As I begin to plant my own crops this week, I know that somewhere in the northern hemisphere this month, a farmer will put a seed in the ground—and the world will have its 4-billionth acre of genetically modified crops.
Perhaps it will happen in my country of Spain, which is Europe’s leader in GM farming. We can only guess at the location of this milestone achievement, let alone the farmer who will reach it. Yet we know for certain that the great moment will come about halfway through this month.
Truth about Trade & Technology, a non-profit group based in the United States, has tracked the world’s biotech-crop acreage for years. It posts its findings in the upper right-hand corner of its website (www.truthabouttrade.org) with a special counter that constantly updates, using official reports and independent research.
How big is 4 billion acres? It’s an area so vast that Spain could fit into it almost 32 times. It’s more than one and a half times as large as all of Europe. It’s nearly as big as South America.
That’s a lot of acreage.
There’s a lesson in all of this: GM crops are good for farmers, good for consumers, and good for the environment.
Farmers like me choose to plant GM crops because they work. We have found them safer and easier to use. They also produce more food than so-called conventional crops.
With 4 billion acres of cumulative biotech acres now planted globally, of course, we may want to reconsider the definition of “conventional.”
Although GM crops may be common, they are anything but ordinary. They are extraordinary plants that allow the worlds farmers to grow more food on less land.
That’s why I started to grow GM corn. Where I live—in the Ebro Valley of northern Spain, right beside the Pyrenees—we have a serious problem with the European corn borer. This pest drills into corn stalks, making them weak and barely able to stand. When the wind blows, it knocks down the corn. And the wind can blow so hard here that we have a special name for it: “the cierzo.”
When corn lies on the ground, of course, it is impossible to harvest.
GM corn, however, carries a natural resistance to the corn borer and we don’t have to spray our fields with insecticide. The bugs leave it alone. So when the cierzo strikes, our corn stands tall. Best of all, we are obtaining better yields.
Biotechnology lets me raise two crops per year. Right now, I’m planting barley and peas. I’ll harvest them in June and then replant my fields with corn, without tillage. Corn that starts in June doesn’t have as much time to grow, so its stalks are thinner and more vulnerable to corn borers and high winds.
When I plant crops that are genetically modified, however, they grow strong and we can harvest two crops rather than just one. We’re doing more with less. Food is more affordable. So biotechnology contributes to the spread of sustainable agriculture—environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture.
My only regret about biotechnology is that we don’t have more of it. Although we grow corn that can defeat the corn borer, the European Union won’t let us have access to varieties of biotechnology that would help our crops to beat other threats, including weeds, rootworm, and drought.
In much of the western hemisphere—the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina—farmers take these characteristics for granted. They grow GM crops every day, and they’re a big part of the reason why biotechnology has just hit the 4-billion mark.
Unfortunately, Europe continues to resist biotechnology the way my corn resists corn borers.
In time, I think the EU will change its ways. We currently import a good deal of our food, and much of it comes from GM crops. I do not believe Europe can continue to import food forever, if we are going to continue to be rich countries. We must increase our food production and Europe’s farmers must have access to GM technology to achieve this goal.
I’m hopeful that by the time a farmer plants the 5-billionth acre of GM crops, probably within the next three years, Europeans will have opened their minds to the potential of these amazing plants and will allow us to catch up with the rest of the world.
Jose Luis Romeo, a fourth generation family farmer, grows peas, barley, corn and wine grapes in northern Spain, near the Pyrenees. Jose is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).