September 15, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 16)

Terry Wanzek

The antibiotechnology crowd has adopted a new talking point, claiming that biotechnology does not increase yields. Have these people never been to a farm to see what weeds and insects do to crop yields?

Activist groups are highly skilled at finding a fact and distorting it for their agenda. For this new talking point, they have twisted an April 2006 report from the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA report is highly supportive of biotechnology, but the activists found part of one paragraph they could exploit. Here’s the quote they like to cite:

“Currently available (genetically engineered) crops do not increase the yield potential of a hybrid variety. In fact, yield may even decrease if the varieties used to carry the herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant genes are not the highest yielding cultivars.”

They ignore the rest of the paragraph, which states: “However, by protecting the plant from certain pests, GE crops can prevent yield losses compared with non-GE hybrids, particularly when pest infestation is high. This effect is particularly important for Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] crops.”

The point is that biotechnology helps prevent yield loss to ensure that corn hybrids and soybean varieties produce to their full potential. When biotech traits first came out, they were not available in the top performing hybrids due to the lead time needed to introduce the trait. Today, biotech traits are in the best hybrids and varieties.

Weed Control and Insect Protection

It is true that no current biotech seed contains a “yield” gene as such, but there is no question that the improved weed control and insect protection do a better job of protecting yields than other forms of pest control.

On my own farm, we used to get, at best, 80- to 100-bushel corn crops before the advent of herbicide-tolerant corn. Today we’re averaging 130 to 160 bushels. This is a direct result of the ability to plant early because of assured weed control and the ability to no-till, which preserves soil moisture. Using glyphosate instead of other herbicides reduces crop injury too.

A new study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center found that Spanish farmers who planted insect-protected biotech corn had up to 11.8% higher yields than farmers who protected their crop with insecticide sprays. This is the first such study conducted in Europe, but many studies in the U.S. have documented higher yields attributable to biotech adoption.

A 2006 study by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy found that biotech crops planted in 2005 helped increase food production by 8.3 billion pounds and reduced pesticide usage by 69.7 million pounds.

The first decade of biotech development has succeeded in protecting yield potential. The biotech pipeline will continue that trend, but in addition new traits will actually increase yield potential. Roundup Ready2 Yield soybeans, to be introduced in 2009, enable the same high-quality weed control as the current Roundup Ready trait, but this second generation is yielding on average 9% more per acre than the current product offering. The difference is that scientists learned how to insert the biotech trait into the genome at a site that results in higher yield.

This advancement in technology at the molecular level is enabling genetic scientists to exploit untapped yield potential within seeds in ways that were not possible through conventional breeding techniques. It is one of the reasons that Monsanto, the leader in ag biotechnology, feels that their goal of doubling crop yields by 2030 is attainable.

New developments in biotechnology, especially drought tolerance, expected by 2013, will further increase the yield potential of the world’s crop acreage. The continued development of new technologies is the best hope farmers and the public have of meeting the incredible growing demand for food, feed, fiber, and biofuels in the coming decades.

While naysayers continue to twist facts and stick their heads in the sand, farmers are putting biotech seeds into the ground and producing higher yields for all.

Terry Wanzek, who farms near Jamestown, ND, is a board member of Growers for Biotechnology on whose website ( he
originally posted this commentary.

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