Sunday, February 20, 2011

Biotechnology Plants

With all the news about biotech (GMO) plants and new approvals from the government agencies, I thought I would put in my 2 cents. RoundUp Ready alfalfa and sugar beets can be grown in 2011 and Enogen, a corn with amylase inserted is also labeled for 2011. I am quite proud of my brother who led the development of Enogen.
   To begin with it is important to remember that man has been changing the look and quality of all the plants we raise and all the animals we own, both agricultural and domestic, for as long as we have been tending flocks and raising food. Corn was originally a spindly plant that had its seed on top like sorghum in old Mexico when grown by the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. It was converted to its modern look with lower placed condensed ears by careful choosing of parent lines over centuries.
   Animals have also changed. Dogs are now domesticated, not wild like wolves or coyotes. Cattle are much larger than only a few decades ago, also by careful selection of the breeding herds.
   Biotechnology came into play only since 1973. In 1980 the first patent was issued for a biotech product, a microorganism that would eat oil. The next patent in 1982 was for a bacteria that produces human insulin.
   Plant biotech was first tried in the field in 1986 and was in tobacco, a plant that is easier to manipulate because of its gene structure. 1996 marked the beginning of a new age in modern agriculture. RoundUp Ready soybeans first entered the market in 1996 along with Bt cotton. Bt corn followed the next year.
   So what are these products and why have most farmers adopted them? RoundUp Ready is a term used by Monsanto to define their line of biotech crops that resist the herbicide RoundUp (glyphosphate). RoundUp is a broad spectrum herbicide that kills most all plants. Monsanto found a soil bacterium that would break down glyphosphate and then inserted that gene into the soybean (and other) plants. Round Up Ready allows farmers to spray a herbicide over their fields killing all weeds and leaving the desired crop untouched. Monsanto and other companies have followed with glyphosphate resistant corn, cotton, alfalfa and sugar beets. Expenses for farmers have gone down and yields have gone up. Many specialized herbicides are very expensive and often can harm the grown crop. There are fewer weed issues in the fields today and weeds really hurt yields.
   Bt corn and cotton have a gene from a  naturally occurring soil bacterium inserted that kills specific insects. Bt insecticide has been around for a long time and is qualified as organic. However once the gene for Bt is inserted into a plant it strangely loses that organic label. The Bt bacterium has many many varieties, and they can be tuned to a very specific insect. It works by knocking out a specific enzyme in the insect's gut, an enzyme humans and mammals don't have or use. Since the use of Bt has spread, insect damage to our corn crop has plummeted. We used to have to treat all our corn fields multiple times with insecticides to reduce corn rootworm, corn borer and corn earworm. Even treated the yields were reduced by the insect damage that occurred.
   The latest biotech product released is Enogen, a corn that has the enzyme amylase inserted into it. It is designed for use in the corn ethanol industry. It will not enter the human food chain, although it has been tested and approved as safe for humans to eat. It's use will increase the efficiency of corn ethanol plants. I know how long this product took to come to market since my brother started research when helping out after my father's cancer surgery in 2001.
   What about the concerns. I divide these naysayers into two groups. Those who want agriculture to be the way it used to be and those who are fearful for their lives. For those who want ag to be the way it used to be, it probably never was that way and it won't be that way in the future. Agriculture used to be a labor intense, capital poor industry. Farmers worked their lives away to feed themselves and a few others, often dying young because of the harsh work conditions. Today we are an industry that it very high tech and can grow tremendous amounts of food with little labor input on the farm. Capital requirements are very high and it is not easy to get into the profession.
   For those who are fearful of being sickened by their food, I would argue that the food today in the United States is the cleanest, healthiest, most abundant food in the history of the world. Use of biotech has reduced the amount of herbicides and pesticides that have been used on the farms. While the genes of the crop have been modified, it is with genes that exist in the world today in bacteria mostly found in the soil.
   By the time any biotech product reaches the market it has been tested for many years. It has to pass muster by several U.S government agencies and also must be approved by our major trading countries around the world. 
   I widely use biotech products on our farm. It has increased our yields, lowered our use of pesticides and decreased the weed pressure in the fields. Seed prices are much higher, to pay for the biotech research. It has been a big win so far and the seed/chemical companies are promising much more in the near future.

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