Opinion: Farming in a fishbowl
August 15th, 2013
02:45 PM ET
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Katie Pratt is a corn and soybean family farmer in Illinois and serves as a Face of Farming & Ranching for U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. Read more about her on her blog and follow her on Twitter @KatiePratt4.

The word of the day in agriculture is "transparency."

As the debate rages over the pros and cons of labeling things from fruits and vegetables to cereal, ground beef, soil and plastics, we farmers and ranchers continue to greet each sunrise doing what we do: plant, protect, grow, raise, care, nurture, conserve, preserve, maintain, and improve their crops, land and livestock.

It’s all part of the job and the life we have chosen for seven generations on our farm. We grow corn, soybeans and seed corn, and we do plant genetically modified varieties. I’ll tell you why.

We use biotechnology on our farm – including GMOs – because we see the benefits are real. We have reduced our use of pesticide by half. Less pesticide application in turn reduces our use of fuel in our equipment. With fewer passes, we are achieving better soil structure because the ground is less compacted, which equals better crops. But biotechnology is just one tool combined with so many others to give us an edge on our farm. There is so much more to the farm conversation than GMOs. So. Much. More.

Before I am a farmer, I am a mother to two adventurous farm kids. My responsibility to them trumps everything, so I join the choir asking questions about food and farming. I spend time seeking out solid factual information from farmers, food scientists and nutritionists. My success in finding the information I seek depends on the transparency of these individuals. There’s that word again: transparency.

Transparency on our farm is a given, and always has been. Whether we’re registering acres with the Farm Service Agency or renewing our certifications to apply fertilizers and pesticides when needed, we are putting information about our farm out for public record.

Transparency also extends to basic education. As a child, I remember tour groups visiting my parents’ farm to view the pigs in the buildings, cows on pasture and crops in the field. Then my mom started pen-palling with elementary school students from the suburbs of Chicago and we would host them on the farm.

When I moved home from college and married My Farmer, Mom handed me the pen. I have been involved in the adopt-a-classroom program for ten years, corresponding via letters, pictures, videos and in-class visits with third, fourth and fifth graders. Three of the classes have been able to visit our farm for a day. Their visit is just as thrilling for us as it is for them. They climb on the tractors, plant seeds, smell the smells, touch the animals and ask questions.

This past summer, my parents were hosts for our county farm bureau’s annual farm visit day. More than 350 people from the Chicago metropolitan area came to the farm, openly curious about the animals and crops, asking great questions and leaving with more information than they ever thought they’d get. In fact, a few of the families have stopped back at my parents’ home this summer to visit with their new farm friends.

Farming is our livelihood. We wake up on the farm, walk out the door to the farm, drive down the road to farm. It dominates our conversations with friends and family. It consumes every second of daylight six days a week, and even on Sunday we’re thinking about what we will tackle the next day.

Farming is also our business. Yet unlike businesses in town with a storefront, a lock on the door, office hours and vacation days, we are “open” 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Social media and the push for transparency only heighten our awareness of that fact.

A few nights ago, the phone rang at 9:30 p.m. (way past my bed time). A woman was calling from Hawaii with questions about our use of biotechnology on our farm. We talked for a good half hour before agreeing to look into the other’s viewpoints and share information pertinent to the conversation. She even gave me her phone number.

That night I came to terms that we are farming in a fishbowl. I was reminded again that our every decision regarding the farm would be scrutinized not only by us, but by others who may not have the generational, educational or experiential understanding of why we do what we do.

So, because of that, we’ll continue to write to students, invite folks to the farm for a tour, blog, post pictures and engage on social media. And we ask that curious folks do the same.

Farmers can be found everywhere these days. Some can be found at farmers markets, tending cattle on the outskirts of town, or in the local supermarket answering questions for a day. We are also all around social media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube (do I need to mention "I'm Farming and I Grow It" by the Peterson Farm Bros.?) and Pinterest.

Many state farm bureaus, commodity groups or agriculture departments have created directories linking consumers with farmers and ranchers. Look them up. Together we just might achieve this so-called “transparency.”

Got a question for our farmers? Pose it in the comments below and we'll do our best to answer.

