Jeff Bidstrup's 500 Words | Perspective of a Fourth-Generation Australian Farmer

Jeff Bidstrup’s 500 Words | Perspective of a Fourth-Generation Australian Farmer

“Neither organic production, nor total reliance on chemicals will ever allow sustained food security to become a reality.”

Those are the words of fourth-generation farmer, Jeff Bidstrup, who now shares his story to our 500 word project. In the following piece, Bidstrup relates his experience of using newer technologies to defend crops against pests, while also realising that there is no magic-bullet to solve the complex problem. Although genetic-modification may be a useful technology, it is only a part of the solution.

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My first exposure to GM crops was in the early 1990’s. We are mixed crop farmers, and were predominately growing cotton because cotton economics were positive, and at that time grain was negative. We were having great difficulty controlling helicoverpa caterpillar in all crops, and in cotton they were particularly costly and increasingly difficult to control. Even though we had new insecticides nearly every year, the caterpillars quickly became resistant.

Production economics were under severe pressure due to these costs, but of equal or greater problem was the environmental and community costs. Although we had as an industry invested massive amounts in controlling off farm impacts (tail water management, drift management) and farmer practices (Best Management Practices and independent audits), problems abounded, and community concerns were growing. Part of our BMP program was practicing Integrated Pest Management, and whilst this had an impact, the unfortunate need to use broad spectrum chemicals occasionally meant that it was very difficult to get a consistent, balanced system in food and fibre crops. I have seen that this is the case in every part of the world. We have also grown crops organically, and have seen first-hand the great variations in yield due to pests and diseases, and the greatly reduced outputs from this system.

Neither organic production, nor total reliance on chemicals will ever allow sustained food security to become a reality.

At the height of our desperation in around 1994, we became aware of the exciting new technology of Bt cotton. It seemed too good to be true, and some of the early varieties did not live up to expectations. But it did open the door to us of this new world, and gave us another bedrock on which to implement IPM.

At the same time, we also started using biological control products in our crops that did not have the Bt genes, and whilst many of these were disappointing (or did not work at all!), some did and again we had another bedrock for a new era of production. Then in 2002, we had access to two Bt genes in our cotton, and again a whole new world opened up to us. We no longer sprayed cotton for caterpillars, and many crops were never sprayed at all. Amongst summer crop growers, cotton-growers went from being the highest users of chemicals to some of the lowest. Official figures show a greater than 85% reduction in chemical usage. This, along with the serious implementation of IPM across all our cropping systems, has revolutionized our farming systems. They are now much more robust financially and environmentally, and farm families lives (owners and employees) have improved dramatically. We never wish to turn the clock back.

But these systems do not come without a cost. Resistance is an ever present danger, and our industries recognize that we cannot survive without our new systems. We therefore implement very strict Resistance Management Plans for GM crops, and insecticide application plans for all crops. Failure of this technology is not an option for us.

In Australia, herbicide resistance is a growing and serious issue. It is not driven by GM crops here (only a very small percentage of the cropping area is GM) but instead by a lack of rotation (and overuse of glyphosate) in our conservation cropping systems. But conservation cropping systems have delivered such massive benefits environmentally and economically that we just have to find a way. And find a way we will. Chemical rotation, technologically advanced sprayers, occasional use of tillage, and new ways to use current tools will all play a role.

But going back to tillage, chemicals or organic has about as much appeal and makes as much sense as going back to plowing with horses. It may sound romantic to those who have never done that, but it is neither economic nor romantic nor environmentally sustainable.

Jeff Bidstrup
Warra, Qld Australia.
Fourth generation farmer.

If you would like us to share your story, please see our previous post: Callout for Your Stories! In 500 Words, What is Your Stance on GMOs in Society?
Photo credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren | CC