That’s the report card for adoption of biotechnology as what could be one of the most significant advancements in agricultural research celebrates a 20-year milestone.
Farmers across the United States have found insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant varieties essential tools in their commitment to cut costs, conserve the environment and protect crops. In some cases, biotech has kept them in business. And it’s only been around for 20 years. In fact, most genetically modified varieties have been on the market for less than 10 years.
Farmers, as farmers are apt to do, were cautious when products first hit the markets, but acceptance, as evidenced by the above figures, indicates that the technology meets production needs.
Dale Swinburn, a cotton, grain and cattle farmer from Tulia, Texas, a wind-swept but fertile section of the Texas High Plains that pushes the envelope of cotton’s adaptability, says Roundup Ready technology has allowed him to convert to soil and water-saving production practices, such as reduced tillage, that conserve time, money and natural resources.
Swinburn began converting from conventional to reduced tillage in the early 90s, following an Epiphany during a Kansas State/Oklahoma State University tillage field day.
Now, he plants 90 percent of his cotton in Roundup Ready varieties, taking advantage of the herbicide tolerance to reduce need for a laundry list of chemicals and cultivation expenses.
Ronnie Wallace, a Gaines County, Texas cotton, grain and peanut farmer, says Roundup Ready cotton improves efficiency on his farm. “I like Roundup Ready Cotton,” he says. “It (Roundup) doesn’t control morningglory as well as other herbicides, but I alternate Roundup Ready with BXN varieties and use Buctril to clean up weeds Roundup misses.”
Wallace’s program points out an important factor most research supports: Biotechnology provides new tools, not cure-alls for every weed and insect pest problem on a farm. Farmers who have been most successful with this new technology have incorporated it into proven management systems instead of relying solely on resistant genetics to control damaging pests.
David Carver, a crop consultant in Cotton Center, Texas, says the Roundup Ready and Bollgard combination, “stacked gene” varieties have a place in Texas Plains cotton fields. “We can save money with stacked gene varieties,” Carver says. “Often, we don’t have to spray for worms, and we don’t get enough pressure to cause economical damage.”
He says some of his customers average 200 pounds more cotton per acre with stacked gene varieties. “About 30 percent of my clients plant stacked gene cotton. They make more cotton and better grades.”
Carver says Bollgard cotton, in spite of often-light worm pressure, will be a growth area for Plains cotton growers.
David Winkles, a South Carolina soybean farmer, says biotech has helped him conserve soil and water resources. “Biotech allows us to improve stewardship of the environment,” Winkle says. “These varieties allow me to spray less, plow less and produce a higher quality crop more efficiently.”
The technology has come a long way since its tenuous beginnings. Mary-Dell Chilton will be remembered as a biotech pioneer. She led one of the first successful efforts to incorporate specific genes into the DNA of plants—one small step at the time, but, in retrospect, one of those giant leaps for scientific research.
“The first biotech plants offered insights on how we could improve food and crops by selectively giving plants beneficial, new qualities with greater precision than traditional plant breeding methods,” Chilton says.
Early successes, she says, “set the stage for a new era of discovery to improve food, feed and fiber crop production.”
That’s now a busy stage. The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy reports that insect-resistant corn now saves between 60 million and 70 million bushels of corn per year, grain that would have been lost to insects. Insect-resistant cotton has reduced pesticide spray by 2.7 million pounds per year. And the American Soybean Association reports herbicide tolerant varieties reduce plowing, conserving almost 250 million tons of topsoil and saving about 234 million gallons of fuel each year.
A rapidly expanding world population makes an even stronger case for adoption and acceptance of biotechnology. A United Nations report estimates that farmers will need to double production during the next 25 years to feed the world’s population. World Bank figures indicate that biotechnology will help farmers meet this demand with yields increasing as much as 25 percent in developing countries.
Chilton says the 20-year milestone is significant but marks “just the beginning. In the first 20 years, we saw the first efforts to transfer beneficial genetic material to plants, the first sequences of various plant genomes and the first commercial crops with genetic enhancements,” she says.
“As we look at the next 20 years, we expect to see considerable advances, which will improve the quality of life, from foods to pharmaceuticals to new industrial materials, bringing the benefits of biotechnology to the people of the world who need them most.”