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The Non-GMO Project is proud to be a part of the Regenerate America campaign, working with Kiss the Ground and a diverse coalition of farmers, businesses, nonprofits and concerned citizens working to make regenerative agriculture the cornerstone of the 2023 Farm Bill. Together, we can lay the foundations of a healthy and sustainable food system for future generations.

Currently, America's agriculture system relies on industrial-style production that prioritizes efficiency at the expense of healthy and resilient landscapes. Racialized and minority communities have borne disproportionate burdens caused by our dysfunctional food system. Supporting equitable access to the resources young and underserved farmers need to get a foothold is not only a boon to the agricultural landscape. It is also an opportunity to begin the hard work of healing injustice, violence and racism. 

Squeezing more commodities from each acre is an old way of thinking. The inescapable truth is that farmers grow much more than this crop or that crop. Farmland, ranchland, silvopasture and agroforestry acreage can support a diverse cast of wildlife, insect life and microorganisms that operate in symbiosis to recycle nutrients, keep pests under control and ultimately help to grow next year's bounty. A system that starves all those other creatures will eventually fail to produce for us.

Under non-regenerative practices, our topsoil — the nutrient-dense uppermost layer of soil — is being depleted 10 times faster than it can be replenished. World Food Prize Laureate Rattan Lal likens soil to a bank account — you cannot withdraw more than you put in. "Anything that we take out of the soil, we must replace. If [we] do not replace it, soil will not produce." If we continue to degrade our soils without regeneration, we usher in a future of food insecurity and economic uncertainty.

But it doesn't have to be that way. 

What does a regenerative future look like?

By changing how we grow our food, agriculture can become a crucial driver for social justice, income equality, environmental restoration, and resilience. Committing ourselves to rebuilding healthy soils doesn't just fill up our metaphorical bank account — it also benefits actual bank accounts.

The Farm Bill is one of the most potent tools shaping American agriculture. It touches every single American by determining what crops are grown and how. Provisions for conservation, insurance and rural investment have far-reaching economic and environmental consequences. A new Farm Bill is passed every 5-7 years — meaning this could be the last iteration this decade. These years mark our final chance to reshape the food system before a critical window to act on climate change closes. The path we choose now could very well determine the health and happiness of future generations. 

Our regenerative future is bright, with cascading benefits across communities:

If we act with urgency and boldness, we can change the lives of millions of Americans while building the framework for a healthier, more equitable world. Regenerating our soil means rebuilding a future for ourselves, our children, and countless other plants, animals and other life forms. 

We stand at the crossroads. We can choose to build resilience through regenerative practices — but only if we act together!

Learn more about the Regenerate America campaign at RegenerateAmerica.com.

Tractor spraying pesticides on field with sprayer

Agriculture is uniquely positioned in the environmental movement. Because everyone needs to eat, a sustainable food system is crucial for humanity's well-being. However, agriculture is currently responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and crops exposed to extreme weather events are vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.

Everybody wants a truly healthy food system — one that provides good food for all, and does so within the limits of the earth's resources. 

The biotech industry would have us place all our eggs in their basket, promising silver-bullet solutions in genetic engineering. But these are expensive dalliances. They sound good on paper, magical even, but relying on biotech solutions to complex environmental problems is ultimately ineffective. Worse still, costly GMO development steals focus and funding from more promising initiatives, such as the adoption of agroecological farming practices.

With so many resources behind them, why do GMOs keep falling short? By examining the parts and ignoring the whole, the biotechnology industry bases its solutions on a reductive and distorted vision of the natural world.

Traditional GMOs and "Failure to Yield"

Some of the earliest GMOs were commodity crops engineered for herbicide tolerance or to produce their own insecticide. These traits, the thinking went, would reduce losses to weed competition or insect activity. With fewer losses, yields would ultimately improve. Despite the promises of agrichemical corporations, however, it hasn't worked out that way.

Multiple assessments of crop performance show no evidence that GMOs increase yields. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in 2009 examining 13 years of GMO corn and soy production in the U.S., and concluded that genetic engineering "has done little to increase overall crop yields." Genetically modified "soybeans have not increased yields," the report continues,"and corn has increased yield only marginally on a crop wide basis." 

