I consider myself an environmentalist, a conservationist and a farmer. This is an identity I share with many farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which spans more than 64,000 square miles in six states and the District of Columbia and is home to almost 18 million people.
I am proud to live near the Chesapeake Bay. My family and I hunt on the land and boat in one of its watershed rivers every weekend possible. We also catch fish, crab and oysters, so for us to keep enjoying the benefits of the river, we fully understand that, as farmers, we’re part of the solution to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
With recent criticism of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s proposed changes to state nutrient management regulations, one thing remains constant on our farm: We closely follow a nutrient management plan that reflects our field by field soil profile, crop rotations and distance to surface waters because protecting my local river and the Chesapeake Bay is a top priority.
My perspective on farming and protecting the environment is one other farmers share. In a recent survey, conducted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and the National Corn Growers Association, farmers across the country indicated that soil health (95 percent) and precise use of pesticides (94 percent) are key factors in environmental health.
Unbeknownst to many, with advances in agricultural technology, we’re using pinpoint accuracy in fertilizer, nitrogen and chemical applications, continually improving each year. We also use cover crops, including wheat and rye, during winter so that our nutrients stay in the ground for the next growing season. To prevent nutrient runoff, we plant buffer strips on the perimeter of our fields.
One way that farmers are doing more with less and preserving the environment is through the use of genetically engineered crops, which I find critical to our success for many reasons. The majority of farmers surveyed (87 percent) said genetically engineered crops allow them to minimize pesticide and herbicide usage, and more than three-quarters choose genetically engineered crops as a way to engage in practices such as conservation tillage, which promotes better soil health. Conservation tillage also reduces erosion and loss of nutrients and sediment from farm fields.
On our farm, we are 100 percent no-till, a common sustainable practice farmers in my area use. This production practice entails growing our crops without disturbing the soil through tillage, conserving more moisture, reducing soil erosion and improving the health and productivity of soil by retaining nutrients and organic matter.
However, no-till farming is difficult without herbicide-tolerant crops because of the need to control weeds, conventionally done through tillage. Before genetically engineered seeds, we had to plow our fields almost every year, which caused much more runoff into the waterways and also impacted our crops’ productivity.
The science behind genetically engineered crops involves making a copy of a gene for a desired trait in one plant to use in another plant. This method can be used to enhance drought-resistant, chemical-resistant and bug-resistant crops. Before biotechnology, selective breeding (dating almost to the beginning of time) was used. This technique would entail planting the crops with better taste, yield and disease resistance. But instead of going through generations and generations of plants, you can speed up the process with crops engineered at the molecular level.
Scientific developments are celebrated in almost every other industry, yet some consumers are apprehensive when they are used to improve our food supply, even when the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization back genetically engineered food as safe.
Over the past few years, genetically engineered crops have been passionately debated from many sides.
But as a farmer, I can tell you that when it comes to putting the environment first, genetically engineered crops promote sustainability because they allow us to be better stewards of the water, soil, air and habitat on our land. Real sustainability starts on each farm, and America’s farmers are your neighbors. We’re in your markets and feeding you the same food we feed our kids.
The writer is a third-generation farmer and vice chairman of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.