his own land.
My dad didn’t think he was organic because he didn’t fit in or get a stall at the farmer’s market in town – but he was ahead of his time. Now he’s being left behind. He’ll be auctioning off his farm equipment this fall.
Tammy Thorne is the founding editor and publisher of dandyhorse magazine in Toronto.