Moreover, the most prominent traits in early GMOs — herbicide-tolerance and the production of insecticide within the plant — have serious consequences. Herbicide-tolerance traits go hand in hand with the dramatic increases in pesticide use which in turn gave rise to "superweeds." Pest-resistant GMOs, engineered to produce insecticide in every cell, have dramatically increased the target pest's exposure to the toxin, resulting in "superbugs.'' 

Gene editing and crop performance

New GMO techniques such as gene editing are advertised as precise tools for modification, genetic "scissors" that cut only where we tell them to. There are, however, serious doubts about the level of precision that gene editing offers. As we've discussed before, off-target effects and unintended outcomes occur regularly in gene-editing experiments. But perhaps a bigger problem for gene-editing advocates is in the basic functioning of genetics. 

Crop performance relies on a whole range of factors. The genetic makeup of the crop is one of those factors. Other factors include soil health, biodiversity within the soil biome and in the surrounding plants and animals, precipitation and storm activity, and the skills of the farmers tending the crops. Neglect in any one of these areas can impact performance, even in crops with the strongest genetic profile.

Gene editing works on a "one-gene-at-a-time" basis. DNA may be cut, silenced, or have new sequences inserted — hopefully at the desired location. A one-gene-at-a-time tool might seem precise, but it is only effective at addressing traits that are driven by one gene. There are many, many, many genes involved in complex traits such as high-yield, drought- or saline-tolerance or better nutrient uptake. 

Simple traits — traits that can be affected by a single gene — are limited.

The performance of crops or livestock, or how they react to environmental stressors such as heat or drought — these are highly complex traits. Complex traits are determined by many genes working together. Some traits, called "omnigenic" traits, need all the genes to participate, every single one. Jumping in with the biotech tool of choice to modify all of the genes in specific and controlled ways is simply not possible.

Here's a visual tool to help explain the difference: Picture a DNA strand as a string of lights. Each light on the string is a gene. If we were to ask which genes are involved in higher  crop yields, all the lights would shine. If we were to ask which genes are involved in more biomass and better growth, all the lights would shine. Which genes might contribute to salt-tolerance — you get the picture. 

The complexity and interconnectedness of nature is present at a genetic level. With each step back from the microscope, those relationships continue, now between one species and another, now between all parts of the ecosystem. Nature is more than the sum of its parts. 

Holistic solutions are the best solutions

Over the past 30 years, there have been increases in crop performance made through traditional crossbreeding and other agroecological practices, from looking at the totality of the genome, and the entirety of the landscape it occupies. 

The idea that GMOs are the best way, or the only way, to feed the world is based on reductive science and an extractive mindset. The premise of this theory, how it casts food production and our relationship to our environment, is simply flawed. 

We don't need GMOs to feed the world. We need to work with the land so that it can thrive — and we can thrive with it. 

Monarch butterfly on flower

On April 21, 2021, the USDA invited public comments on the future of the food system: From commodities and food crop production to the supply chains that process crops and transport them. This kind of comprehensive look at critical systems is both timely — with lessons learned from the global pandemic — and crucial to our collective welfare and security as we face a changing climate. 

Among the Non-GMO Project's guiding principles is the belief that everyone deserves access to good food. Food security, climate change and social justice are inextricably linked, and each element inevitably impacts the others. 

We are in a moment unlike any other in human history. The interconnected impacts of our choices and the consequences of "business-as-usual" lie in sharp relief. There is a shared sense of purpose and a renewed appetite for change, drawing us toward systemic reforms that benefit producers, workers and consumers alike.

In support of a truly resilient, regenerative food system that supports jobs and wellbeing today and for generations, the Non-GMO Project advocates for: 

Industrial agriculture is currently the dominant practice in the United States. While this system has produced high-yield, low-cost commodity crops, a closer look reveals exorbitant hidden and externalized costs, including environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and increased health risk to millions of consumers.

Because of the systems of centralized power that "lock in" industrial agriculture, change will be most effective when economic and social policies are grounded in ecological principles. 

Here, we offer our vision for the future.

A systemic shift toward diversified farming systems

While uniformity is the basis of an industrialized system, diversity is the basis of resilient agriculture.

Agriculture occupies more than 900 million acres of land in the United States, the overwhelming majority of which is used for livestock and the production of a few GM commodity crops. 

