The poet T.S. Eliot knew what he was talking about when he called April “the cruelest month.”
We’re approaching the critical time of year when wheat farmers in the Upper Great Plains will first get an idea what the crop potential may be. If the weather lets us plant in mid-April, we’ll be in luck. If we can’t start until the middle of May--because we’ve suffered through a cruel April, due to cold wet soils--we’ll be in trouble. Our yields could drop by as much as 40 percent.
One month makes a huge difference in yield potential, and we’re completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. We can put seeds in the ground while there’s still snow in the ditches, but seeds will lay there for weeks without progress. While seeds will slowly sprout in soils as cool as 40 to 45 degrees, it’s not until the soil temps approach 60 degrees and wheat plants really begin to feel the warmth of spring that plants will rapidly grow and flourish.
What if modern science was to give us an edge?
We already have the know-how. Biotechnology has transformed agriculture for farmers who grow soybeans, corn, and cotton. Earlier this year, they passed a significant milestone: 2 billion acres of genetically modified crops planted around the world since commercialization began 13 years ago. For these farmers, GM crops are not a cutting-edge fantasy but the new reality of conventional agriculture.
Wheat farmers, however, are left out in the cold, both literally and figuratively. We not only need to shake off the chill of January, February, and March, but we also want to take full advantage of the Gene Revolution--something that we’ve been blocked from doing, thanks to a toxic mix of political confusion and scientific illiteracy.
Farmers who plant biotech crops have enjoyed large increases in yield. Some seed companies are even talking about new technologies doubling the yields of these crops over the next two decades.
Where’s wheat? Twenty years behind and counting. Years ago, several players in the wheat industry grew nervous about biotechnology, primarily spooked by misguided fears about consumer acceptance in foreign countries. Consequently, producers and consumers alike are paying a steep price. While the rest of the planet started to embrace biotechnology, wheat retreated. Now, while many years behind other major crops, the wheat industry is uniting and strategically moving forward toward enhancing wheat through biotechnology.
Cold-tolerant wheat, possibly obtained through genetic modification, would provide a big boost. Crops able survive in slightly colder temperatures--even by just a few degrees--would help us increase our output. That would lead to earlier harvests, better yields, lower food prices and greater global food supplies. Each point takes on more importance when you consider the global relevance of wheat as a staple food crop for billions.
Even more important is drought tolerance. Wheat grows in dry climates, and plants that make efficient use of water perform the best. The goal is more production per unit of available water. If biotech wheat is ever commercialized, drought tolerance could possibly become the first available trait because the science behind it is already proven and soon available in other crops.
Biotechnology also promises a solution to an emerging problem in Africa and parts of Asia, where a deadly fungus called stem rust poses a huge threat to small-acreage farmers and their staple crop. Some diseases depress yields. This new stem rust is different--it wipes out whole harvests. “It has immense destructive potential,” said Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, in a recent interview.
The last stem rust epidemic occurred half a century ago. Scientists thought they had defeated it permanently through better breeding. But now the disease is back, in a virulent new form that could imperil the world’s food supply. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico has warned of “a pending disaster in global agriculture.”
Fungicide sprays offer marginal relief, but not a cure. We need to defeat this disease. Some new discoveries indicate that genes that convey resistance to this rust exist today however, we need all the scientific tools available to us – and that includes biotechnology to defeat this threat. Unfortunately, the answers to this problem lie not merely a season or two away, but years in the future. That’s why the work to annihilate it for another half-century or longer must begin immediately.
T.S. Eliot’s famous line about April appears in a poem called “The Waste Land.” If we don’t take advantage of biotechnology, wheat farmers will have to endure not only more cruel Aprils, but brutal years of mediocrity as fertile wheat lands are deprived of their potential while other crops flourish with the biotech advantage.
Al Skogen produces wheat, corn and soybeans, using minimum and no-till production practices, on a diverse grain family farm in east central North Dakota. Mr. Skogen is chairman of Growers for Biotechnology, participated in the 2008 Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.