The Real Story About Biotech Crops


A new report from the National Research Council praises the widespread acceptance of biotech crops in the United States. We’re producing more food than ever before, keeping grocery-store prices in check, and doing a better job of protecting the environment. Farmers, consumers, and conservationists should stand up and cheer.

So what’s not to like?

Well, rather than celebrating an agricultural achievement, the headline in the Times warned about too much of a good thing: “Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops.”

That’s the media for you: Show a journalist a golden field of wheat and he’ll ask about the chaff.

I’m here to say that the real story about biotech crops is not just good, but actually better than the most positive press releases make it sound.

The National Research Council, an arm of the U.S. federal government, exists to provide elected officials, policy makers, and citizens with scientific advice on everything from breast-cancer detection to water management. Its studies are carefully considered, frequently extensive, and often regarded as authoritative.

The report on genetically modified crops, which was released last week, involved the work of ten scientists over a two-year period. Their 253-page analysis concluded that biotech crops provide “substantial economic and environmental benefits.”

Farmers have known this for years. That’s why we’ve adopted this technology so quickly. Today in the United States, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced. Around the world, farmers have planted more than 2 billion acres of GM crops since their commercial introduction. Everywhere they’re grown, yields go up and costs go down.

We’re also helping the environment. Higher productivity reduces the pressure to convert wilderness into farmland. Better weed control leads to lower fuel consumption, which shrinks our carbon footprint and helps the climate. It also means we don’t have to till the earth as much, so GM crops fight soil erosion, too.

The farmer’s war on weeds won’t ever end–and it’s true that the rapid spread of biotechnology is probably building herbicide resistance in this old foe. This was the aspect of the NRC report that the New York Times chose to highlight.

Yet it’s almost like treating the law of gravity as news. Did you know that if you fling a fish into the air, it will fall to the ground? It might even land on a discarded copy of the New York Times, which could then double as a convenient fishwrap.

Agriculture has its own natural laws. One of them states that if you spray weeds with herbicide, they will become resistant. This is true whether or not biotechnology is involved. The wonder of GM crops is that our existing varieties of herbicide have been so effective for so long. In time, we’ll have to develop new kinds to continue working alongside biotechnology, but then we’ve always known that.

All of these biotech benefits are quantifiable: We measure input and output, just like any business with a balance sheet. The best thing about biotechnology, however, can’t be translated into numbers. It’s about quality of life. Biotechnology is a huge time saver that allows farmers to escape the rigorous schedules of the past.

Call it the “agro-sociology” of biotech. When I was a farm boy, I would spend my summers in the fields with a hoe, from dawn to dusk. That was weed control before biotechnology came along and wiped out this boring, back-breaking form of labor. Nowadays, my kids don’t have to perform this same chore. They can work elsewhere on the farm or do any number of other things: play a sport, read a book, and so on.

I’m liberated as well. My parents used to work around the clock, especially during harvest. Biotechnology made it possible for me to take time off work and watch my children play basketball.

Don’t get me wrong: Farming hasn’t gone from hard to easy. In a world of increasing demand and global competition, plenty of challenges remain. Yet life on the farm has gotten better.

Scientists at the National Research Council are smart enough not to put a price tag on this advantage–and not even the most determined journalist can deny that biotech improves lives everywhere.

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years.  Mr. Horan volunteers as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member.

Bill Horan

Bill Horan

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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