Farmers Are Figuring Out They Can Make Bank Growing Non-GMO Crops

Corn and soy growers are giving up their genetically engineered seed to meet new consumer demand.

(Photo: Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

Apr 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

There’s one on the edge of nearly every corn-belt town in the Midwest. Towering high above the flat landscape, the grain elevator is often the tallest structure around, save, perhaps, for a water tower. It’s here, really, that the industrial food chain starts—where the harvests of countless family farms comingle, the dent corn or soy shifting from plant to commodity. A farmer sells his or her crop to the elevator, and then the elevator sells the harvest of numerous farmers to food companies, ethanol distilleries, or whoever else is in the market for vast amounts of commodity grain.

Much of the corn and soy that farmers grow is GMO—more than 90 percent of both crops have been genetically engineered to either withstand the herbicide glyphosate or produce their own pesticide—and the same goes for what’s stored in the endless chain of concrete towers that dot the Midwest. But after more than 20 years of GMO dominance in the farm belt—and following a number of years of record harvests and declining prices—farmers are realizing that the status quo isn’t the best way to make a profit.

In the latest example proving that despite the federal subsidy system, farmers are capitalists too (see also “What Drought? Farmers Keep Planting Almonds, and Calif.’s Economy Is Just Fine”), the Des Moines Register reported on Monday that non-GMO corn and soy are back in style. Sales of products that are certified GMO-free by the Non-GMO Project hit $8.5 billion last year, up from $1.2 billion in 2011, the paper points out, and while that’s a small fraction of the $630 billion spent on groceries annually, it’s enough demand to spark a change on the supply side, spurring farmers to ditch the transgene seeds for old-fashioned corn and soy.

“We never really thought we would go back” to growing non-GMO crops, Justin Dammann, who farms near Clarinda, Iowa, told the Register. “But the consumer, in my opinion, has sent a clear message that a certain percentage of our customers are willing to pay more for the non-GMO lines.”

It’s a shift that, from an economic standpoint, would seem to be a long time coming: GMO seeds are expensive, commodity prices are dropping, and the premium that non-GMO foods can fetch in a retail environment is reflected in the price-per-bushel a farmer receives. The supply vacuum for organic grain (which is non-GMO, though not all non-GMO crops are organic) has led the United States, which grows more corn and soy than any other country, to import large amounts of the stuff from far-flung places such as Romania.

Consumer demand for foods made without genetically engineered ingredients shows no signs of abating, which will likely lead to more farmers skipping the grain elevator and selling their non-GMO corn and soy for a higher price elsewhere. But the question is whether this is the beginning of a sea change or a temporary trend. Farmers, especially commodity farmers, move with the whims of the market—and unless more companies move away from genetically engineered ingredients and start looking for more premium-priced non-GMO corn and soy, what looks like consumer-driven change could end up being a short-lived means of getting farmers through a period of low prices.