Expert response from Brian Scott
Tuesday, 13/08/2013 16:04
I’m a corn and soybean farmer from Indiana with experience raising biotech crops. I like to say that transgenic traits don’t directly increase yield. Not yet, anyway. There are currently no traits that have the effect of saying, “Okay, corn plant. Your potential was 200 bu/A, but now, with this gene, it will be 225 bu/A.” Biotech doesn’t work that way.
The yield potential of a particular variety is pretty much all in the breeding of the plant. For corn, a substantial part of the steady yield gains year after year for several decades now has come from breeding hybrids that can handle just having more corn plants in a field crowded together. More ears in the field equals more yield. I like to think of traits like Bt as protecting this top-end yield potential. Biotech as we know it today is often a shield of sorts that protects the potential of a plant under stressful conditions. An ever-changing myriad of factors are at play to determine the ultimate yield of a crop, and weather always trumps any other variable. I really don’t see biotech as decreasing yields. I think that idea nicely fits a narrative that people want to believe. Biotechnology may not directly increase top-end performance, but it does bring the average up. And with something like Bt, if I have an infestation of European corn borer, that trait is going to specifically target that pest. I won’t have to pay for a sprayer or airplane loaded with fuel, water and insecticide to spray my field, which will end up killing a bunch of bugs that are not pests for me.
I’d also be leery of saying that biotech encourages monoculture cropping systems. Using my farm as an example can illustrate this. We raise soybeans, and all our acres of beans are GM. About half our corn crop is GM, and the rest is not. This is because we grow some niche products in waxy corn and popcorn, and biotech generally is not an option for waxy and definitely is not for popcorn. Our farm practices conservation tillage, and we are moving to more no-till in order to improve our soils. Herbicide-resistant crops brought about through genetic engineering are giving farmers more tools to control weeds and making entry into reducing tillage much more palatable. We are also putting many of our crop acres into cover crops between cash crops. In addition to increasing soil organic matter, feeding soil life forms and scavenging valuable crop nutrients while keeping them out of the water supply, some cover crops are even great weed suppressors (sometimes by naturally producing toxins, by the way). The idea that GM somehow equates to monoculture is a nonstarter for me.
I think there is a perception out there that farms are all either 100 percent using biotech or 100 percent organic. I could put all my acres into a continuous rotation of organic corn on corn and nothing else if I wanted to, but we rotate all our fields between corn and soybeans and more and more cover crops in between. The truth is, most farms are a mix of many practices, and there are farms out there growing both biotech and organic crops. Any decent crop farmer knows your first job is to maintain the soil. Are there bad actors out there who get by without being the best stewards? Sure. What group of people does not have a few bad apples?
I hope this answer is helpful. I’d be happy to expand on it if you have additional questions.
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