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soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Faisal

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    August 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  2. Arthur Tesla

    You are not creating food in a void...there is a consumer out there. What does the consumer want. In marketing, they say the consumer is king. Give the consumer what they want and they will beat a pathway to your doorstep. Try to Force on the consumer what they don't want, and they will fight you tooth and nail at every step of the way.
    Consumers OPPOSE genetically engineered foods! Stop using us in a Dangerous Food Experiment!
    Dr. Charles Benbrook:
    On the technology side, the big new development in U.S. agriculture is genetic engineering. We now move genes around, between unrelated life forms, in the hope of overcoming some problem or challenge usually rooted in farm management systems. To accomplish the task of moving genes into a new organism, scientists use tools designed to overcome nature's attempts to stop such "mutations" from happening. The techniques used to overcome natural defenses against such gene transfer appear to cause unanticipated and sometimes negative consequences. Our ability to move genes around and add traits to plants and cloned animals has far outpaced our understanding of what will happen as a result. For this reason, we should not be surprised when we are, in fact, surprised by an unforeseen problem linked back to a transgenic plant.
    Dr. Benbrook was head of the National Academy of Science Agricultural Board for seven years and is now a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University.

    "We are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences."
    – Dr Suzanne Wuerthele,
    U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist

    Nobel Laureate in Medicine George Wald –Professor of Biology, Harvard University–warned against genetic engineering:
    Recombinant DNA technology faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of three billion years of evolution. Such intervention must not be confused with previous intrusion upon the natural order of living organisms: animal and plant breeding... All the earlier procedures worked within single or closely related species...Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part the bargain...this (new) direction may be not only unwise, but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.

    August 22, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  3. SlowMoneyFarm

    Reblogged this on Food, Farm, Life Choices and commented:
    A friend of mine posted some thoughts on transparency, a topic we've pondered often too. As I prepare to go to the AgChat Foundation board meeting and conference, I'm sharing this here too.

    August 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
  4. Steves

    She's very pretty and has a nice rack. That is all.

    August 20, 2013 at 9:09 am |
  5. Natalie

    My major issue is that Monsanto is basically testing this whole GMO theory out. They *hope* its okay, they *hope* there are no lasting effects, they *hope* and *think* they have the whole thing under control. I live in Ca where a bill to label GMO food failed, mostly due to Monsanto $$. If they were all about transparency why did they spend so much money to defeat the bill if there's nothing wrong with GMO's?

    Also in one post the farmer flat out states that they're having to constantly adjust for the fact that they are changing the whole nature of the bugs which are adapting. Is no one else bothered by that? They are creating super-bugs. This is frighting. No thank you. GMO scares the crap out of me.

    August 19, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • randoid1234

      I would say they spent the money to defeat the bill because they did the studies showing it's safe and didn't want it to turn into another "vaccines cause autism" type of thing.

      August 19, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
      • Natalie

        Who did studies? I'd love to see long term studies NOT paid for by Monsanto (or any of its subsidiaries) that show that there is 100% no adverse effects from GMO food. As it is from their own admission bugs are already adapting and changing because of the forced genetic makeup of the plants. I'm a nurse, I look around and I see such vast differences in people based on the food they choose to eat. I'm all for personal responsibility however when the genetic/chemical makeup of that food has the possibility to harm people I'm not going to cross my fingers and hope for the best. I've got a friend at work, we couldn't be more polar opposite when it comes to politics, except when it comes to GMO food. That has to be one of the few issues we 100% agree on. Eat what you want, but if and when we all realize GMO is the reason why everyone is sick do you really think Monsanto is going to offer more than a "gee we're sorry"? They're making $$$ hand over fist and laughing the whole way. My body and when I have kids, theirs is worth more to me than $1.99 cereal. I'll spend more money on our food, I'll cut corners elsewhere. I don't need a new car, or fancy purses.

        August 19, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
        • Bruce

          There are plenty of independent objective groups that have determined there are no adverse health benefits based on the consumption of GM food products. The regulatory agencies, after careful review, have also determined that the crops that incorporate GM crops have no adverse affects on the animals that consume them. Although the data is provided by the company applying for registration, the tests are done by honest scientists. Clearly, people can make mistakes, but that is true of everything we do on this earth. I understand how food is emotional to people. I also understand why people are scared because they the science behind the products is complex and hard t understand. But, people, GM food is really not something to lose sleep over. People are unhealthy more likely because they have eat to much bad food (organic and/or conventionally grown) and have unhealthy life-styles. By the way, fyi, the majority of crops that are GM are eaten by life-stock, which you then eat, assuming you eat meat.