This homogenous and extractive model squanders natural resources, devastating biodiversity above and below ground. Industrial-style crop production degrades soil and hastens erosion. Monoculture planting creates ideal conditions for destructive pests and pathogens because it works against the natural inclination of the landscape towards diversity. 

Biodiversity is critical to successful and sustainable agriculture. Pollinating insects and birds are responsible for a third of the food we eat, while crops rely on healthy soil that is home to billions of invertebrates and microorganisms. 

Diversified farming systems that integrate livestock and crop production drastically reduce the need for costly synthetic fertilizers while supporting healthy soil. A growing body of evidence indicates diversified farming systems can provide a diverse and healthy diet with sustained yields over time and strong performance under environmental stressors. 

Healthy ecosystems provide a range of services that support human health: water and air purification, nutrient cycling, habitat and food for diverse species and billions of soil microorganisms that are the basis for new medicines. Support for these activities is vital: There is more crucial natural infrastructure in a healthy landscape than we could ever hope to construct by artificial means. 

The challenges we face in the coming decades require bold action. We must provide economic incentives for farmers to rebuild healthy ecosystems in their operations. Subsidies for commodity crops — many of which are overproduced — should be redirected as incentives for diversification: promoting crop rotation, nutrient-dense fruits, nuts and vegetables, as well as non-GMO and organic foods. Using more acreage for domestic consumption will revitalize rural economies.

Moving from an extractive model of agriculture toward a diverse and regenerative one will improve soil, water and air quality, restoring them as high-quality resources just as valuable as the crops. By adopting a holistic view of our food system and optimizing production practices, we will build a sustainable and resilient system — aiding our work to heal a broken planet.

Regional food hubs

The Covid-19 pandemic illuminated and exacerbated our food system’s pre-existing flaws. Consolidation in food processing has produced brittle supply chains, unable to adapt to disruptions. More disruptions are coming: The form may vary, but disruption has become a recurring variable rather than an outlying event. 

During this time, there were also success stories. Small-scale and organic operations pivoted during the pandemic, meeting the needs of farmers and their local communities.  What worked provides a blueprint for a truly resilient and nimble food system.

We must create a strong network of regional, mid-size processing, storage and transportation infrastructure to protect the supply chain, enhance agility and create markets for small and mid-sized producers. Designed strategically, smaller processing plants also offer safer work environments — an important consideration given the increased frequency of emerging zoonotic diseases.  

By intentionally building a diverse and regionally-based production and processing system, we bolster the supply chain against future disruptions and create market opportunities for smaller operators.

Everyone deserves access to nutritious food

The elements of a nutritious diet are well-known: regular, moderate meals with an emphasis on plant-based foods. But our agricultural landscape doesn't reflect our goals. It reflects the reality of unbalanced, unsustainable and unhealthy food choices, prioritizing high-yield crops with lower nutrient density.

For example, of more than 900 million acres of agricultural land*: 

If every American voluntarily switched to a healthy, flexitarian diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, there would not be enough produce to feed them. 

We eat what we grow, and we are as sick as our landscape. 

Food issues emerge in different forms: Food insecurity stems from poor access, often due to poverty or the absence of grocery stores. Nutritional insecurity, on the other hand, when we rely on low-quality foods. A poor-quality diet may meet our caloric needs, but fresh foods and essential nutrients are lacking. Diet-related diseases are the number one cause of mortality in the States. 

Food insecurity increased dramatically during the pandemic — particularly in families with young children and in Black and Hispanic households. We've seen government programs and private entities scramble to provide meals to those in need. If we transition acreage to diversified farming systems and strengthen regional food networks, federal and state initiatives such as SNAP, WIC and school meal programs could create markets for locally-produced, nutritious food. By building these intersecting systems across the supply chain, we can move beyond food security and toward true nutritional security, crop diversification and secure markets for nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and nuts — a triple win.

The solutions to food and nutrition insecurity are often regionally specific. These are unique situations determined by population density, social dynamics, geography or myriad other factors. A "one-size-fits-all" approach to food and nutritional security simply doesn’t work. 

However, fantastic organizations across the country are already deeply engaged with the communities they serve. We must increase support and funding for regional food hubs that prioritize local and nutritious food, food sovereignty, and food justice, elevating this expertise to benefit the communities that need it the most.

