UChicago Business Journal

From Steel Plows To GMOs: The Case For Ag Advancements

By Lauren Riensche 
June 2015

PART ONE: Farming – Not As Pastoral As You Think.

When you think about farming, what comes to your mind?

Perhaps you think about tractors, plowing through fertile soil. Perhaps you think about crops, rows of plants in the sunshine. Perhaps you think about animals, bounding calves and lambs in the spring. In that thinking, you wouldn’t be alone.

Lauren feeding a calf on an Iowa farm.

Lauren feeding a calf on an Iowa farm.

Even completely immersed in the world of agriculture, as the sixth generation to live and work on my family’s farm in Iowa, those simple portraits are the images to which my mind leaps when someone asks me about my home life. But the fact of the matter is that, just as technology is advancing in many other industries, so has it advanced in agriculture. The life of the modern farmer may still include a few front-porch-sittin’, lemonade-sippin’ moments, but more and more often, it includes the need to have chemistry know-how, computer programming prowess, and more than a few mechanical skills.

The pressure on farmers to increase their versatility has risen as the world population has increased. Farmers and the rest of the agricultural industry must adapt to accommodate an ever-growing demand for food, and they have more than enough reason to do so in an environmentally viable way. Not only are there some monetary incentives to raising eco-friendly crops, but utilizing sustainable farming practices are the obvious choice for farmers who care about the earth, their operation, and who want their farm to remain in business for generations to come. Nobody wants to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

There have been many iterations of the latest-and-greatest technology in agriculture, from the utilization of work animals to self-driving GPS tractors. Improvements like these are what have allowed for the increase in number of people one farmer can feed, from 19 people in 1940 to over 155 people today. Among these advancements is improved seed technology, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


Norman Borlaug with U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace and Mexican Minister of Agriculture Marte R. Gómez in 1944.

Although GMOs are a hot topic in the news today, they have been around since the mid-1900’s. In the 1960’s, Dr. Norman Borlaug, “the father of the Green Revolution,” successfully created a type of high-yielding wheat at a time when the impending starvation of millions of people in India seemed inevitable. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over…In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death….” Just when it seemed as though the demise of a breathtaking portion of the population was completely unavoidable, Dr. Borlaug introduced his wheat—which he had spent over a decade testing and perfecting—and today, he is accredited for saving the lives of over one billion people. One billion.

Over the past 50 years, this GMO technology has improved. Instead of taking over a decade, a century, or even thousands of years for a new, enhanced breed of a plant species to develop, we are now able to read the DNA of individual seeds so farmers can know which seeds are worth the time, energy, and resources to raise. We can find and read which individual genes allow a plant to be resistant to pests, fungi, or adverse weather conditions. We can breed plants for enhanced specific usage, such as use within biofuels, as animal feed, as pollutant eliminators, and for medicinal purposes. GMOs allow farmers to use less chemicals and increase yields.

Of course, it would be deplorable to not put my UChicago education to use and critically evaluate these advancements. As a farmer, I should be extra critical of what I put into or onto the earth and how it will effect myself, my friends, and everyone else who puts the food I raise on their plates. But, what I’ve realized since moving away from rural America to a populous where farm kids are few and far between is that much of my first-hand knowledge on these technologies is not as widely known as I’d thought it would be—an assumption naïve in retrospect. It is for this reason that I’ve decided to dedicate my life to spreading first-hand agricultural knowledge. People have the right to know what goes into the production of the food they eat and to have that knowledge reach them not through second-, third-, or nth-hand sources, but from farmers themselves.

PART TWO: The Impending Nine Billion.

When people find out I’m a farm kid, they pepper me with questions, and I revel in it.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was until I moved to Chicago that I always knew exactly where my food came from. I knew the process used to raise it, I knew the technology behind it. If I had concerns or questions, I could voice them directly to the people who raised the corn, beans, wheat, chickens, hogs, or cattle I was eating. Consumers removed from agricultural life aren’t so lucky—they must most often obtain their information through other means. For that reason, I never mind the peppering. I’m always happy to strike up a conversation on my background and the agricultural industry.

Lauren on stage at TEDx

Lauren on stage at TEDx

There are several common questions I usually receive from my peers and strangers—especially in relation to GMOs—and they are common for good reasons! It makes sense that people should question disease or pest resistance when contemplating GMOs. What I often find is that those I talk with don’t know about refuge requirements—that 20% of a field planted with genetically modified plants must be reserved for non-GM plants to manage resistance, and that sometimes, refuge seed is even mixed into the bag of GM seed to make the process even easier for the farmer. People also question the safety of GMOs, which is, of course, an obvious and necessary concern. But, I often find they don’t know that it can take an average of 13 years and over $130 million dollars to test a new GM variety, all without guarantee of its approval, and when I converse with people about the use of GMOs in underdeveloped countries, they ask about corporate ties to seed use. I can’t state my answer any better than plant geneticist Pamela Ronald does in her TED Talk. She explains how in these nations, unlike in developed countries, seed is freely distributed by certification agencies and is often sponsored by charitable foundations. With this aid, third-world farmers can obtain and grow the seed they need to feed their families, to resist famine during floods, to combat Vitamin A deficiency and blindness, and so much more.

John Deere steel plow advertisement.

John Deere steel plow advertisement.

These are only a few of the most common questions I’ve heard when the topic of genetically modified organisms arises. And I, just as much or more so than anyone, am critical of the benefits and concerns of using them. It would be ignorant of me to assume GMOs to be the end-all, be-all of agricultural technology. Just 200 years ago, the biggest advancement in modern ag tech was switching from a cast iron plow to a steel one. What improvements will the next 200 years bring? Only time will tell, but you can bet I’m excited!

As a farmer, consumer, and resident of planet Earth, I want to live in a world where the environment is sound, the food is safe, and everyone goes to bed with a full stomach. I want to make food that is affordable and accessible for all people, no matter who or where they are. I want to know the ag industry has everyone’s backs when it comes to the food, fuel, and fiber they need to live every day, and, I want to help the world stay knowledgeable of and receptive to new, positive agricultural technologies as they arise, including GMOs. Just as you once traded in your iPhone 3 for the latest and greatest model, so farmers and the world will want to stay abreast of the advancements that will allow us to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

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