Genetically modified plants? Roundup ready soybeans? I’ll leave the debate to others, but it’s a fact: The soybeans grown in my home state of Iowa are at least 90% GMO, and that’s not likely to change soon. Fields look like English gardens, with precision rows and soft breezes rippling along the tops of weedless soybean plants. In one respect, it’s a shame. In the pre-GMO days, soybean fields had personality.
The classy ones were neat and orderly, with maybe a few weeds along the fence rows and waterways. The owners kept their cultivators sharpened, and they pounced when weeds showed above the bean rows, especially if drivers could see them from the road.
The casual soybean fields were mixed but salvageable. Wayward stalks of corn would shoot up, cocklebur patches hovered low and menacing, and sections of off-green buttonweeds tried to hide among the soybeans. Farmers usually battled these weeds, with varying results.
A few fields were fashion disasters. Clumps of volunteer corn dotted the rows, burrs and buttonweeds took over sections of the field, and iron weeds looked like sapling trees. Occasionally, thistle patches would get so out of control, somebody would just have to post an “Enter at your own risk” sign.
In the 1960s, soybean fields made for good talking points. By June it was obvious which would need to be “walked”—weeded by stoop laborers…or teenagers…or us. Farmers would hire youngsters to go row-by-row to pull weeds. My brothers, cousins, and I started walking beans on the home place about as soon as we were potty-trained, but Dad let us hire out to neighbors by the time we were 12 or so. Child labor laws were flexible then, and the 50 cents an hour wage that first year didn’t bring the IRS down on us.
We’d often start early to beat the heat; dew-drenched, with mud sticking to our Keds’ sneakers, we’d trudge along, pulling most weeds, chopping some, and basically wrestling with the ones that seemed more like outer space triffids. Heat, thirst, and blow flies were irritating, but mud clod fights with a cousin eight rows over could be dangerous. It was satisfying to see the field get “clean and tidy” several rows at a time, but we were really after pocket money to buy a top-40 vinyl record or admission to the roller skating rink a farm family had set up in a nearby converted hog barn.
I’m not blaming the GMO crowd, but soybean fields are soul-less now—bland and beautiful, like some type of cloned fields of dreams. As I said, I’ll let others debate the ethics of genetically modifying plants, but I do know that you should be careful of what you wish for. Today’s soybean fields are what we worked so hard to get back when we were doing hand-to-hand combat with cockleburs, thistles, and “stink weeds.” Roundup weeded us bean walkers out too.
Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Editor
Note: Click here to listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of using GMO crops. Experts and callers give varying opinions.
Note: Click here to access the 2009 CAST Special Publication, Sustainability of U.S. Soybean Production: Conventional, Transgenic, and Organic Production Systems.