Workers' rights: Seed saving, secure incomes and support for BIPOC farmers

Through land theft, dispossession and exploitative working conditions, the modern food system has been devastating to the people whose labor sustains it. Black farmers saw an erosion of ownership and food sovereignty over the past century. Millions of essential workers who earn their living doing hourly work in the food sector — from on-farm to processing and service jobs — make some of the lowest wages in the country. 

Discriminatory laws fail to provide some of these positions with basic protections and marginalized and BIPOC workers disproportionately bear the impact. The continued denial of rights and protections to an essential sector of the workforce sustains inequalities that have been part of the agricultural system since this country's founding. We must build something better for the workers who feed us.

Owners and operators on agricultural land are also struggling. For 19 of the past 20 years, the average farmer spent more to produce crops than they earned from their operations. Subsidy programs improved the financial outlook of commodity farmers, but these programs prop up an inherently unsustainable system. By redirecting support to promote diverse farming systems, farmers gain income security, produce more nutrient-dense food and regenerate their land.

Ultimately, converting acreage toward diversified operations reduces mechanization and leads to more hands-on jobs. It is essential to create a labor market that does not rely on exploitation. Through legislation and policy development, we must increase support for groundbreaking nonprofits like the Fair Food Program, a highly successful certification and enforcement program that improves conditions for workers. 

Our vision for the future of our food system relies on integrated systems and a bold commitment to social and environmental justice. It is a heavy lift. But the challenges we have faced during the past 18 months are proof of just how quickly systems can change in a crisis. Adaptation saves lives and livelihoods. When the initiating event is not a once-in-a-century pandemic but an existential threat to humanity in the form of climate change or the ongoing nutritional deficiencies and food insecurities that stifle our potential, surely we can act just as decisively. 

As the Covid pandemic recedes, we welcome the Biden Administration's efforts to "Build Back Better." We respectfully ask for bold action to ensure nutrition security for all and to restore our environment.

 

*Sources: 

USDA, Agricultural Statistics Board, NASS, Prospective Plantings, 2021.

USDA, ERS, The Adoption of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa, Canola and Sugarbeets in the United States: Report Summary, 2016.

USDA, NASS, 2017 Census of Agriculture, 2019.

Farmers

The term "non-GMO food system" is, on its own, a little vague. It identifies most clearly what it is not. Genetic modification is used to engineer a specific trait in an organism to achieve a particular outcome, such as crops that are tolerant to herbicide applications. But the practice fails to take into account the unintended consequences and peripheral damage those traits can cause. What might truly comprehensive and inclusive solutions look like in our food system?

Replacing GMOs means embracing a variety of systems and approaches — finding new‚ or in some cases, very old — methods to reverse the harmful effects of monocropping, monoculture and monopolization that come with the use of GMOs in our food system. When you choose non-GMO, you're supporting a diverse and holistic approach to food production — one that respects farmers' rights to save and grow crops of their choice.

A non-GMO approach to weed control

The earliest GMO crops were engineered to resist herbicide application. That way, farmers could apply chemicals to their fields that eliminated weeds but left their cash crop — GMO corn or soy — unharmed. In the short term, farmers saw a benefit from this technology, but 25 years later a host of harmful consequences have become obvious. 

Since the introduction of GMOs, the use of the herbicide that most often accompanies them has increased 15-fold. Weeds have become resistant to these chemicals, and desperate farmers apply greater quantities and even more toxic formulations to try to get ahead of the problem. Killing weeds with such brutal efficiency has devastated beneficial insects populations and reduced biodiversity. 

What seemed like a silver bullet solution was actually a game of whack-a-mole, causing a cascading series of problems for farmers.

Read more about the impacts of herbicide tolerant GMOs here

Adam Chappell was one such farmer. Chappell was growing conventional cotton, corn and soy when herbicide-resistant superweeds threatened his family with bankruptcy. With the high costs of GMO seed, pesticides and fertilizers already devastating his family's finances, Chappell took a bold step in an entirely new direction: regenerative agriculture. He planted cover crops to suppress weeds, diversified the crops that he grew and eventually welcomed cattle onto his land. The benefits were obvious: Weeds couldn't get a hold in the fields and the soil was protected during the rainy season from erosion and nutrient loss. Fertilizer costs went down, too, as the cover crops supplied some of the nourishment the soil desperately needed. A few years later, the soil is healthier and Chappell's operation is profitable again. 

