I am fortunate enough to go to a university where the professors care about what their students retain from lectures and how they can apply this knowledge to their daily lives. Dr. Mark Bernards is certainly one of those professors; he is the Associate Professor of Agronomy, Crop Science, and Weed Control at Western Illinois University. Dr. Bernards grew up in Spanish Fork, UT, a town with a strong agricultural economy and culture. His father was an avid gardener, which is where he gained his passion for working with plants. Dr. Bernards worked for a neighbor with a small farm during his youth where he hauled and stacked alfalfa hay bales. His neighbor and employer was a research farm manager for Brigham Young University, and ironically discouraged Dr. Bernards from studying agriculture based on the fact that he did not have a farming background.
Fortunately, Dr. Bernards had a professor that was dismissive of his neighbor’s comments, and encouraged him to gain experience through various internships. At one time, Dr. Bernards planned to pursue medicine, but decided to go down the agricultural route after being offered an opportunity to pursue a Masters degree in Agronomy, where his passion for these subjects developed further. After completing three influential internships at BYU’s research farm, a ranch in southern Idaho, and with a field scientist with AgrEvo in Ohio, Dr. Bernards went on to get his PhD in Crop and Soil Sciences from Michigan State University and was then employed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he worked on weed management issues in irrigated cropping systems and was also very active in Extension activities.
Dr. Bernards currently conducts 20-25 trials each year sponsored by various chemical companies in which he evaluates new herbicide concepts, adjuvants, and herbicide-resistant traits. He also expanded to doing a few fungicide trials, and this year, will do a corn rootworm study as well. One of his primary research interests at WIU has been on the interaction of winter annual plants on the subsequent soybean crop; he has also done work on cover crop response to different herbicides, and in the coming years, hopes to work more with Dr. Gruver (Associate Professor of Soil Science and Sustainable Ag) on water quality issues as affected by cover crops.
I had the opportunity to pick Dr. Bernards’ brain about current issues within the agricultural industry dealing with popular misconceptions and concerns for the future. For example, I asked him what common misconceptions about modern organic farming he finds relevant to the average consumer. His response was something similar to what I have heard in one of his lectures, which was: some people perceive organic agriculture to be “better.” In reality, it is simply another way of producing a commodity. He goes on to state, “People believe organic means pesticide-free, but that is not necessarily the case. The pesticides just have to meet certain rules.” Dr. Bernards then goes on to explain that there are both positives and negatives to organic farming, similar to positive and negative aspects associated with other farming methods.
Another question that I would consider to be a hot topic in this industry is: what would happen if the government banned all use of pesticides? Dr. Bernards response was that times would be tough for a few years as farmers and industry leaders learned to adjust. He goes on to say, “Initial yields would be severely hurt until people reduced farm sizes to the point where they would have time to cultivate for weeds. We would likely see more major crop losses in areas where conditions are favorable for disease. I would expect losses to insects would increase rapidly for a time until rotations were diversified to better manage insect pests.” All of these consequences would reduce crop supply and increase commodity prices; the U.S. would also be at a disadvantage compared to countries still utilizing pesticides, and would potentially increase imports of food. Management and production practices would need to be modified to effectively manage pests through diversity of crops, varieties, and management methods.
The final question that I presented to Dr. Bernards was how he thought agriculture as a whole would change if GMOs were banned from production agriculture. His response was, “Banning GMOs would be less disruptive than banning pesticides. GMOs facilitate a simple crop rotation (corn-soybean) because of the ease of weed management and some insect management with GMO crops. So a ban would result in major changes in the pesticides used, and there would likely be greater use of some pesticides (especially insecticides). The biggest tragedy with banning GMO’s to me would be that a vocal minority opposed to a particular technology could create enough fear that a tool with extremely low risks for harm – and many potential benefits – could be blocked. Opinion would trump measured and validated scientific data – and that is not a direction that benefits society in the long run.”
This blog was not written to make everyone think that GMOs are the best thing since sliced bread, but simply to further educate the public about these current technologies that are involved in modern agriculture. Without the use of GMOs and even pesticides, agriculture would surely be in a bind for a few years, which is something that our country, and even others, might not be able to afford.
My name is Cassie Lindsey, and I am a senior Agriculture Science student with a minor in Agronomy. I grew up on a livestock and row crop farm near Jacksonville IL, and will be working for a crop insurance company following graduation in May. I have always been passionate about agriculture and believe that educating people about it can greatly benefit the industry as a whole.