          August 19, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  6. Natalie

    My major issue is that Monsanto is basically testing this whole GMO theory out. They *hope* its okay, they *hope* there are no lasting effects, they *hope* and *think* they have the whole thing under control. I live in Ca where a bill to label GMO food failed, mostly due to Monsanto $$. If they were all about transparency why did they spend so much money to defeat the bill if there's nothing wrong with GMO's?

    August 19, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  7. Brad

    While I don't know for sure if GMO foods are safe or are causing insect mutation to adapt, remember nature will find a way, I will say I do believe the current way we farm is one of the major factors of bee decline. Years ago the majority of the farmers went to no till farming if everyone remembers. No till is a way to farm without tilling the soil which proponents say doesn't release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and saves on fuel also carbon dioxide reducing emissions. Now don't get me wrong but while we are worrying about the carbon dioxide we are spraying herbicides and pesticides in enough quantities to kill off everything on the fields for a month. I have personally seen turkeys and deer feed in fields that were sprayed an hour earlier.What is this eventually going to do? What about bees pollinating some of the wildflowers sprayed with those chemicals? What about insects in those fields flying up in the evening feeding bats? You will find out there are some major chemical companies in the pockets of our legislators that are pushing all this claiming "Our studies show no effects on nature". I think the public needs to wake up and we need to see the MSDS's on the chemicals that are being sprayed. When you see a farmer wearing a gas mask as he is spraying his fields I think that should be a wake up call for everyone.

    August 19, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  8. Bruce

    Wish the anti-GM people would get their facts straight. The misinformation that they disseminate is astounding. A good issue that is worth attention is global warming, not GM food. But, that would require people to make sacrifices, and that is much harder than distributing opinions and spending a more money on organic food.

    August 19, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • L

      It doesn't matter if you are GMO or against. We as consumers using our hard earned money to buy food should be able to read a label and know what we are eating – including GMO. This is banned is so many other countries for a reason. Look up that.

      August 19, 2013 at 11:52 am |
      • Bruce

        Just because they are banned in other countries, i.e., Europe, doesn't mean that the ban is based on good science. The ban in Europe is based on a lot of emotion, politics, and a different culture. Other very large countries are adopting GM technology, and have put in place the safeguards that are similar to the ones we have put in place in the U.S. I predict when GM crops increase drought tolerance dramatically, or save an important food crop (such as oranges), the public (and even countries such as Europe) will start to change their minds and begin to provide rational support for GM technology. And yes, GM technology is only one tool for farmers. it is not a panacea.

        August 19, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
  9. Phil D

    Uh so just because you are a "nice" person who saves a few $ on pesticides and things by using GMO crops, WE should ALL just overlook their health problems they cause long term by causing people to develop allergies they never had, food sensitivities due to changing of people's stomachs and intestines by ingesting these crops, which is essentially what these crops do to bugs and insects but on a more severe scale, stopping them from destroying the crops... and also bigger health problems... Ok cool got it thanks... lolol what a moron...

    August 19, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  10. Soap Dishford

    I will stick with GMO free foods. I do not want genetically engineered foods in my body. I believe it would be better to teach people to eat what is necessary (and reduce obesity in the process). I just wonder how many more people we could feed from the waste savings.

    August 19, 2013 at 8:24 am |
  11. James E

    I am glad that so many of you are concerned about what you put in your bodies, but let's be honest if we as a culture really read labels on what we eat would there be so many processed foods and fast food places to pollute our bodies with? How are farmers supposed to deal with the excess and waste we as Americans are known for. Seems like lots of cheap, questionably nutritious foods are preferred by consumers and they are finding ways to fulfill that demand. The specific question of ethics with regard to GMO crops is the right to own and control genes (life) that are beginning to make up the bulk of food production to the exclusion of farmers rights who want not to buy those seeds. The full time lawsuit staff at Monsanto and other companies combined with the hundreds of successful suits which bankrupted farms or forced people to be complicit or loose their farm is very unnerving. The questionable science involved here is the ability for the modified genes to transmit (pollination) to non GMO crops, making the fruit of these crosses the legal property of the originator of the modification. Additionally the "escape" of modified wheat in Washington state, even after Monsanto assured the government the trials were secure and every seed was accounted for shows how this kind of science is difficult to control or those in control are not being responsible. For more info about GMO's do potential harm to the entire food chain look up Landrace corn and find out more.

