Reality Check from Wheat Country


In one respect, the activists earned their celebration. But their victory is a Pyrrhic one, built upon the illusion that they’ve stopped the forward march of biotechnology in agriculture. They’re completely blind to how biotechnology helps farmers, the environment, and consumers. To be sure, there are short term marketing concerns about biotech enhanced wheat. Over the long term, however, fighting biotechnology places a huge risk on the future reliability and safety of our food.

Here’s the fundamental problem: In my area, I can plant an acre of wheat and, depending on yield and price, expect to reap as much as $160 for it. If I plant the same acre with biotech corn or soybeans, however, I can earn about $200 with lower production costs.

When I was growing up, North Dakota was wheat country–wheat was everywhere. But many farmers have shifted away from this traditional staple for simple economic reasons – wheat is not keeping up with the technological advancements and is becoming too costly to grow. In the last five years, wheat production in the United States has fallen by about one-third.

In leaving wheat, many of my neighbors have understandably entered the corn and soybean markets–and this means most of them have embraced the very biotechnology that the activists are trying to defeat. About half of all the corn and more than 80 percent of all the soybeans being planted this spring are genetically enhanced, according to the Department of Agriculture. These figures have been rising steadily since biotech crops were first introduced commercially about a decade ago and they will increase even more in the years ahead.

That’s because biotechnology has improved the bottom line for farmers. It has enabled us to boost our productivity and grow crops in cleaner fields. We’re creating a friendlier environment for wildlife and reducing soil erosion. There are other cost benefits as well: Because we’re making fewer trips across the field, we’re reducing the wear and tear on our tractors and burning smaller amounts of fuel. On the acres I currently dedicate to corn and soybeans, I’m actually going to have a reduced fuel bill this summer even as prices at the pump are spiking–and biotechnology is the reason why.

Critics sometimes deride this as a “producer benefit” that doesn’t help consumers. Yet the cost of production is built into the price of food–and my savings in the field are passed on to shoppers in the grocery store. I believe an abundant supply of high quality and affordable food is a consumer benefit. Anybody concerned about surging milk prices can appreciate this.

Others fear that biotechnology is “unnatural.” They need to understand that there’s never been a credible scientific study anywhere showing these crops to be harmful to human health. A new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says as much. People who complain about them remind me of the folks who once worried that microwave ovens would destroy the nutritional value of the foods cooked in them.

Biotechnology is actually on the cusp of incredible progress, such as producing a strain of wheat that withstands drought better than current varieties. Another kind will be safe for people with wheat allergies to eat. (This, by the way, is an obvious and compelling “consumer benefit.”) None of these welcome developments become a reality, however, if the most basic forms of biotech wheat are kept from the marketplace.

The consequences for American farmers and consumers could be dire. As news stories have indicated, the World Trade Organization could announce soon that America’s cotton subsidies are unfair under international trade rules. Although the Bush administration is expected to appeal the decision, few people believe it will win. That bell you hear ringing may be a death knell for federal farm supports linked to yearly price and production–and not just for cotton, but all commodities.

As Washington rearranges its relationship with farmers over the next few years, those of us who earn our living as food producers will have to find innovative ways to remain competitive in the global market. We’re going to need all the help we can get–and if we can’t get it from the government, can’t at least a portion of it come from sound science and modern biotechnology?

Terry Wanzek

Terry Wanzek

Terry Wanzek is a fourth generation North Dakota farmer. This family partnership raises spring wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, dry edible beans and sunflowers. Terry was elected to serve as a North Dakota State Senator, providing leadership to the agriculture committee and serving as Senate President Pro Tempore.
Terry volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and continues to provide leadership to the National Association of Wheat Growers and the NoDak Mutual Insurance. He has a degree in Business Administration and Accounting from Jamestown College and completed the Texas A & M Executive Program for Agricultural Producers.

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