Biotech crops have become an ingrained and nearly indispensable part of a growing number of farmers' profit management strategies as they reap benefits from reduced production costs, increased yield and better environmental stewardship.

Last year biotech crops improved farm income by $1.9 billion, increased crop yields by 5.3 billion pounds, reduced pesticide use 46.4 million pounds and encouraged more conservation tillage, according to findings released recently by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a nonprofit, non-advocacy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Those figures represent significant improvements over the 2001 crop-year, says Sujatha Sankula, director of biotechnology research for NCFAP.

The study included six biotech crops, canola, corn, cotton, soybeans, papaya and squash.

“Compared with 2001, last year's findings show yield improvements of 41 percent,” Sankula said. “Production costs dropped an additional 25 percent and income grew by 27 percent. Pesticide use was reduced by 2 percent.”

Acreage planted to biotech crops increased from 80 million to 106 million from 2001 to 2003. Yield increase rose from a 3.79 billion pound gain in 2001 to a 5.34 billion-pound advantage. Pesticide reduction moved from a 45.7 million-pound decline in 2001 to a 46.4 million pound reduction in 2003.

Net economic impact change rose from $1.5 billion in 2001 to $1.9 billion last year, Sankula said.

Yield impacts were greatest in insect-resistant crops but the best economic impact came from herbicide resistance. Canola, corn, cotton and soybeans accounted for the greatest reduction inSankula said Bt corn showed top yield gains with 4.7 billion pounds. Soybean farmers who used herbicide tolerant varieties saw the greatest boost to income, $1.2 billion and the biggest reduction in pesticide use, 20 million pounds.

Some states reaped more benefits than others but the study indicates that all 42 states that used biotech crops came out on the plus side. Iowa recorded the greatest production increase, highest net returns and the largest reduction in pesticide use. Illinois and Minnesota came in second and third.

Those states saw benefits ranging from $100 million to $240 million from biotech crops. Arkansas also realized that same level of gain.

Sunbelt states also made improvements. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and California realized biotech gains from $30 million to $100 million. Oklahoma, Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina posted gains of $5 million to $30 million. New Mexico and Florida had gains less than $5 million.

Sankula said in addition to economic advantages biotech crops also boost environmentally friendly farming.

“No-till practices increased 300 percent in cotton, 45 percent in soybeans, and 14 percent in corn since biotech crop commercialization,” she said.

Those practices, she said, help reduce soil erosion, decrease pesticide and water run-off potential, prevent release of greenhouse gasses, decrease tractor fuel use and improve wildlife habitat. And further improvements are on the way. Sankula said adoption of Bt corn for corn rootworm control has just begun to take off. In 2003, farmers planted only .34 million acres of Bt corn. “That acreage improved income by $2.4 million and reduced pesticide use by nearly 224 million pounds,” she said.

“Corn growers planted three million acres of Bt corn in 2004. We estimate a 1.98 million-pound reduction in pesticide use and a yield increase of 754 million pounds.”

She said herbicide-tolerant corn acreage should increase significantly with a subsequent increase in no-till acreage.

“As adoption increases, positive impacts grow,” Sankula said. “Economic advantages to farmers remain the key factor in adoption.”

Biotechnology has changed the way a lot of west Texas growers farm, says Extension cotton specialist Randy Boman, Lubbock.

“It started in this area with Roundup Ready cotton,” he says, “and acceptance was rapid and widespread. We didn't see the problems farmers experienced early in the Mid-South and Southeast.”

Boman says some farmers used Roundup Ready varieties and Roundup to clean up fields and then rotated with traditional varieties.

“Biotech has had a major impact on West Texas agriculture.”

Boman says adoption of Bollgard cotton has been slower. “We probably have less than 10 percent of our acreage in BG technology,” he says.

“That could change with Bollgard II, however. I think adoption will be more widespread,” he says, “if the price stays the same as Bollgard.”

Boman says introduction of Liberty Link cotton varieties offers growers another tool for weed control.