Perhaps the most important part of Adam Chappell's story is that he isn't now — and never has been — staunchly anti-GMO. He's a practical man, using what works for the land and for his bottom line. He changed how he did things because GMOs weren't working for him. Through outreach and his work with the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, Chappell is sharing that story with other farmers who are facing the same challenges. 

That's just one regenerative success story. There are many more out there, from Florida's citrus groves to Gabe Brown's regenerative revolution in North Dakota, networks of farmers sharing their experience and knowledge.

A non-GMO approach to insect control

Another trait of early GMOs was resistance to insect pests. These crops were engineered to generate their own insecticide, so pests that came for a feast found a mouthful of poison in every bite. These GMOs were greenwashed as an environmentally-friendly way to reduce pesticide use. In practice, the GMO approach to insect control has proved just as short-sighted as weed-control.

Integrating insecticide into the structure of the plant has significant impacts: The insecticide doesn't degrade like an external application would. It cannot be washed off. This ubiquity ultimately reduces the effectiveness of the insecticide. It's in the plants all the time, persisting in plant residues and impacting soil microorganisms (tiny impacts that can have massive consequences). And, just as superweeds have evolved to outpace herbicide-tolerant GMOs, targeted pests have begun to show resistance.

Read more about the impacts of insect resistant GMOs here

What might a non-GMO approach to insect control look like? While specific choices rely on the type of crop, the region and the life cycle of the insect pest, there are innovations taking place around the globe. At an organic orchard in the Pacific Northwest farmers work with the physical environment, adapting the shape of the fruit trees so they can easily use protective cloth during the months when flying and chewing insects would be a threat — no sprays necessary. Crop rotations and interplanting can disrupt the monoculture that invites pest infestation, with the added benefit of improving biodiversity and soil health.

Healthy soil can do that!

A lesson we have been learning — or more accurately, failing to learn — for millennia remains true today: Our crops are only as healthy as the soil from which they grow. Soil fertility is mostly found in the topsoil, the uppermost layer of nutrient-rich soil upon which the entire world's agriculture relies. In the last 150 years about half of the world’s topsoil has been lost. 

Read more about the magic of soil here

Degraded and diminished soil invites a host of problems: crops tend to be weaker, more susceptible to disease and insect infestation, and less resilient in the face of extreme weather events which are becoming the norm.

Healthy soil holds water more efficiently, offering protection from droughts. As Adam Chappell's story demonstrates, cover crops can protect soil from erosion during heavy rainfall while adding nutrients to the soil they protect. While big biotechnology corporations invest in genetic engineering to address unique agricultural issues — such as citrus greening disease or black Sigatoka in bananas — a far more powerful and economical solution is right beneath our feet: 

Healthy soil grows better crops — more resistant to pests and diseases and more hospitable to the billions of microorganisms that we rely on to support our topside world.

"Mono" no more

There is no single solution, but that's kind of the point. Nature works consistently to disrupt a monopoly. Look out your window and you might see birds nesting under the eaves of buildings, greenery pushing up through concrete, or — if you are very lucky — a tree canopy bolstered by dense undergrowth and unseen life cycles. 

When we look at a field, an orchard or a community garden, it's tempting to focus on which plants we wish to gain from it. "This is my cotton field. This is my apple crop. This is my veggie plot." The paradigm shift comes in recognizing that we're never growing just that one thing. The planet doesn't work that way. Crops will attract insects, whether we consider them as beneficial or not. Those insects will attract wildlife that feed on them. The wildlife makes its own marks on the land — building habitat, leaving droppings that will be incorporated into the soil. And there's an entire universe beneath the soil line. That is where the epic scale of activity really happens. For us to claim our narrow share of the bounty, we need to support all those other things.

GMOs are based on an inherently reductive — and ultimately destructive — view of agriculture. They are part of an industrialized agricultural model that has proven to be remarkably inefficient at producing food, while eroding the natural resources future harvests rely upon. Even at its highest point of success, GMOs only support a fragile and brittle system based on band-aid solutions, and we're already seeing the damage they cause. 

Embracing the complexity of the land we occupy, working with nature's infinite diversity rather than against it, is the basis of a healthy food system for all. 

 

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