By Elise Kaplan
— RJF Farms has been in the Franzoy family for four generations, and in that time, a lot has changed. The farm, with property in both Hatch and Las Cruces, N.M., grows between 800 and 1,200 acres of pecans, onions, chile, corn, hay, wheat and cotton. When genetically modified seeds began hitting the market in the early 2000s, Ronnie Franzoy jumped at the chance to try something new to increase his profit. This year, he says, about one-third of the crops he planted come from genetically modified seeds.
Over the last decade, Franzoy has watched his annual yield increase in viability and size as genetic technology improves. Most of his crops are sold for human consumption, but the only genetically engineered seeds he uses are herbicide-resistant cotton and feed corn that was bred to deter armyworms. Branded “Roundup Ready,” these plants have been genetically altered so they won’t die when sprayed with the chemical.
“At first, the Roundup Ready cotton wouldn’t yield near as much as the other cotton,” he says. “But now, it yields more than the other seed we used to plant. It’s the same with the corn seed: They’ve enhanced it so that’s really growing well, too.”
Genetically modified seeds and their most prominent producer, Monsanto, are at the crux of this controversy. Activists cite concerns for the environment, animals and humans, saying there’s still too much we don’t know about emerging field.
From 2008 to 2012, New Mexico State University received $1 million from the state Legislature to develop a genetically engineered chile, creating an outrage among traditionalists. The university is still performing research and has not yet developed a modified chile plant.
In March, Congress passed a provision dubbed the Monsanto Protection Act. It allows farmers to continue planting GMO crops even while legal challenges about their safety are underway, and it grants the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to override judicial orders to halt growing. The Senate also voted down an amendment in May that would allow states to require the labeling of genetically engineered ingredients on edible products. In protest, citizens around the world held marches demanding the labeling of GMOs.
Franzoy has stayed out of the fuss over Monsanto and says he trusts that enough testing, guidelines and agency oversight ensure the crops are safe for consumption. “I’ve heard the hoopla of protests. People don’t want genetics, and then there’s another group that wants to go totally organic and not use anything,” he says. “But any farmer that’s farming is not going to put things on his plants that hurt his crop.”
The debate over genetically modified seeds has polarized farmers and urban dwellers. Franzoy says a lot of the protesters don’t have a real concept of how food is grown and what goes into the production process. “Food that is taken care of and farmed out in the field is a lot better than food where they didn’t use pesticides or other things to clean up, because you actually have more diseases in the plant from the insects that would destroy it,” he says. “If you weren’t raised on a farm, you have no clue of how food is produced. The farmers are the hubs of the community and the stewards of the land. They’re more for conservation and the environment than the people that live in the city.”
For Franzoy the entire issue comes down to economics. With modified seeds, there are fewer factors to worry about. He can spray herbicide directly on plants without killing his crop so he saves money where he used to pay laborers to hoe the fields for weeds. Plus, his annual cotton yield has increased from two barrels an acre in a good year to up to four. “You used to have to hoe cotton for weeds, so you’d have to hoe it twice,” he says. “A labor contractor would bring people in and fill the fields, and they’d actually hoe the cotton. We no longer have to do that.”
While Franzoy has increased his yield and ease of harvest, he recognizes that every other farmer has done the same. He worries that as the seed technology continues to produce plentiful crops the supply will go up—forcing demand, and prices, down.
“Mother Nature usually takes care of it with droughts and stuff like that, but if everyone has a bumper year with no drought and plenty of water with these new seed varieties, we could flood the market in a hurry” he says. “It might get to the point where there’s no profit in growing it.”
For now, however, RJF Farms will stick to what’s working—and that means sticking with Monsanto.
“All I know is what it does for us on the farm, and we’ve seen no trouble on our end,” he says. “Every time you plant a seed that produces more, and that you can spray herbicides over and it’ll kill the weeds, and you don’t have to go up there and hoe it manually, there’s money in your pocket.”