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Texas Agriculture Archive

May 21, 2004

Sowing seeds for the future

By Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau

Spring is in the air and planting is underway. For weeks now, farmers have been sowing their fields, planting corn, rice and a number of other crops. It's a time for rejuvenation and renewal—for new beginnings.

It appears this year that more farmers than ever before will begin planting crops enhanced through biotechnology. According to the Agriculture Department, demand for biotechnology is growing—for the eighth consecutive year. This year, USDA estimates that 86 percent of soybeans planted by U.S. farmers will be enhanced with biotechnology, up 3 percent from last year. Seventy-six percent of U.S. cotton this year is enhanced through biotechnology, up from 73 percent last year. And biotech corn plantings are up 6 percent this year to 46 percent. The increase in biotech crops exceeds any increase in overall crops.

Biotechnology is the wave of the future, but it is also a big part of the present. Foods derived from biotechnology cover more than 50 percent of U.S. grocery store shelves. And as the world population increases, many countries are leaning toward the benefits of biotechnology to safely feed their citizens.

I recently experienced that growing acceptance during a Farm Bureau visit to promote biotechnology in China and Japan. As its population grows, China has become deeply concerned with how to feed its 1.3 billion citizens. The country already has started growing Bt cotton, reducing insecticide use by more than 60 percent. Building on that success, Chinese officials, researchers and academics now want to work with the United States to educate their citizens on the great advantages of importing and growing biotech crops.

In Japan, our delegation encountered a different type of consumer—one more concerned about food quality and environmental issues. Unfortunately, Japanese consumers do not understand biotechnology and have a real societal disconnect from their farmers and ranchers. They were wowed with the intricacy and transparency of the U.S. system and seemed bowled over by the fact that the average American consumes biotech foods on a daily basis with full confidence in the wholesomeness, safety and quality of their meals.

After visiting both countries, I am more assured that direct outreach efforts by American farmers will result in greater exports of biotech crops grown in the U.S. and greater acceptance of biotechnology overall.

Educating other countries about biotech is important, but we also need to educate those here at home. Scare tactics and rhetoric are being passed off as credible evidence against biotechnology. What biotech opponents aren't telling consumers is that the U.S. production of biotech is monitored by three different government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Unbiased scientific evaluation has shown biotechnology to be inherently safe for human consumption and the environment.

With biotechnology as a tool, we have the ability to grow crops that are resistant to insects, drought and flood. And with the emergence of pharmaceutical, or pharma, crops, we can advance health-related technologies. For example, Golden Rice, a commercialized vitamin A-enriched rice variety, guards against blindness. Further, researchers have developed bananas that produce a vaccine for hepatitis B and tomatoes that help fight cancer. All of these innovations, as well as many others, are more targeted toward the consumer and are less driven by in-field benefits for farmers.

As biotech crops become more commonplace, I am glad to report that biotech companies are proving to be better stewards of our trust. Companies are doing a far better job of seeking farmer input and basing marketing and production decisions on what they learn from these discussions.

Working through biotechnology, we are sowing the seeds for a promising future. This technology holds the promise for medical breakthroughs, enhancements in food quality and environmental safeguards. It is a time for rejuvenation and renewal—a time for new beginnings.