GM Crops Dominate US Farms, but Organic Increasing
GM Crops Dominate US Farms, but Organic Increasing

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As farmers across the United States are bringing in the harvest, silos are filling up with record or near-record quantities of corn and soybeans. To an extent not seen anywhere else in the world, U.S. farmers have embraced varieties that are genetically modified -- GM for short. But that doesn't tell the whole story. There's another movement shifting a small portion U.S. farming away from GM crops and toward organic agriculture. With experts calling for a variety of approaches to deal with the growing demand for food,

Meet the corn earworm. Keeping the earworm and its cousin, the European corn borer, out of crops is one of the main reasons Champlain, Virginia, farmer Jay Hundley plants genetically modified corn.

"We've seen an advantage on that," Hundley says, "the European corn borer, they can be a problem. It pretty much tends to them 100 percent. Corn earworm, it does have an affect on them, and you don't see anywhere near as many in the cornfields."

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Hundley also grows GM soybeans. They are designed to make killing weeds easier because these soybeans will survive treatment with an herbicide called Roundup.

Roundup kills nearly all of the weeds farmers commonly deal with. Hundley says the herbicide-tolerant soybeans give him more flexibility when he sprays his fields -- and he likes that convenience.

"It's time savings, stuff like that. We don't have to be there today. We can wait until tomorrow," Hundley said.

The GM seeds cost more. And his contract with the seed company doesn't let him save them to plant the next year. But, he says, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Farmers across the United States have come to the same conclusion. This year, 85 percent of the corn and 91 percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. No other country grows nearly as much.
While the vast majority of corn, soybeans and cotton in the United States are genetically modified, a small but growing group of farmers are going in a different direction.

About 200 kilometers north, in Adamstown, Maryland, Nick Maravell is also farming corn and soybeans. But Maravell does not raise genetically modified crops.  "What we're trying to do is encourage things that would happen naturally," Maravell said.

Maravell is one of an increasing number of organic farmers -- those who don't use chemical fertilizers, insecticides or weed killers. Organic cropland makes up a tiny fraction of the total acreage in the United States -- just one half of one percent in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But that figure represents a doubling of total organic acreage since 1997.

Part of the reason Maravell doesn't grow GM crops is because he is concerned about unintended consequences.

"With genetically modified organisms, they have been released into the environment. They can take on a life of their own. That is, they can reproduce and spread and cross-breed with other species," Maravell says, "and i don't feel that we have really quite mastered what we're doing with these yet."

The GM crops have received a green light from regulators in the U.S. Much of Europe remains opposed, but the scientific body advising Europe's food safety regulators recently said current varieities are unlikely to harm health or the environment.

But Maravell says another reason he doesn't grow GM crops is because he doesn't need them to get good yields.

"As an organic farm, we present an alternative," Maravell says, "and as you can see, we produce crops here. We're not overrun with insects, disease, or weeds. We can do it without the genetically modified [crops]."

In a good year, Maravell admits he doesn't produce as much as his neighbors who use chemical fertilizers and GM crops. But in a dry year he says he out-produces them.

And Maravell's organic products fetch a premium price, which helps his bottom line.

With the need to protect the environment and feed the planet both growing steadily, many experts predict farmers will call on both genetically modified and organic agriculture to meet the demands.