“Liberty Link will have a place,” he says. “And it's a good tool to control specific weed problems, such as in the case of morningglory.”

Boman says a lot farmers planted Liberty Link varieties in 2004 and results so far look good. “We're still getting a handle on what Liberty Link varieties will do and we still need to evaluate yield and quality.”

Those two factors, Boman says, are what drives acceptance of any new variety. “Yield and fiber quality has to be part of the package.”

He says Roundup Flex also promises to boost biotechnology acceptance. “It's not yet approved but Monsanto anticipates clearance in early 2005. We will se a large number of varieties with Roundup Ready Flex genes in seed increase in 2005 and likely will have a lot commercially available in 2006.

“I think we will see a significant amount of Roundup Ready Flex in the system.”

Biotechnology has also changed cotton farming in South Texas, says Harvey Buehring, Extension agent in Nueces County. He says the 2004 USDA Cotton Planting Report shows that for growers in the Rio Grande Valley, the Coastal Bend and Winter Garden areas, traditional cotton accounted for 46.3 percent of all acreage planted.

(Buehring says Coastal Bend conventional cotton acreage was a bit higher than average, 62.2 percent.)

Across the three areas, stacked gene cotton (BG/RR or BGII/RR) accounted for 26.7 percent of planted acreage. (Coastal Bend acreage totaled 15.1 percent.). Roundup Ready varieties made up 18.5 percent of total plantings (Coastal end acreage was 11.2 percent for Roundup Ready.) and Liberty Link Cotton took up 5.6 percent of the acreage (Coastal Bend was 8.1 percent.).

Buehring says the Liberty Link plantings represented good acceptance “for limited seed availability of the new lines.”

Bollgard cotton, without the Roundup Ready of Liberty Link gene, accounted for 2.9 percent of planed acreage across the three areas (Coastal Bend acreage was 1.7 percent).

“The biggest increase we've seen has been with stacked gene Fibermax 800 BR and Fibermax 800 B2R, which accounted for 8.6 percent of the market increase,” Buehring says.

“I think we will see a big jump in Liberty Link Fibermax varieties in 2005, based on this year's favorable grower experience.”

Buehring says Roundup Ready corn is popular in Jim Wells and Bee Counties. “Bt corn is less popular.”

He believes that growers may plant a limited number of Roundup Ready Canola in 2005.

“The bottom line is that transgenics are gradually increasing in usage,” Buehring says. “As fewer high yielding conventional remain available from seed companies, transgenic acceptance is certain to accelerate unless public breeding programs fill the void in conventional cotton varieties that have both high yield potential and excellent fiber properties.”

In the Texas Panhandle, where much of the state's corn grows, Extension specialist Brent Bean says grower loyalty to Pioneer hybrids and encroachment of cotton into what was once predominantly grain country may have limited biotechnology.

“Carl Patrick, our entomologist, says north of Amarillo about 75 percent of corn planted is Bt corn. This has pretty much eliminated the need for insecticide to control corn borers,” Bean says.

“South of Amarillo no more than 50 percent of the acreage can be planted to Bt because of the cotton acreage. As cotton continues to move north it is possible new regulations may have to be written that would reduce to 50 percent the allowable Bt corn acres in some counties.”

Bean says corn rootworm Bt was introduced last year.“Dr. Patrick feels that acceptance of corn rootworm Bt will be slow. Producers can control rootworms effectively and at probably less expense than what it would cost to plant corn rootworm Bt.”

He says growers have been slow to adopt Roundup Ready corn in the Texas High Plains.“There are a couple of reasons. 1) There are plenty of good herbicides available in corn to control most of our weeds. 2) Pioneer Seed Company was not selling a Roundup Ready corn hybrid until a couple of years ago.

“Since Pioneer probably controls 75 percent of our market, this limited the amount of Roundup Ready corn that was planted. Producers stayed loyal to Pioneer and were not willing to plant another seed company's corn just for the Roundup Ready trait.

“I do, however, see a shift to more acres of Roundup Ready corn now that Pioneer is in the market.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com