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Wh-wh-wh-what happened? That’s what anti-biotech activists must be asking themselves in light of a new Agriculture Department survey showing that more transgenic crops are being planted in this country than ever.
Just two years ago, a gleeful scholar at the Worldwatch Institute declared in an International Herald-Tribune op-ed that, "After four years of supercharged growth, American farmers are expected to reduce their planting of genetically engineered seeds by as much as 25 percent in 2000 as spreading public resistance staggers the once high-flying biotech industry." Margaret Mellon of the anti-biotech Union of Concerned Scientists gloated that the year "probably represents a turning point for the technology."
Better spray some Windex on that crystal ball, folks. Biotech plantings actually increased in 2000 and like a certain pink bunny, they just keep on going.
About 74 percent of this year’s soy crop, or 54 million acres, will be genetically engineered, compared with 68 percent last year and 54 percent in 2000, according to the Agriculture Department. Some 32 percent of the corn crop, or 25.3 million acres, will be of biotech varieties, compared with 26 percent in 2001 and 25 percent the year before. About 10.5 million acres of cotton, or 71 percent of this year’s cotton crop, will be bioengineered, compared to 69 last year.
The activists gave it their best shot. They tried to convince us biotech corn would kill butterflies, but two years of field research proved that wrong. Then they tried to scare consumers about tainted tacos, but the public correctly shrugged that off as just another food scare. Further, surveys show that the more Americans realize we’ve all been eating these foods for several years now, the more comfortable we become with them.
And so long as there’s demand, farmers are only too happy to meet it. "Farmers and producers are very smart people," says Martina McGloughlin, director of the University of California at Davis Biotechnology Program. "They know these crops are saving them huge amounts of money and time." Ms. McGloughlin, who comes from a farm background herself, says farmers "Spend less time formulating complex cocktails of chemicals and a lot less time spraying."
As to money, Leonard Gianessi, program director for the D.C.-based National Center for Food & Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) is releasing a study in June showing that, "Corn farmers are paying on average an extra $6.50 per acre for this technology and getting $8 or $9 back on that." Further, "The EPA’s numbers claim greater benefits for the technology than even we do," he says.
The environment also comes out a winner, says Ms. McGloughlin.
For example, plants genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate allow the chemical to be sprayed "over the top" of crop and weeds alike, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for turning up the soil to kill weeds. No-till farming tremendously reduces runoff of valuable topsoil. Further, "by killing the weeds and leaving them in place, farmers are holding onto more plant debris and finding that birds and other small wildlife are returning to the fields," Ms. McGloughlin says.
Yet both here and abroad, activism and ignorance remain powerful forces against progress. Glyphosate-resistant sugar beets have been available for two years, but are being held back for fear of "Frankenfood" accusations.
Likewise for a sweet corn variety with built-in protection against insects. A Florida study shows this could reduce insecticide sprayings from 12 to just two for 80 percent of the crops, "But the seed is just rotting away because farmers are afraid of negative reaction," Mr. Gianessi told me.
Elsewhere resistance is weakening, though hardly at Mach speeds. "All around the world, there has been real progress in the acceptance of the technology and acceptance of crops using the technology," says Christian Verschueren, director general of Brussels-based CropLife International, a global industry umbrella group. "The debate in Europe is still vigorous and ongoing, but it’s probably less so on the food safety side and more on cultural and socioeconomic grounds."
European farmers receive tremendous subsidies that have encouraged unproductive techniques, creating a large disparity between their efficiency and that of their American brethren. U.S.-grown biotech crops threaten to widen that disparity and increase subsidies. Alleged safety concerns can also be a way around international trade agreements and thus a way to bar import competition.
Still, Mr. Verschueren downplays these factors.
"Europeans have a view of culture and tradition concerning food that equates to ’naturalness,’ traditional production methods and rules of origin," he says. "Americans must respect that, but at the same time Europeans must respect the rights and needs of persons in the developing world with populations that are both growing in size and affluence, both of which result in pressure to grow more food on the limited amount of land available for cultivation. I think everybody agrees we need to move toward a more sustainable world."
Mr. Verschueren notes that some of the crops in the research pipeline like beta-carotene fortified golden rice, won’t just help increase the quantity of food but "provide added value to food itself."
India’s just-announced approval of insect-resistant cotton was a stunning setback to biotech activists. Biotech cotton is projected to increase Indian yields–and the wealth of its farmers–by as much as 30 percent.
Biotech agriculture was destined to prevail, just as gasoline-powered cars were destined to defeat steam-powered vehicles. But what is not inevitable is the rate of progress. Activists continue to fight a well-organized holding action. So long as they do, much of the world and even the U.S. will be denied the wonderful bounties of biotech.