By Nancy Vosnidou
“M-o-o-o-o-m! LOOK!” My 9-year-old was horrified, gasping as she pointed a shaky finger at the ear of corn in my hands. We were harvesting sweet corn (if picking ears off of 24 plants can be called harvesting), the result of our garden experiment this year.
I had spaced the plants too far apart for a good canopy to be effective, and had been a little too generous with the fertilizer, so weeds had taken over despite my efforts to pull them weekly (usually right after morning swim lessons and just before the 4-year-old’s nap. Typical Saturday, right?).
But it was the corn ear worm larva, fat and prominent on the top of the ear as I pulled the husk back that clearly was the most intriguing/disgusting lesson of the day.
I consider myself a city girl, but here in the Midwest, most everyone has some sort of little garden going. Most of us aren’t too far removed from someone who farms. My favorite memories of childhood are with my father (a public school history teacher) in what we jokingly call his “South 40” garden. He also grew up as a city kid, but as child number six of eight and apparently a little hellion, my grandmother had him shipped off every summer to his aunt’s farm, where he learned how to farm vegetables and milk cows (into a cat’s mouth!).
Last year my girls and I tried growing cotton, which turned out to be a wildly successful venture, but only after I enrolled the advice of an entomologist at work. My just-emerged seedlings were getting destroyed by what turned out to be two different species of insects. The solution was to spray a common garden pesticide, since like other home gardeners I did not have access to GM seeds that would naturally control such insects. I also learned that conventional, non-GM cotton uses more pesticides in agriculture than most other types of crops, and that since farmers have started planting GM cotton, pesticide usage has dramatically decreased.
My little one is fascinated by bugs, so we spend a good portion of our summers studying them, such as the four different kinds of bees that like lavender plants, or the species of fly we discovered this year living on the dill that grows scattered around our herb garden.
But it’s the other inhabitants of my gardens that capture the girls’ interest most. They love trying to catch the skinks and green garden lizards, and I’ve taught them about the connections between plants and animals mainly by helplessly watching as squirrels abscond with our ripest tomatoes and birds ravage our cherry tree before I can get home from work to pick a couple of pints. They are not at all impressed with cicadas buried in the dirt but earthworms are a favorite.
So as we finished picking corn, I made a mental note to check all the ears and remove the insect larvae prior to soaking and putting on the grill. And then my older daughter asked me a question: “Mom, why doesn’t the corn at the store have ear worms on it?”
I replied, “Well honey, farmers either have to spray different chemicals on the corn to kill the bug larvae, or they plant varieties that have a protein inside it that kills that type of bug.”
She thought for a minute. “Does that kind of corn plant kill other bugs?” She was obviously remembering all the discussions we’d had about plants and insects. “No,” I replied, “just that one species.”
“Why wouldn’t they just always plant that kind then?” She looked at our conventional sweet corn, and at the larva I’d flicked on to the ground, that her sister was inspecting.
I thought about how her seemingly simple question was one of the most discussed topics in agriculture today. I thought about putting on my scientist hat and teaching her how biotechnology has given farmers these more sustainable ways of solving problems so that more food can be grown. I thought about explaining how many people don’t need to think about where their food comes from. Or how the same biotechnology methods that have made advances in medicine (like the insulin that her grandmother takes) are also making advances in agriculture. I also thought about how when she’s my age, there will be more than 9 billion people on the planet.
“It’s a good question honey,” I replied.
It is a good question. Without advances in agriculture like biotechnology, many of those 9 billion people may end up hungry. We have a commitment to our kids and we have a commitment to the earth, to do everything we can to make sure this planet can feed all of us, sustainably.