    August 19, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  12. Chow

    What a complete and total pile of BS.

    August 18, 2013 at 1:28 am |
    • Kikster

      Chow....Couldn't agree with you more!

      August 18, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  13. Paultryguest

    Nice, she gets to save money on taking care of your crops and soil and you get to be a test subject for food countries keep banning for some crazy reason.

    August 17, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  14. Lena rabb

    I appreciate your article bot think that you are incorrect and not sincere. If you believe in transparency, then insist on labels for your GMO crops.

    August 17, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • Ryan Goodman

      Transparency comes in many ways. Labeling isn't the only route.

      August 18, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • L

      Totally agree! If they there is nothing to worry about then why not label?

      August 19, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  15. carol

    If GMO food is so safe why not label it so you can be sure we are buying only food made from GMO crops? If I, a farmer, thought it was great for you I would do everything in my power to persuade you to purchase it. So put that label on it and watch your sales soar!

    August 17, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • SlowMoneyFarm

      Those selling direct may see increase/decrease on food choices. Further from the source – maybe not so much. Those who want nonGMO choices can avoid them, but yes it takes a change. Many say they choose nonGMO but the majority still purchase food for convenience and price. We are transparent in what we grow, but not everyone wants that or cares.

      August 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  16. swampraider

    My grandmother and her grandmother used organic seeds. I will continue to use organic seeds. I see the need for transparency and support the LAbeling of foods containing GMO's. I only buy foods for my kid and my family that say either: No GMO's, Non GMO verified, or products that contain organic ingredients that are not using any known GMO's. why change? I use household natural/organic pesticides and anti weed mixtures( hot pepper concoctions keep animals away and white vinegar kills all weeds as long as they get sun exposure.) But what do I know? My farm is a family farm on a small bit of land..only growing enough for my family. GMO LABELING! YES PLEASE! it's not that hard.

    August 17, 2013 at 6:35 am |
  17. Ryan Goodman

    Reblogged this on Agriculture Proud and commented:
    How do we (consumers) define transparency? Is it being able to receive honest/open answers for the questions we ask? OR Is it the sharing of information and education before the topic/subject ever becomes an issue? Does it make a difference if a [company, individual, farm, entity] shares information before it becomes a headline?

    Katie has a great post here, and it definitely does feel like we are "farming in a fishbowl" at times when we are scrutinized for every move we make. Will the day ever come when the vocal consumers are able to listen to reason over emotion? Or rather, will the day come when the experiences shared by farmers carry enough weight to trump media journalism?

    August 16, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • Elizabeth Becker, Kett Rep

      The bottom line is ensuring that our food is safe and meets global industry standards. Many do not recognize that many of these components are measurable quantities, such as moisture, whiteness and composition. Obviously, these few variables cannot discern the long term health benefits of consuming GMOs, but it's a great place to begin. We've recently released a free ebook for farmers and food manufacturers who may be interested in demonstrating the quality of their crops, Your Guide to Purchasing a Moisture Meter.

      Elizabeth Becker, Kett Communications Rep.

      August 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  18. sink

    First of all, thanks for the article. I don't agree on your reasoning on using GMO. I am not sure if GMO is good or bad, just the scope of your reasoning is too narrow. I have a few questions of my own, and hope that, as a farmer, you will be more readily to answer them.

    1) why GMO corn work? I mean why the pest stop eating them? If I put your favorite food in front of you, what stop you from eating it?
    2) will the pest adopt to the GMO modification? After all, they have a relatively short life cycle. If that's the case, then what?
    3) will this added pest resistant gene cause harm to honey bees and other pollination insects that we so depends on?
    4) there is also study find that Bt enhanced corn damage tissue and cause higher rate of immune disorder in mice.

    Most of these are mentioned in wikipedia, and I didn't verify the src and correctness of each questions. Thanks.

