Biotechnology driving U.S. farm growth

Though drought has robbed much of the profitability from farming in the Southeast, nationwide the agriculture industry is booming — much of that growth the result of new technology.

Nationwide farm equity has risen over $200 million per year for the past five years. The farm to debt ratio is at its lowest ebb in over 45 years. Though the profitability has been redistributed somewhat to grain crops in the past two years, the whole arena of biofuel productions offers new options to many farmers.

Speaking at the recent Southern Crop Production Association, Greg Conko, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., said globally farmers produced more than 250 million acres of bio-engineered crops, or about 7 percent of the world total. The U.S. produces over half the worldwide acreage of bioengineered crops (135 million acres).

In the U.S. 90 percent of the soybean crop, 85 percent of cotton and 50 percent of field corn is bio-engineered or genetically manipulated organisms (GMO). Worldwide, 60 percent of soybeans and 28 percent of cotton are GMO varieties.

Across the globe, a greater increase is expected from corn and canola, which currently are made up of 14 percent and 18 percent, respectively, according to Conko.

Developing nations, including China, India and Mexico, use GMO varieties in nearly 40 percent of their acreage. With dramatic growth predicted in these countries in the next 5-10 years, the use of GMOs worldwide is projected to grow at a much faster rate than U.S. growth.

A part of the speed-up in developing countries is greater acceptance by farmers and less regulation by their respective governments. Government restriction, according to Conko, more so in the European Union than in the U.S., has slowed use of GMO products in more developed countries.

Regardless of the location, farmers have found some uniform benefits to using GMO varieties. These plants require less total pesticide, allow farmers to plant more acreage with less labor and equipment, helps with better pest management, and offer more economic gain to the farmer, despite the high price of GMO seed.

Conko says, “Crop biotechnology has been the single most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history. Certainly, this is true in the U.S. and almost as clearly it has been the most significant in the world.”

There has been significant opposition to GMO products, especially in Europe. The most frequent target is Monsanto, which has pioneered the use of these plants and products, and without question has saved farmers worldwide billions of dollars in pest management, fuel, labor, and equipment costs.

Ronnie Cummins, who heads the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, says "European labeling laws require GMO ingredients to be listed, making it easy to avoid them, but Americans and consumers are sitting ducks since no such labeling is required. The only way to be sure you are not eating GMO ingredients is to buy certified organic products."

The Organic Consumers Association has failed to publicize similar dangers to organically grown food — particularly the wide-scale use of copper sulfate in organic farming. Copper sulfate, when used in large quantities, can accumulate in the soil and create a potentially dangerous human health risk. However, there is no regulation for its use by organic farmers.

Cummins sites a 2005 report that his association contends leaves Monsanto holding the proverbial ‘smoking gun’. Citing the report, Cummins says, “European news outlets reported harmful health impacts on lab rats that were fed Monsanto's root worm resistant corn (Mon 863). Monsanto, the world’s largest maker of genetically modified corn, soybeans, canola and cotton, appears to have disregarded their own research on the harmful impacts of their GMO corn on rats.”

MON 863 corn has subsequently been vindicated by both Monsanto and by food monitoring agencies worldwide. In March 2007, Greenpeace announced its findings on the effect of MON 863 corn on lab rats. The study, published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, reports a new statistical analysis of a 90-day rat feeding study, performed with MON 863 corn.

The feeding study was previously evaluated in 2005, at which time it was concluded the study did not indicate adverse effects from the consumption of MON 863 corn. The same conclusion was reached by other food regulatory agencies around the world.

Unfortunately, such negative worldwide publicity has made introduction of GMO varieties more difficult, but especially so in the more developed countries of the world. In October, in some softening of its stance, the EU allowed several GMO products into several of their countries, but they can only be grown for export and only for livestock feed.

In the U.S., Conko says regulations have likewise slowed the development of new GMO products. This is despite no findings by the scientific community that any threats exist from recombinant DNA technololgy that did not previously exist from conventional plant breeding, he says.

Every new biotech crop variety developed by Monsanto, Syngenta, or DuPont is treated as a ‘plant pest’, until field testing proves it is not.

New GMO plant varieties with genetic improvments added via DNA splicing is considered by the EPA as a pesticide. Conko says it is easy to see how a corn plant that has a Bt gene inserted to improve insect resistance could be considered a pesticide.

However, cotton plants with glyphosate resistance genes or other herbicide resistance genes are also considered as pesticides, which doesn’t make much sense, according to Conko.

The cumulative effect of regulatory hurdle-jumping has raised the cost of developing a new plant variety to over $1 million per plant. Most biotech companies evaluate dozens of plants to find the right combination of agronomic and gene-enhanced qualities. To get one high-yielding, high-quality, GMO plant to the market costs $30-50 million.

Conko says there are real risks involved in moving genes around. He sites a study of petunias in which unpredicted coloration occurred. The study has been used by opposition groups as an “I told you so” argument against use of GMO plants.

He points out that over a thousand or so years of conventional genetic manipulation through plant breeding and science has changed the color of corn from its natural color — blue — to the yellow and white corn we grow today.

Risks in changing the genetic makeup of plants, however, are not new. For example, nightshade, tobacco, tomatoes and potatoes are all in the same family and contain a potentially lethal chemical.

Wild tomatoes, which are purple to black in color, are highly toxic to humans.

Plant breeders over the past 100 years have used genetic traits from wild tomatoes to produce more hardy varieties which are popular today and bred to be safe for humans.

The overall impact of less government regulation and more acceptance by the public of GMO products will reduce the cost of developing these products. The introduction of many new products is likely to follow, giving growers many more management options.

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