Commentary

Louise Calderwood: GMO crops and the use of fertilizers and pesticides by Vermont farmers

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Louise H. Calderwood, who is government relations director for the Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance.

Will Allen put forth considerable effort in the 24-page report “Vermont’s GMO Legacy: Pesticides,Polluted Water and Climate Destruction;” his assessment of crop input data compiled by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Allen does a thorough job of sifting through the data and placing it in charts and tables, but the real test of a thoughtful review is to draw accurate conclusions from the raw numbers. In this step, Allen misses the mark — by a couple hundred tractor lengths.

Reg Chaput, who along with his brother Mike owns Chaput Family Farms in North Troy, was the first permitted large farm operation in the state. Chaput said, “We feel that the conclusions printed in the report don’t accurately reflect how we manage our farm and I don’t think they give a complete picture about how and why other Vermont farmers use fertilizers and pesticides.” The Chaputs follow a nutrient plan, developed by an independent crop management company, to carefully manage their use of pesticides, fertilizer and manure in the production of nutritious crops to feed the 1,700 cows, heifers and calves under their care. “We make every effort to be proactive when it comes to protecting the environment and we feel that using GMO corn as part of our crop management plan protects water quality and improves soil health greatly — and that is very important to us as stewards of our land,” Chaput said.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture collects information on total nitrogen fertilizer sold to Vermont farms — it does not compile fertilizer use by crop type. Allen’s attempt to correlate nitrogen use to adoption of GMO corn — by placing the data in adjacent columns of single table — could lead a reader to conclude GMO corn requires more nitrogen per acre than conventionally bred crop varieties. Chaput questioned Allen’s assertion that increased pounds of nitrogen fertilizer used in Vermont are a result of increased adoption of GMO corn. Chaput said, “We’ve been required to keep detailed crop records since becoming an LFO in 1997 and we can attest to the fact that we apply nitrogen fertilizer to corn ground at about the same rate we did nearly 20 years ago, long before we used GMO corn.”

Reg Chaput questioned Allen’s assertion that increased pounds of nitrogen fertilizer used in Vermont are a result of increased adoption of GMO corn.

 

Chaput said their farm applies nitrogen fertilizer to crops based on the results of soil tests and acknowledges that the use of nitrogen for grass production has increased on their farm in recent years. “We know that applying nitrogen to grass based on soil test results increases the nutrient density of the crop and the yield per acre. This allows us to grow the crops we require on less acres, thereby decreasing our environmental footprint,” Chaput said. He went on to explain that feeding high quality grass improves cow health and reduces the need to import grain (and the phosphorus it contains) from the Midwest. Chaput also pointed out that using nitrogen fertilizer allows them to expand the width of buffers around streams and the increased grass yields reduces their dependence on corn as a forage crop.

Allen graphed the total pounds of EPA-approved herbicides used in accordance with label recommendations on Vermont corn crops between 2002 and 2012. Unlike fertilizers, the agency does track pesticide use by specific crops. After reviewing the data compiled in Allen’s report, Chaput believes that the increased use of herbicides over the decade corresponds to adoption of cover cropping by Vermont farmers. “We use cover crops to improve soil health and address water quality,” Chaput stated. The cover crop holds soil in place and improves many soil health characteristics, but it must be treated with herbicides to allow the corn crop to grow to full potential. “We apply approved herbicides in carefully determined amounts to support our use of cover crops,” Chaput said. He recognized the ingredients listed in Allen’s report as common tools used to manage cover crops. Chaput said they would use cover cropping even if they didn’t grow GMO corn becomes they feel this practice greatly improves soil health. This year the farm will be adopting the practice on 100 percent of their 700-acre corn crop.

The sun rises every morning in Vermont, and every morning dairy farmers go about the business of caring for their crops, soil, water and animals. And even though both of these things happen every single day, they can’t be linked by cause and effect any more than most of the conclusions Allen draws in his report about the use of pesticides and fertilizers by farmers can be linked to adoption of GMO corn.

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  • Joel Davidson

    I agree with the assertions made regarding the increased use of pesticides having no link to use of GMO corn. In addition most farms are opting for no till seeding which requires either a herbicide application or cover crop and herbicide application. The older method of cover crop (oats or other dominating crop) and harvest is not as productive or as protecting of the soil as well as reducing runoff.

  • Annette Smith

    The bottom line is it is stupid and unnecessary to use poisons to grow food. The use of highly toxic chemicals in agriculture is directly related to health care costs. Anyone who chooses to defend the use of so many chemicals, rather than focusing on how to reduce their use, is contributing to ill health including cancer. We are all part of the same system on this planet and we have to change our agricultural practices to support a healthy system.

  • Ruth Barton

    What happened to plowing under the cover crop? Corn will soon outgrow the rye, which is the usual cover crop, and it won’t be a problem. Or, harvest the rye for straw, it usually brings a pretty good price.