Thankful for Biotech
Nov 21, 2008
Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election for a simple reason: Americans thought their country was headed in the wrong direction, and he provided a vision of change that voters found more compelling than John McCain’s.
These are tough times, with the financial crisis causing widespread anxiety. Everyone seems to think that things will get worse before they get better. And they might be right.
But next Thursday the United States celebrates Thanksgiving--an occasion for setting aside our fears and giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy.
As a farmer, I’m thankful that we enjoyed a good harvest. It was a challenging year on my farm. At planting time, the weather was not very cooperative, but patience, hard work and faith saw us through. Harvest is a special time on the farm. It is kind of like Christmas morning and payday combined. It is also time to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
One of the best things about farming is that we get a fresh start every year. Farmers start that new year by looking at what has worked well in the past and what needs to be changed. One of the things that has worked well on our farms is biotechnology. Three years ago, agriculture celebrated a major agricultural achievement: Somewhere in the world, a farmer planted the one-billionth acre of genetically modified crops.
We don’t know if it happened in Montana, Manitoba, or in your neighbor’s backyard. But we do know that this accomplishment sprouted from the commercial introduction of GM seeds, and that farmers needed about a decade to adopt new practices and reach this significant milestone.
Today, we’re approaching another milestone: two billion acres. We’ll reach it in the coming months, according to calculations based on agricultural statistics collected from all parts of the world. (You can keep up with this progress on the Truth About Trade and Technology website - www.truthabouttrade.org - where an official counter tracks the number.)
Again, we’re not sure exactly where this moment in agricultural history will occur. It could be in the southern hemisphere during the current growing season, maybe in Argentina when soybeans are planted after winter wheat. Or, the two-billionth acre could be in Australia, Brazil, the Philippines, or South Africa. If not this fall, we’ll hit that benchmark in early 2009. It could be a corn field in the Rio Grande Valley in the U.S. or a little later in a Spanish corn field.
Regardless of the location, this is the very definition of a rapid success story: Ten years to one-billion acres, three more years to two-billion acres. I suspect that we’ll reach the milestone of three-billion acres by 2010. Pretty soon, we’ll be talking about “billions and billions” of biotech acres the way Carl Sagan used to talk about stars in the universe.
No matter how quickly we get there, we can now say with more confidence than ever before that biotech crops are here to stay. They’re a fully proven commodity. They’re more cost-effective and bountiful than conventional crops. In many places, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced.
Their use is so widespread, in fact, that they call into question what’s conventional and what’s non-conventional. It might be more accurate to say that biotech crops are “conventional” and non-biotech crops are not.
Even Europe, which has proven so resistant to biotech agriculture, is inching toward this new reality. The European Food Safety Authority recently reaffirmed its view that two varieties of GM corn are safe for planting. It remains to be seen what will happen next--in the EU, bureaucratic red tape strangles a lot of innovation--but all the momentum now is in the direction of approval.
In September, the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry gave a major prize to Ingo Portykus for helping to develop “golden rice,” a GM crop that has the potential to improve public health in the developing world. It’s fortified with vitamin A, which can be scarce in rice-heavy diets. By some estimates, half a million children become blind each year because of vitamin-A deficiency. Most die shortly thereafter.
The miracle of biotechnology is that it holds the promise to address the world’s food demands on scale both large and small. The high yields of GM crops make it possible to feed a planet with a growing population. At the same time, it has the potential to treat very specific problems, such as a lack of vitamin A in certain diets.
So as we arrive at Thanksgiving 2008, I’m thankful for two billion acres of biotech crops--and hopeful for billions and billions more to come.
John Reifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).