Biotechnology: An Agriculture Success Story
May 21, 2009
To hear the anti-biotech crowd talk, you would think that farmers are a bunch of gullible fools who don’t know their own business. That’s what I think whenever I hear Friends of the Earth or some other group of professional protestors claim that genetically modified crops don’t deliver benefits to the public.
They’ll have trouble refuting a comprehensive report released on Wednesday at the BIO 2009 International Convention. It proves beyond any reasonable doubt that biotech crops are good both for the environment and the economy, as well as a vital tool of sustainable agriculture.
The author of the study is Graham Brookes, director of PG Economics Ltd., a British firm. I joined him at the convention in Atlanta to discuss his research.
One of the report’s most important findings involves greenhouse gases. In 2007, farmers who planted GM crops reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 14 billion kg. That’s like removing more than six million cars from the road for an entire year. Farmers in the United States alone accounted for 4.3 billion kg, which is equivalent to the exhaust of almost two million cars.
How are we able to do it? The simple truth is that we don’t have to run our tractors nearly as much in order to control pests and weeds. By burning less fuel in our fields, we pump fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Thanks to biotech crops, I’ve reduced my time in tractors by about 50 percent.
That’s an environmental benefit for everybody, an economic benefit for consumers, and a personal benefit for me: This technology has afforded me the opportunity to spend more weekends with my family, a definite quality-of-life improvement, made possible by technology.
GM crops also have reduced pesticide use by 359 million kg, or about 9 percent between 1996 and 2007. Chemical sprays are a necessary part of food production--and they’re safe--but we all strive to reduce their use. Once again, this involves a savings for producers (which we pass on to consumers), plus an environmental benefit: Brookes calculates that acres that support biotech crops cut their herbicide and insecticide applications by more than 17 percent.
Yields have gone up, too--an important factor if we’re to feed a growing world population and conserve wilderness habitat simultaneously. In 2007, biotechnology boosted soybean yields by almost 30 percent. Other commodities made substantial gains as well: corn (7.6 percent), cotton (almost 20 percent), and canola (8.5 percent). Since 1996, biotech traits have added 68 million tons of soybeans and 62 million tons of corn to the global food supply.
Where I live--in Stutsman County, North Dakota--the changes are obvious. In 1996, farmers in my area planted 2,600 acres of soybeans and harvested 24.4 bushels per acre, according to USDA records. By 2007, they had discovered the advantages of biotechnology: They planted 295,000 acres of soybeans and harvested 37.2 bushels per acre. We don’t enjoy a bumper crop every season--last year, for instance, poor weather hurt soybean production--but the gains over time are big. Many farmers have switched from growing wheat, a traditional crop in our parts, to growing biotech soybeans and corn.
I don’t credit every single advance to biotechnology. Farmers are always striving to improve, and we’ve adopted new technologies that have nothing to do with genetic modification and tilling practices that help the soil. Yet biotechnology is a key to our success.
Going forward, we should seek to apply its benefits to other commodities, such as wheat. Progress to now has been slowed by politics and ignorance rather than scientific know-how. But last week, wheat growers in Australia, Canada, and the United States announced publicly that they would work together toward simultaneous commercialization of biotech wheat to minimize market disruption. “We believe it is in all of our best interests to introduce biotech wheat varieties in a coordinated fashion,” said industry groups in a joint statement.
The sooner we’re able to plant genetically enhanced wheat, in North Dakota and elsewhere, the sooner we’ll enjoy even more environmental and economic benefits from biotechnology.
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)