Using New Technology to Fight Old Pests


When I started farming 30 years ago, I never dreamed of how technological progress would revolutionize agriculture. People have been growing food for millennia, after all. Tractors have replaced mules, but in the end, every farmer confronts ever-present challenges, such as the weather and low margin returns. You can have the best hoe in the world, but it won’t do you a bit of good in the middle of a crippling drought!

We still can’t control the weather, even though watching the Weather Channel lets us know what’s in store. Yet recent innovations in biotechnology have improved agriculture beyond anything I ever thought was possible. We may even be on the verge of making another eternal scourge of farmers permanently obsolete. I’m talking about pests.

Any farmer who has lost a field of crops to corn borers knows what I mean. There’s nothing so frustrating as seeing a bunch of bugs destroy something that might otherwise feed hungry people.

Old technology sprays offer one way of containing the problem, but they’re hardly foolproof. Moreover, there’s a fine line between insecticides that are strong enough to kill pests and those that are so powerful they harm the beneficial plants they’re supposed to protect. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Today, however, farmers have a new option. They can turn to crops that are better able to resist sprays because of agricultural biotechnology. Some can even ward off bugs on their own. This is a fantastic advancement, because it means farmers don’t have to use as many chemicals to beat back bugs or guard against weeds.

This year farmers will plant a record number of biotech crops. According to the Department of Agriculture, 74 percent of soybean acres and 32 percent of corn acres will consist of these remarkable plants, up from last year’s rates of 68 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

There will be even more of this in the future. One estimate says the world market for biotech crops will be $8 billion within three years and $25 billion by 2010. More than a dozen countries now grow substantial amounts of these crops, with the United States, Canada, and Argentina leading the way.

This wouldn’t be possible without confident consumers. Yet there’s a disinformation campaign underway whose specific goal is to erode that confidence. Radical activists who prefer junk science to sound science are the force behind this misleading propaganda.

There’s not a single scrap of evidence suggesting that biotech crops are unhealthy or bad for the environment. Yet the enemies of agricultural innovation have done everything in their power to make ordinary people think there’s a problem. They have discovered that fear raises money – and that provides “job security” for them!

Remember that story about biotech corn hurting monarch butterflies? The original report, based on a small lab experiment of caterpillars placed in an unnatural setting, has just been discredited–for what seems like the umpteenth time. In February, the Department of Agriculture’s top scientific research agency said that genetically modified corn poses “no significant risk” to these butterflies.

In April, the prestigious journal Nature apologized for publishing a false report last year about new strains of corn hurting Mexico’s biodiversity. The opponents of biotech heralded this study when it came out, but now the editors of Nature have owned up to a major mistake: “The evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” they wrote.

Biotechnology is actually good for the environment. By increasing crop yield, it allows the same amount of land to produce more food. This is good economics for farmers and consumers–but it also aids soil conservation. In developing countries, it decreases the pressure people face to turn rainforests into farmland.

Biotechnology allows us to grow food that can provide special benefits for the people who eat it. The science is still young, but we’ve already discovered ways to make food more nutritious. There’s even a new variety of rice that fights vitamin A deficiency, which is a leading cause of blindness around the world.

I’m really looking forward to the plants that will increase my vitamin intake, lower my cholesterol AND reduce my blood pressure. Now that would be REAL eating and it can’t happen too soon! About the only thing these incredible plants can’t do is control the weather. But who’s complaining? I’m busy planting.

Tim Burrack, in partnership with his brother, has been raising corn and soybeans in northeast Iowa for 30 years and serves on the Board of Directors for Truth About Trade and Technology.

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and is currently serving as Vice Chairman.

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