Farmer: Transgenic corn is key to dairy’s survival


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Corey Gillins is a farmer who wears two hats.

As the general manager of Big Island Dairy, one of only two dairies in the state, he is responsible for overseeing a herd of 1,000 cows.

Daily, 6,500 gallons of milk are produced on the sprawling 2,360-acre farm in Ookala.

But for anyone driving by on Highway 19, it may be hard to get a glimpse of a single cow.

Instead, what appears are corn fields that stretch up the slope of Mauna Kea.

With 700 acres of corn under production, the farm is not just the largest dairy on the Big Island, but also likely the largest corn producer as well.

For Gillins, the corn, used to make feed for the cows, is a key part of the dairy’s operation and its best chance of survival. It’s a part of the business he watches over closely, making him as much a corn farmer as a dairy operator.

“Our model works that — if you are going to make it — you have to grow corn,” he said.

It’s a lesson that has been learned over the last few decades as the rising cost of shipping feed from the mainland has strained Hawaii’s dairy industry.

But it’s not without its controversy.

The corn is genetically modified to be both resistant to Roundup, a commonly used herbicide, as well as pests. It uses an anti-bug protein referred to as Bt.

The product was developed by Monsanto and other large biotech companies, which have become the focus of protests against genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Critics of the modified corn believe it presents dangers to health and the environment. A common complaint is that it encourages the use of chemicals in agriculture.

The modified corn is the most commonly used GMO crop. About 88 percent of corn grown in the United States is modified, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It is also one of the crops that would be banned from further open-air use under a GMO bill the Hawaii County Council will consider approving Tuesday.

Under the bill, the Big Island Dairy would be exempt, but other farms, including dairies and ranches, would be prevented from growing the same corn.

Some GMO opponents have called for the dairy’s exemption to be removed or allowed to sunset, and the farm also has been protested on a few occasions.

Gillins defends the use of GMO corn by pointing to the practice being widely adopted on the mainland. Essentially, every dairy that’s not organic uses the same corn, he argues.

“This is not something that’s new or different,” Gillins said. “This is everyday business on the mainland.”

For those opposed to GMO crops, or not convinced of their safety, that may not be enough to win them over.

Gillins, noting approval from regulatory agencies, said the farm is convinced the corn is safe for cow and human consumption, and has no plans to switch to non-transgenic varieties.

The corn acreage may actually increase as the dairy seeks to wean itself off costly mainland feed, which he said is also composed of GMO corn.

Currently, the farm imports 60 percent of its feed, which costs 320 percent more than the feed it grows on its own farm. Shipping costs are the primary reason the mainland feed costs more, Gillins said.

Corn makes up 40 percent of the feed, which also includes alfalfa and other agriculture products, he said.

Gillins also doesn’t see stopping use of both transgenic corn and herbicides as a viable option, given increased costs and loss of productivity and consistency in corn production that he said would come with it.

So why is GMO corn such a big part of the dairy industry?

It largely comes down to cost and productivity, according to Gillins.

He said the dairy can get away with spraying herbicides one time 21 days after the crop is planted. As many as three crops per year can be grown.

Without the modified corn, Gillins said, the dairy would have to till or spray before the crop is planted and target weeds several more times with herbicides as the corn grows.

The bug-resistant corn, though it remains controversial, takes away the need to spray insecticides as well, he said.

Gillins estimates the dairy would apply eight to nine times more chemicals, some of which would be stronger, if it didn’t use transgenic corn (a number he said he calculated due to concern that the bill would force the dairy to grow non-transgenic varieties).

“The reality is we use less (chemicals),” he said.

Jeffrey Smith believes that’s not always the case when it comes to GMO corn.

The anti-GMO activist has authored books and documentaries on the subject, including his best-known title, “Genetic Roulette.”

“I can’t speak to his experience,” Smith said, referring to the dairy.

“We can speak in average, that GM crops get sprayed more with herbicides,” he added.

This is an issue that surfaced recently in Argentina, where over-spraying of Roundup on resistant crops has been blamed for health problems of nearby residents.

In Hawaii, residents on other islands also have complained about the spraying of chemicals on transgenic seed farms.

Gillins believes that over-spraying can be prevented with proper management, referring to his farm as an example.

While there are no regulatory requirements for when a crop must be sprayed, he said it’s important to stick to the same schedule in order to get the weeds at the right age. Not doing so could require higher doses to be sprayed and may lead to the development of “super weeds” that have higher resistance, Gillins said.

He said the farm also uses a GPS system to ensure that the same rows are not sprayed more than once.

“Management has as much to do with it as mode of operation,” Gillins said.

The dairy isn’t the only farm business on the isle with an interest in growing transgenic feed.

Ranchers, who commonly raise grass-fed cattle that are shipped to the mainland for finishing, see it as a way to stabilize their own businesses.

Chris English, vice president of the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, said ranchers are interested in growing their own feed to reduce costs and allow them to finish more cattle here as well as provide another option for feed during drought.

While acknowledging that GMO corn isn’t the only option for ranchers, he believes it’s an option they should have.

“Any options that are available need to be explored,” English said.

“Especially as we want to move toward self-sufficiency on this island.”

Other concerns with transgenic crops include patent laws and cross-pollination, and critics say the growing of GMO corn on the isle interferes with the cultivation of non-GMO varieties.

Gillins said he acknowledges the concern and is open to the idea of buffer zones between transgenic and non-transgenic crops.

But he thinks a ban is shortsighted.

“I’m for agriculture,” Gillins said.

“There’s a place for organic, a place for cutting-edge technology and everything in between.”

Cloverleaf Dairy in Hawi is the only other dairy in the state. The dairy declined an interview request.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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