The other day as I pushed my grocery cart down the aisle of my favorite food store, I was stopped in my tracks as I approached the dairy case that held the brand of the whipped spread that goes on my toast and in my oatmeal each morning. There on the top of the blue and yellow container that holds my low-sodium, whipped buttery spread, which I have eaten for over six years due to my late wife’s orders, was printed a “non-GMO” pledge. The contents are already 64 percent vegetable oil and uses the words “buttery” on its label which is an insult to a dairy cow, but now they are going after my grain farmers just to peddle a few pots of something to make toast taste good without causing some of us to feel guilty about eating the jam we gob on it in the first place.
There has yet to be real good science about GMOs causing health problems and much of what you hear comes from the internet, along with a lot of advertising, to say some products don’t have it. Just to let you know, no commercially grown crops in this country were created by nature alone. We humans, over time, have altered all our crops in some way or the other for taste or yield, beginning all the way back there with Noah. We have always saved the best seeds or attempted to produce a higher producing plant to feed more people and modification has been the source from hybrids on up.
That afternoon as I changed my reach for the first time in six years from the yellow and blue carton over to some real dairy products to put on my toast, like I did growing up, I wondered what those folks at the blue tub plant would think about Wilson County farming hero and plant modifier William Haskell Neal who would have marveled at today’s GMO products.
To those of you who are not familiar with Tennessee history and especially agricultural history, Neal was the originator of the famous seed corn Neal’s Paymaster that revolutionized seed corn production for years. I’ve written about him before because he is a Tennessee hero just like Houston and Crockett. He was a farmer and experimented with a revolutionary idea of breeding seed corn by selecting seed only from two-eared stalks. The results of his experimentation resulted in increasing the corn yield of farmers amounting to millions of dollars. In 1919, it was estimated that Neal’s Paymaster corn added $2 million a year to the state of Tennessee’s economy. Neal’s Paymaster corn was an added income producer that was greatly needed in turn-of-the-century agriculture.
Almost a hundred years ago Neal did this, and who would have thought way back then that people would be receptive to an idea where someone could come up with a way to produce more food by changing the way we selected our seed. I guess with a hunger in the country and a deeper understanding of agriculture, the people in those days could see the need more so than we do today.
Neal got his idea for growing his new seed corn from reading an article in a farm paper about seed selection. Going over his fields, he found here and there a two-eared stalk, from which he carefully saved the bottom ear, as the article suggested. It took him ten years of discarding inferior types and keeping only ears with the deepest grains, slimmest cobs, and best-filled tips.
After five years of testing with the University of Tennessee, they sent back word that he had struck upon something unusual. He was told his variety would prove of great value to Tennessee farmers. “Well, that is what the farmers want,” Neal said as reported in the 1920 edition of the Southern Agriculturist magazine. “We don’t care how crooked the row, or how twisted the cob, so long as there is plenty of grain. It is quantity and quality we are after, not looks.”
The seed corn needed a name and it was Mrs. Neal who did just that. As reported in the Southern Agriculturist, Wilson County was famous for its fine horses and jack stock. The county had a famous colt called Paymaster, which had made one Jones family a lot of money. Mrs. Neal told her husband as they sat around the kitchen table, thinking of a name, “If this corn will pay its master as well as the Jones’ colt did, I don’t see where we could find a better name.” So was the creation of the name Neal’s Paymaster seed corn.
Back in 1919, our farmers were looking for quantity and quality in production. I know since all those many years ago, our health standards, our manufacturing, and yes, our agriculture has changed for the better in uncountable ways. I do know that I listen to real science before I make decisions about what I put on my toast and I believe Mr. Neal would have suggested that a “non-GMO pledge” on the blue package is somewhat of a twisted cob in the scheme of things.
Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org