“Money isn’t everything,” billionaire industrialist J. Paul Getty once quipped. “But it sure keeps you in touch with your children.”
I’m a father and a family farmer – we understand the importance of money. Farms are businesses, and businesses are all about the bottom line. While important, money isn’t the only reason why we’ve embraced genetically improved crops. Agricultural biotechnology continues to prove it is good for the environment. Compelling new data confirms what we have experienced and observed.
This year we’re celebrating two notable ‘biotech’ milestones. It’s the tenth year genetically-improved crops have been planted for commercial purposes. Even more meaningfully, as of this month, farmers have harvested more than a billion acres of them.
So it’s an appropriate time for taking stock. We know intuitively that biotechnology makes sense for farmers. After all, farmers have chosen to adopt it. In the United States, this year, nearly 90 percent of all soybeans, about three-quarters of all cotton, and more than half of all corn have been enhanced to resist pests. These rates go up steadily every year, seeming to defy the cliché that what goes up must come down.
Despite this progress, we’ve had very little in the way of comprehensive data on the impact of agricultural biotechnology on the economy and environment. There has been research into these questions, but usually the studies have focused on single crops, countries, or years. Now one of the most significant evaluations on genetically improved crops helps us understand the global benefits of these plants.
British researchers Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot examined farm statistics between 1996 and 2004, and they reported three major findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal:
- Biotech crops have saved farmers $27 billion, which is roughly what our federal government has spent on farm programs over the last two years.
- Global pesticide use has dropped by 6 percent, a reduction of 380 million pounds. That’s equal to 1,514 rail cars of pesticide active ingredients. This is possible because biotech crops are better able to defend themselves against insects and weeds.
- Biotech crops contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of more than 22 billion pounds last year, from decreased fuel use (fewer trips across the field) and more carbon stored in the ground due to less plowing. The net effect is like removing 5 million cars from the road for a year.
And if that news isn’t good enough, consider this: Brookes and Barfoot say that the particular demands of their methodology combined with data limitations mean that their estimates are “probably conservative.”
Farmers won’t be surprised by this economic analysis. We just know, from personal experience, what’s happening on our farms. But what will environmentalists—a number of them in the grip of an emotional hostility to biotechnology–say about the reduced emission of greenhouse gases? Many are bound to ignore it, because it complicates their simplistic worldview. But those who are concerned about global warming will want to pay heed to Brookes and Barfoot. We’re often told that technological advances are a key to solving the climate-change conundrum. It would seem that genetically enhanced crops deserve to be a part of the equation.
One of the ironies of the Brookes-Barfoot study is that it comes from Britain, a member of the European Union. Although most of the world is rushing to accept biotech food, the EU continues to resist moving forward. It’s a strange decision, considering that the EU enjoys boasting about its efforts to help the developing world (especially Africa) and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (there would be no Kyoto treaty but for Europe).
“The EU is currently missing out on these environmental and economic benefits,” says Brookes. “As a European citizen, I find it difficult to see why we are denying ourselves a clear opportunity to improve our environment and to improve the incomes and efficiency of our agricultural sector.”
With the World Trade Organization focused on the problem of wealthy nations subsidizing their farmers–and the possibility of cuts to these programs–it would make sense for governments to encourage those who work the land to adopt modern methods that boost efficiency. In the United States, Canada, South America, and increasingly in Asia, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Maybe somebody should run those greenhouse gas numbers by the Europeans. As Brookes and Barfoot report, the biotech benefit is equivalent to plugging up nearly one in five of the exhaust pipes attached to British automobiles.
If they want to save the world from global warming, commercial acceptance and use of biotech –enhanced plants might be a good place to start.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines, IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.