Last week, grain consumers around the world panicked over potential shortages when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a ban on wheat exports. Egypt and other countries that rely on grain from Russia—the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter–began a mad scramble to secure supplies, causing commodity prices to surge around the globe.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations cautioned that we aren’t headed toward a new food crisis. When prices spiked two years ago, hungry people rioted from Bangladesh to Haiti. Food prices remain 22 percent lower than their peak in 2008, but they’re also 13 percent higher than they were a year ago.
So it’s not unreasonable to worry that they could creep higher—or to think about how biotechnology can mitigate similar problems in the future.
The culprit in Russia is a severe drought. Farmers are suffering from record-high temperatures, a lack of rainfall, and significant forest fires. Many are experiencing total crop failure. Perhaps we’ll get through this current disruption, as the FAO says. Yet we may also be just another bad weather event away from new hardship.
Biotechnology can’t change the weather, but its creative application can relieve the effects of extreme conditions.
Unfortunately, farmers do not yet have the option of choosing to grow biotech wheat. It simply doesn’t exist as a consumer product. We have to produce our amber waves of grain without this new and innovative tool that has dramatically enhanced production in other crops.
That’s too bad, because biotechnology has revolutionized the way we plant staple crops such as corn and soybeans. In the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, the majority of corn and soybeans are genetically enhanced to improve their ability to fight off weeds and pests.
They also help fight dry spells. GM corn and soybeans are so good at beating weeds that farmers don’t need to till the soil as much as they do with conventional varieties. This allows moisture to stay locked inside the ground, where crops can make the best use of it.
But that’s only an indirect benefit of biotechnology. Direct benefits also are possible. Right now, scientists have the know-how to build drought resistance right into the plants themselves, making their water usage more efficient. Within the next few years, this trait is anticipated to be commercialized in corn.
It should already be available in wheat. Yet fears about consumer acceptance in foreign markets—the same foreign markets that are now going to pay higher prices for wheat—discouraged seed companies from investing in this area. From a technological standpoint, wheat is now years behind corn and soybeans.
As a result, many farmers in my area are simply growing a lot less of it. About fifteen years ago, we devoted around three-quarters of my farm’s acreage to wheat production. Today, that figure is down to about 15 percent. If we didn’t have to rotate crops, it probably wouldn’t even be that high.
I’m hardly alone. My farm sits in one of America’s great wheat-producing regions. Today, however, some of my neighbors don’t grow wheat at all.
The changes are obvious to anybody who drives around Stutsman County, but statistics prove the point. In 1996, farmers in my county planted 451,000 acres of wheat. Last year, this number had dropped by more than two-thirds, to 143,700 acres. Meanwhile, corn acreage has quintupled.
Biotechnology is behind this transformation. When we plant GM corn and soybeans, we’re much more certain that we’re going to harvest a good crop at the end of the season. We’re also more likely to earn a profit. This is one of the great gifts of biotechnology—and until wheat also can take advantage of these traits, we just aren’t going to grow as much of it.
By itself, GM wheat can’t solve the production problem that Russia has chosen to exacerbate through its reckless export ban–but it would help, and the world’s wheat consumers would be far better off.
Terry Wanzek, a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, is a wheat, corn and soybean farmer and state senator in North Dakota. www.truthabouttrade.org