The Truth about Trade
Dean is Chairman Emeritus of 'Truth About Trade & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group led by a volunteer board of American farmers.
Protecting The Staff of Life
Sep 10, 2009
I’ve seen a field of wheat go white in just a few days. It can look like a perfect crop, only to have fusarium head scab come in and wreck everything. This disease has the terrible power to turn an excellent year of wheat farming into a disaster in less than a couple of weeks.
Fortunately, I’ve managed to avoid this catastrophe. My brother and I just finished our wheat harvest. Our yield was slightly above average. We collected about 50 bushels per acre, compared to the 45 bushels we typically can count on. So I’ve got nothing to complain about.
Even so, wheat farmers can do better. All it would take is a more effective way of fending off this disease. Each year, it is one of the most dangerous threats we face in producing wheat. We have a number of tools for fighting it, but not the most effective tool imaginable, which is genetic modification.
More certainty in wheat production for farmers guarantees a stable supply of the “staff of life” – wheat. Reducing a farmer’s risk in growing wheat means more of the “most versatile whole food grown” available at affordable prices for global consumers!
Wheat farming simply has not kept up with the times. Corn and soybean growers have seen their yields skyrocket. So have their expectations. What they would have viewed as a bumper crop a generation ago is a mild disappointment today. That’s how productive farming has become, ever since biotechnology improved the ability to contend with weeds and pests.
Yet wheat farming has not caught up. It remains stuck in the 20th century. The kinds of harvests we expect today are about the same as what we expected when Ronald Reagan was the US president. In other areas of life, we want more of everything: More power in our computers, more channels on our television sets, and more cup-holders in our cars and trucks. Wheat farming, by contrast, remains stubbornly stagnant.
The sad truth is that the fault is our own. We let the gene revolution pass us by. When it first became apparent that biotechnology could improve farming, especially in terms of weed control, many in the wheat industry said that they wanted nothing to do with it. There were sincere concerns about consumer acceptance, especially in foreign countries. More important, however, were the worries that seem to show up whenever something new threatens an established way of doing things.
By saying, “thanks, but no thanks,” to biotechnology, we denied ourselves a potential answer to one of our worst problems. Instead of trying to defeat the disease, we found ourselves resisting the very thing that offered a solution. It was a case of mistaken priorities.
Head scab is a fungal disease, and the traditional way of combating it involves the application of fungicides. But timing is everything. Head scab is deadliest during a window of about seven to ten days, when wheat plants flower. If the weather is humid and the mornings are dewy, the conditions are ideal for a fungal outbreak--and a devastated crop that is a staple for diets around the world.
If the anti-fungal sprays are a couple of days too early or too late, an entire year’s crop can crash. The problem is so daunting that wheat farmers almost have to expect that this will happen to them from time to time. It presents too much uncertainty.
Biotechnology, however, allows wheat plants to fight head scab all the time--even when farmers are asleep. Through genetic enhancement, the crops are always on guard against the ravages of this disease.
In recent years, lots of wheat farmers have had second thoughts about biotechnology. They’ve seen the success of GM corn and soybeans. They’ve envied it so much that many of them have started to abandon wheat in favor of farming these other crops.
Soon they may have reason to switch back: GM wheat is once again in biotechnology’s research pipeline.
In time, we may see wheat benefit from a full range of biotech traits, such as drought resistance and cold tolerance. Consumers will experience direct benefits as well, if scientists find a way to help those who suffer from wheat intolerance.
Wheat farming won’t ever be a risk-free business, but biotechnology promises to make it a lot less frustrating for producers and consumers alike. A plentiful supply of a staple food such as wheat is in everybody’s best interest!
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)