Biotech Bonanza

July 29, 2011 10:17 AM

By Kent Schulze

U.S. farmer adoption of GM technology sets the curve

American farmers have always been progressive, but never has that been more evident than in their adoption of genetically modified crops.

It makes no difference whether they embrace the technology for mere convenience or to battle weed and insect pests. The result has been a positive impact in productivity at a time when the world desperately needs every kernel and oilseed to feed and fuel a growing population. As our planet’s resources become increasingly stressed, the need to adopt practices that make more with less has never been greater.

Thanks to widespread adoption of biotech seeds, U.S. farmers have been able to move an already productive corn yield base forward. In soybeans, the improvement has been in acreage expansion due to effective, economical weed control. For the most part, U.S. consumers have accepted the change without adverse consequences for corn and soybeans.

The productive leaps are even more pronounced in countries that began with a much lower yield base. Argentina, for example, increased average corn yields by 50% between 1996 and 2008, as the proportion of its total corn acreage devoted to biotech seeds climbed to 85%.

China and Brazil, in particular, have taken note and have recently begun approving biotech traits. Mexico and India are also looking at opportunities.

Countries that have failed to adopt biotech have fallen seriously behind. In particular, Europe (with the exception of Spain) is making major yield and productivity sacrifices by not
embracing biotech technology.

world corn yields

Game-changer. European acceptance of biotech has global implications. Countries often blame their reluctance to use the technology on the fact they might not be able to export to Europe. Many of these countries have severe production challenges and cannot raise enough grain to feed their own population, yet are concerned about export markets. This is flawed logic and prevents the importation of grain from gene-altered crops.

American farmers should feel good about their acceptance of today’s science. Statistics from a United Kingdom study on the global impact of biotech crops through 2008 (the last year the data was compiled) shows the U.S. close to setting the curve, with 92% of soybean acreage and 80% of corn acreage devoted to biotech seed. Worldwide, biotech’s share of plantings stands at 72% of soybean acreage and only 37% of corn acreage.

With more and more hungry mouths to feed each year, it will take universal acceptance of biotech traits to stock the global pantry.

Kent Schulze is an associate with Cornland Consulting, a Minneapolis, Minn., firm that tracks the seed industry.

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