At Western Illinois University we are able to explore ideas from many sides of the agricultural world. In agronomy, students are able to work and learn about both organic and conventional farming. Dr. Joel Gruver is the university’s organic research professor and also teaches many classes about both organic and conventional farming. He, along with many others, understands there is a large debate on organic vs. GMOs. With his organic background, he has an interesting perspective on the use of GMOs and conventional farming.
Dr. Gruver grew up in north central Maryland on a small farm. His farm was not certified as organic; although, his family did use mainly organic practices and produced much of the food they consumed. The farm was not a primary income source, but they did sell some produce, with honey being the most important farm product. His farm background sparked his passion for soil and plants and led him into his career as a soil science/conservation educator.
Dr. Gruver attended Principia College in Elsah, IL where he completed a B.S. in Chemistry. After a few years of farming, he went to the University of Maryland for a M.S. in Agronomy. After a few more years of farming he began a PhD program in Soil Science at North Carolina State University. Five years after starting his PhD., he found himself at Western Illinois University.
Prior to working at Western, his main production focus had been horticultural crops. In 2007, he jumped head first into organic corn and soybean production on the Allison Farm located north of Macomb.
Benefits of Organic Farming
There are three main benefits of organic farming according to Dr. Gruver. First, there are farmer benefits. When producing organic crops, there is often a greater income per unit of production. There are also benefits for the consumer. If someone is an organic consumer, they are likely to pay more attention to food purchasing, preparation, and overall nutrition. Lastly, organic farming can benefit the land. It can have positive impacts on soil, water, and wildlife in comparison to conventional practices.
Problems with Organic Farming
One problem stated by Dr. Gruver is that the certification is just for the process. The nutritional quality of foods, land stewardship, and animal welfare are better on some organic farms than others even though they are operating with the same standards. “The reality is that there is wide variation in how well organic farming is practiced.” He also states that solving problems on organic farms can be challenging. The foundation of organic farming is long-term system strategies that improve soil health and suppress pests and weeds; however, sometimes extreme weather or other factors cause the best-laid plans to unravel. The result may be poor weed control or issues with supplying crops with inadequate Nitrogen because organically approved rescue treatments tend to be limited or expensive. Unrealistic consumer expectations of organic farming can also create challenges. When idealized views of organic farming and the realities of it are divergent, it is hard for farmers and vendors of organic products to meet consumer expectations.
Concerns on GMOs
Dr. Gruver has three main concerns about GMOs. His first concern is with the poor planning of the seed industry when commercializing GMOs. The initial traits targeted efficiency for farmers rather than quality for consumers. Consumer backlash has caused the seed industry to become defensive resulting in ridicule of consumers rather than respectful and informative conversations. He is also concerned that the main GMO traits commercialized (Glyphosate resistance and Bt) have had some negative impacts on farming practices. These traits have led to less scouting and applications of IPM principles, which has contributed to pest resistance. Seed representatives denied the resistance of pests until it was too late to take proactive steps to prevent the problem. He also commented that the new focus on dicamba and 2,4-D resistant crops seems like another example of short-term planning rather than a long-term strategy.
Lastly, Dr. Gruver is concerned about the marketing of GMOs to peasant farmers in developing countries. Without education and adequate technical support, GMO crops have often not performed as well as expected by peasant farmers, leading to a cycle of debt and social failure.
Benefits of GMOs
Along with concerns, Dr. Gruver thinks there are benefits to the use of GMOs. He commented that the glyphosate resistant and Bt traits have had some positive effects. Glyphosate resistance crops have contributed to greater use of no-till and cover crops in some areas. Bt traits have reduced the use of insecticides resulting in higher populations of beneficial insects and more natural bio-control.
Pesticide Use on Organics
Q. What makes certain pesticides acceptable for use on organic fields?
A.The original concept of organic (as conceived by the British agronomist who coined the term) was that a farm should be viewed as an organism (i.e., a complex system of integrated parts). The agronomist was concerned about oversimplification of farming systems rather than specifically the use of man-made inputs. Unfortunately, the term “organic” has evolved to largely mean farming without man-made inputs. Many successful organic farms prevent pest problems through cultural practices rather than using “organically approved” plant extracts or microbial formulations that have pesticidal activity. This is especially the case with organic row crops. Organically approved pesticides are mostly used on horticultural crops.
Overall Views on the Organic Vs. GMO Debate
Dr. Gruver commented that the debate about organic vs. GMOs is often framed in terms of which approach is needed to feed a growing world distracting from more important issues such as the root causes of poverty and hunger, respect for consumer concerns, and short-term decision making vs. long-term stewardship.
My name is Sarah Reihm, and I am from Avon, IL, where I was raised on a cattle and grain farm. I am a current senior at Western Illinois University. In May 2016, I will graduate with a B.S. of Ag Science with an emphasis in agronomy and a minor in plant breeding. Upon graduation I will start working on my career in agronomy.