THINKING THURSDAYS: ENHANCING UNDERSTANDING OF ENHANCED SEED VARIETIES

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(Posted Thu. May 3rd, 2012)

May 3:  As advertising budgets decline and competition increases, media outlets and food manufacturers alike find themselves needing to exploit any possible factor that could differentiate their product from the crowd.  In many ways, the increased attention both parties pay to the use of biotechnology in agriculture stems from this predicament.  Without solid, scientific claims against these products, news providers and food makers alike have found that exploiting the physiological tendency to fear the unknown drives consumers toward products which they identify as more natural despite no evidence that this somehow improves said product.

 

When in doubt, cause mass hysteria.  Then, turn said hysteria into financial gain by promoting an agenda or product that can be marketed by promoting the lack of the very ingredient media outlets falsely villainized in order to gain ratings.  Finally, advertise said “natural product” through the various channels that originally introduced the idea of its inferiority in the first place.  The loop works to perpetuate the misunderstanding in order to make a profit for all parties involved.

 

Unfortunately, the entire system bases itself in generating and perpetuating attitudes toward biotechnology that are not based in the facts.  Negative media coverage of GMOs and marketers bent on grabbing a portion of the non-GMO or organic markets, with their deep pockets and almost evangelical fervor.

 

The National Corn Growers Association, like many of its counterparts in the ag industry, understand that, in continuing this vicious cycle, these economic titans do our nation, and the growing global population, a serious disservice. The myths surrounding biotechnology confuse consumers, creating a social landscape that does not fully appreciate the stringently verified safety of enhanced seed varieties or the manifold ecological and food safety benefits they confer.

 

New seed varieties containing traits enhanced through biotechnology undergo an extremely rigorous testing process to ensure their safety, in relation to both the people who will consume the crops and the environments in which they will be grown.  Additionally, new products must be approved by three separate agencies prior to their release. The EPA requires proof that the product poses no harm to the environment while the FDA requires that the product poses no food or feed risks or allergenicity issues. Finally the USDA makes sure that the product doesn’t create a super plant that outcompetes its natural counterparts.   Going from initial product concept to commercial launch takes more than 10 years and can cost $100 million.

 

These advanced seed technologies offer ecological benefits also.  The use of biotechnology has allowed farmers to increase use of conservation practices such as no-till methods and reduce the use of chemicals, while producing more corn on less land.

 

A landmark study conducted by Field to Market, a group formed to support and encourage sustainability in the agricultural community, examined how biotechnology had impacted the sustainability of production of corn and three other major crops.  This research found verifiable, substantial progress with the amount of land required to produce one bushel of corn down by 37 percent.  Simultaneously, soil erosion decreased by 69 percent, in large part due to the increased ability to use practices such as no-till farming that biotech crops provide.  The inputs necessary for crop production also saw declines with irrigation use per bushel down 27 percent and emissions created during corn production down 30 percent.

 

Reports from sources further document findings of this nature.  For instance, USDA reports show that  nitrogen use measured on a per-bushel of corn basis has declined approximately 20 percent since the mid-1990s.  Likewise, PG Economic Ltd., located in the United Kingdom, has also documented the important ecological gains made through the use of biotech crops, including a 15.4 percent net reduction in the environmental impact of agriculture on the cropping area devoted to biotech products since their 1996 release. Additionally, the study documented that the combined carbon dioxide emissions savings from the use of these crops were equal to that of removing more than 6.5 million cars from the road.

 

Biotechnology offers another major benefit in that it increases food security.  Through improved yields and an enhanced ability to preserve yields under the most difficult weather conditions, these improved seed varieties help farmers provide a stable, abundant supply of safe food for a growing global populations.

 

Just prior to the release of the first enhanced seed varieties, the average corn yield per acre hovered around 120 bushels.  Today, farmers expect average yields of roughly 40 bushels higher from the same land and, should projections hold true, they will grow an average of 300 bushels per acre by 2030.  The ability to grow more corn on less land helps farmers provide for a growing world without bringing new land into production.

 

Over the past few years, the importance of biotechnology in preserving yields in the face of adverse weather conditions has become evident.  In both 2010 and 2011, major areas of the Corn Belt suffered from significant flooding in Iowa and Missouri. In many of these areas, the strength of the root systems allowed the crop to not fail, and actually produced a significant crop -- all due to the biotech protection from insect damage.

 

As our world faces rapid population growth and a myriad of environmental issues, fostering acceptance of biotechnology can help in effectively meeting these challenges.  Our society understands the importance of fostering innovation to thrive.  Thus,  it is important to take a careful, thoughtful look at the science demonstrating the value and safety of GMOs.

 

Sometimes, it is easy to cave to pseudoscience when public hysteria drowns out the calmer, steadier voice of reason.  In retrospect, following the crowd seems foolish while those who truly studied the issue and stood on their conviction become part of the pantheon of courageous innovators who shaped our world.