When GM crops were commercialized a decade ago, the voices of negativism complained that poor farmers would never benefit. The developing world, they declared, couldn’t possibly afford to take advantage of agriculture’s next great innovation.
Fortunately, their predictions were totally wrong. There were 8.5 million biotech growers in 2005, and 90 percent of them were resource-poor farmers in developing countries. That group accounted for more than one-third of the world’s gene-altered crop acreage. They’re the foot soldiers of the biotech revolution.
The most reliable facts and figures on the rapidly expanding use of biotech crops may be found in a new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit research group. The data revealed that farmers planted 222 million acres of GM crops in 2005. That’s an increase of 11 percent from the previous year, and a fifty-fold increase from just ten years ago.
Anybody who cares about food should celebrate this remarkable triumph. Because of biotechnology, we’re able to feed more people with less farmland than ever before. Biotechnology enhances production efficiency and creates a more plentiful supply of safe, reliable and affordable food for a hungry world. In the years ahead, our capabilities will do nothing but improve.
At the same time, biotechnology has not helped every kind of farmer. I grow wheat in North Dakota, and so far the biotech revolution has passed wheat farmers by. It doesn’t matter that I happen to live in the wealthiest and most privileged nation in human history. I can’t grow biotech wheat because it isn’t available. In this respect, I envy those poor farmers who have access to the best that science can give them.
The fundamental challenge for wheat isn’t with the science. It’s with our willpower. We know how to develop new varieties of wheat. I’m particularly interested in a strain that would address the huge problem of fusarium head blight or scab as it is commonly known. But biotech companies can’t invest their research and development dollars into wheat if they don’t believe it will result in a product they can sell. And so far, regrettably, wheat farmers have provided mixed signals about their desire to grow biotech enhanced wheat.
Oddly, one of the worlds’s most repressed and backwards nations has shown no such reluctance. Last year, Iran became the first country to commercialize GM rice. Several hundred farmers planted about 10,000 acres of biotech-enhanced rice, according to ISAAA. This year, Iran is expected to grow as many as 50,000 acres of it.
Iran has been in the news lately for its aggressive efforts to build nuclear weapons. It is ruled by a president who denies the reality of the Holocaust and says that he wants Israel wiped from the map.
It astonishes me that a charter member of the “axis of evil” has beaten American wheat farmers to biotechnology. What’s next? North Koreans listening to podcasts in Pyongyang?
Don’t get me wrong: I welcome gene-enhanced rice. China’s adoption can’t be far behind, and soon rice farmers all over the world–tens of millions of them–will embrace biotechnology. They already provide humanity with nearly half of its caloric intake. Increasing yields and reducing costs for these farmers will strike a major blow against hunger.
I’d like to be able to do the same thing with wheat on my farm. Even before I heard about Iran, it felt like wheat farmers were a decade behind corn and soybean growers, who have adopted biotechnology at a rapid pace. Unless we send a clear signal to the companies that have the capacity to create and commercialize biotech wheat traits, we’re going to fall even further behind.
That’s because wheat farmers threaten to earn a reputation as a group of people who don’t want what modern science can give them. This is bound to have a chilling effect, as young researchers looking for careers and experienced investors looking for opportunities conclude that wheat won’t ever change. (And believe me, the last thing we need here in North Dakota is another chilling effect.)
Nothing less than the future of wheat farming is at stake. The question is: Will we move ahead, or will we turn our backs on it?
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
A former ND state legislator, Mr. Wanzek serves as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)