Biotech Boom Benefits Farmers, Consumers, Environment

January 01, 2006  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Scripps Howard News Service  ·  Biotech

Drought-resistant crops would be great for Americans, but literal lifesavers for those in lesser-developed countries.

Both in terms of consumption and variety, biotech is busting out all over – and we’re reaping a host of benefits from cheaper and better food to land and forest preservation.

The estimated global area of approved biotech crops for 2004 was 200 million acres, up from just 167 million acres the year before. It was an incredible 47-fold increase since 1996.

In the U.S., as well, biotech acreage increases annually. Most of our corn, about four-fifths of our cotton, and almost 90% of our soybeans are transgenic. That means a meaning a gene or genes from another organism has been spliced into them to give them new traits, as opposed to using the clunky older method of cross-breeding.

Now consider some of the approximately 30 crops in the development pipeline of a single company, Monsanto of St. Louis.

Many of these will primarily aid farmers but actually help all of us by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land, thereby leaving more land for nature.

Among these are corn, soybeans, cotton, and oil-producing canola that are resistant to drought. Monsanto has video footage comparing drought-resistant corn with a regular variety on a 100-degree day. Leaves of the regular variety began curling in the morning, while those of the drought-resistant corn remained open so the plants continued to grow.

They also checked the drought-resistant crop’s temperature and found it stayed cooler. (Just don’t ask where they stuck the thermometer.)

Droughts regularly destroy crops in the U.S. causing great hardship for farmers and increase consumer prices. But in poorer parts of the world droughts mean famine and death. And while American farmers are Monsanto’s main customers, not only is much of their market overseas but indeed they’ve helped develop crops such as a variety of disease-resistant sweet potato exclusively for Third World countries.

Further, while a biotech plant such as cotton may boost an American farmer’s crop by 10% or more, I’ve met with African farmers at a U.S. meeting who said that same cotton DOUBLED their yields. That’s because the biotech seed is the ONLY advantage they have, with no access to tractors, pesticides, and even the global positioning system that U.S. farmers can use to tell them exactly where to spray and fertilize.

Speaking of which, one of Monsanto’s pipeline products is corn that increases nitrogen use. Most plants, including corn, must draw all of their life-sustaining nitrogen from the ground, so farmers must regularly apply fertilizer. Fertilizer costs money and, if not properly managed, can harm the environment when rain causes it to run off into waterways causing algae growth explosions that crowd out both plant and aquatic life.

Want to save the Amazon rainforest? Support biotech crops.

In developed countries, engineered nitrogen-efficient plants can reduce the amount of fertilizer needed or produce greater yields with the same amount. But poor farmers can only afford the fertilizer they collect from the rectums of their animals and families. Each year their meager crop yields decline. If possible, they create greener pastures by cutting down rain forest, which has much value to us but none to them.

Currently, almost all biotech crops reduce the use of either insecticides or herbicides. Upcoming Monsanto products, however, more effectively kill pests and even combine the two traits. The Agriculture Department has just approved one that protects corn against both weeds and rootworms. These are actually voracious beetles nicknamed "the billion-dollar pest" because of their estimated annual cost to U.S. farmers.

Other pipeline products directly target consumers. Soybeans are emphasized, because they are healthy to begin with and are common in our food both as oil and meal.

Monsanto is introducing into the bean omega-3 fatty acids, which are strongly connected to reducing heart disease. It’s also improving the quality of the protein in soybeans and eliminating trans fats and saturated fats, both linked to causing heart disease.

I chose to focus on Monsanto for lack of space and because their annual report plopped onto my lap when I was hunting for a column idea. But their pipeline represents a fraction of what the biotech industry as a whole – large companies and small, here and abroad – will bring to your supper table. These are truly exciting times for producers, consumers, and those who care about the environment.