My farm is located deep in the heart of Big Ten Country, just a few miles from the University of Illinois campus. So, for me, two important seasons are approaching: harvest season and the college football season.
Then there’s the protestor season.
One of the neat things about living in a college community is the diverse opinions that exist. But, I am frustrated with how closed the minds of many people are regarding biotechnology. Universities train people in critical thinking skills, yet, I often find their minds are made up about biotechnology before farmers even have a chance to talk.
I wish they would listen to us. Plant biotechnology can help provide an abundant and renewable energy source that’s good for the environment.
By now, most Americans know a little bit about ethanol. It’s a fuel produced from plant material – mainly corn, although just about any kind of plant will do. What they may not realize is that there are already plenty of cars that run purely on ethanol, including 3.6 million of them in Brazil alone. In the United States, ethanol is primarily a fuel additive whose purpose is to cut down on harmful auto emissions.
There’s less familiarity with biodiesel. Biodiesel is a combination of vegetable oil with diesel oil. Soybeans – like the kind I grow on my farm – are popular ingredients because their oil has the added benefit of serving as an engine lubricant.
These biofuels still cost slightly more than the fuels they’re starting to replace, but in recent years they’ve become economically competitive. I put biodiesel in my own tractors. When the cost of fuel spikes upward, as it did two years ago – and may again soon if we go to war against Iraq – biofuels actually become less expensive options.
They also burn cleaner than conventional fuel, which should please anybody concerned about air quality. And when they’re drawn from biotech corn and soybeans, they reduce the demands placed on wildlife areas and fragile ecosystems. That’s because innovative plant technologies are allowing farmers like me to increase our yield on the same acreage.
My own experience is that biotech crops boost yield by an average of 5 to 7 percent per acre, though in some years it’s much higher than that. Imagine what this could mean in the developing world, which faces constant pressure to convert fragile lands and other precious areas into productive cropland. If biotechnology can help farmers produce more food with the same acreage, then we can feed a growing world without having to clear more space.
What’s more, if existing farmland can become a source for fuel, it will decrease the incentive to permit oil drilling off the coasts of California and Florida, in the Great Lakes, and in the Artic.
Biotechnology can provide a positive economic benefit to farmers. In tough economic times, not unlike what so many in agriculture are experiencing right now, the benefits of biotechnology provide can be instrumental in keeping farmers in business on the farm!
The benefits don’t end there. Biotech crops are healthier because they require fewer pesticides. I’ve seen what European corn borers can do to a field of plants. I’m eager to use any tool available to fend off that destruction. A lot of my corn and soybeans are genetically engineered to help me fight pests. This means I can use less and safer sprays than I did just a few years ago. This should be a comfort to consumers – and even more so to those of us who work on the farm, as well as our non-farm neighbors.
Finally, biotech crops that go into fuel will help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, which is greater today than it was before the Gulf War. More than half of our oil currently comes from abroad, and much of it from the Middle East. Reducing our reliance on resources from that tumultuous part of the world should be a fundamental part of national security strategy.
I don’t know if any of the Fighting Illini will wander off campus this fall to learn about plant biotechnology. I hope a few do, provided they come with an open mind.
John Reifsteck operates a corn and soybean farm in western Champaign County, Il. John serves on the board of Truth About Trade and Technology and is a member of the University of Illinois crop sciences advisory committee.