    August 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
    • Kyle Stull

      I am a Certified Crop Advisor and work with farmers in SE Wisconsin. As to your questions,
      1 – Our GMO corn works in two ways, one is resistance to herbicides and another is for insects. The insect traits work by using a protein that occurs naturally and is used in organic production to kill insects. It works by binding to receptors in the insects gut not allowing it to digest food. This protein has no ill effects on anything, but lepidopteran insects (moths, butterflies, and their larvae)
      2 – You are correct that pests can and will adapt to what we throw at them. Currently we have 3-4 different modes of action against a given insect we are using traits to control. Rotating modes, and combining them into "stacked" traits are helping to prolong the traits life.
      3 – I basically answered your question in #1, but I will add that the concern with bees is not the traits we are using it is the seed treatments and insecticides. In the case of GMO crops we are using less insecticide so for bees that is good. There still has not been a credible large scale study showing what exactly is happening to the bee population.
      4 – So there was a study by a French scientist that was immediately shot down by both their governement and the EU. This study used small sample sizes, rats prone to cancer, and used two variables. In this study they use Roundup in the water they gave the rats along with using GMO corn, but this corn was only resistant to herbicide not insects. So how can you say that the GMO trait not the Roundup caused cancer? I will say that if you look up LD50, the amount of something it takes to cause a lethal dose in 50% of test subjects, of Roundup and caffeine you will find that caffeine is much more dangerous for you than most of the herbicides we use.

      If you have more questions you can visit my twitter- twitter.com/FS_Kyle or my blog – agryguy.blogspot.com

      August 16, 2013 at 8:29 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫


        August 16, 2013 at 11:01 am |
      • sink

        If FDA is fully funded, there wouldn't be VIOXX. Unless, of course, the statistic that our modern society so rely on is not fool proof and hack proof. Also, why trust the government numbers at all? If unemployment number does not look good, let find a reason to change its composition; and hence we have U1 to U6. Hey, I am a congressmen, my scientists out rank your average EPA scientists, so your report should be changed to fit my ideology ...

        I am to stress that I am neither pro nor against GMO food. I am just very caution to believe anyone saying anything about GMO food. Research results depends on many factor, the team, who is the sponsor of the study, methodology. In fact, I rather trust the farmers who not only eat, but feed the same food to their family, ultimate skin in the game! The government?

        August 17, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Janice Person aka JPlovesCOTTON

      He gave you lots of good info in his point by point reply but I would like to add that the USDA, EPA & FDA ask those questions in detail. The concept that insects will become resistant to the protein leads the EPA to establish "refuges" for insects which provides areas on farm with susceptible plants. That way you continue to have diversity in the insects.

      August 17, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  19. Edwin

    "We use biotechnology on our farm – including GMOs – because we see the benefits are real."

    It's truly a shame that the anti-GMO folks refuse to acknowledge these benefits.

    August 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Brenda

      We are just asking for that transparency. Why are they not standing up loud and proud, claiming "engineered to be better"?

      August 16, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
      • Edwin

        Taken from Monsanto's web site approximately 1 minute ago:

        "Improving agriculture, improving lives"

        August 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
      • Bruce

        Yes. The industry can be forced to label food as GM, but it would impose higher costs. You have to ask for what reason? If the food is safe, which all objective evidience indicates it is, (and actually also has a number of environmental benefits), why impose such a regulation? If you do not want GM altered food, simiply buy organic only, but don't impose unnecessary regulations on others. In any event, some States are imposing such regulations, because they have the power to do so.
        In my humble opinion, I think that the Organic Label should be required to include some of the foods that are GM. For example, using the insect control GM trait in vegetables with no chemical applications of insecticides, fungicides, etc. Why not classify as organic? Seems that it meets all the criteria.

        August 19, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Shelia

      Its not just anti gmo its pro information and the customer choosing the product to eat and when the customer is lied to or kept from knowing said information, how does that make a good business? Person eating the food has a right to know what they are eating so they can make an informed choice.

      August 18, 2013 at 1:36 am |
    • Brad

      They may see results they like on their farm but are they seeing results from their crops across the country of people who are developing allergies? Are they seeing what is slowly happening to nature? Do they really understand everything or are they just listening to the salesmen tell them their product is safe long term? Is it wrong for people to want to know if their food is Genetically Modified? I mean really, GENETICALLY MODIFIED! If we get genetically modified we get cancer or have other complications health wise. Why are we not to believe playing with nature wont have consequences?

      August 19, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  20. Truth


    August 15, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I am glad that there are things I can count on. xxKK

      August 15, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Soon as I saw the pic, I looked for this.

      August 16, 2013 at 11:08 am |
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