Saturday, January 7, 2006

Both in consumption and variety, biotech is busting out all over — and we’re reaping a host of benefits from cheaper and better food to land and forest preservation.

Approved biotech crops in 2004 globally occupied 200 million acres, up from just 167 million acres the year before, an incredible forty-sevenfold increase since 1996.

In the United States, as well, biotech acreage increases annually. Most of our corn, about four-fifths of our cotton, and almost 90 percent of our soybeans are transgenic. That means a gene or genes from another organism has been spliced into them to give them new traits, as opposed to using the clunky older method of cross-breeding.

Now consider some of about 30 crops in the development pipeline of a single company, Monsanto of St. Louis.

Many will primarily aid farmers but also help us all by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land, thereby leaving more land for nature.

Among these are drought-resistant corn, soybeans, cotton and oil-producing canola. Monsanto has video footage comparing drought-resistant corn with a regular variety on a 100-degree day. Leaves of the regular variety began curling in the morning. Those of the drought-resistant corn remained open so the plants continued to grow. They also checked the drought-resistant crop’s temperature and found it remained cooler.

Droughts regularly destroy crops in the United States, causing great hardship for farmers and increasing consumer prices. But in poorer parts of the world, droughts mean famine and death.

While American farmers are Monsanto’s main customers, much of their market is also overseas, where they’ve helped develop crops exclusively for Third World countries, including a variety of disease-resistant sweet potato.

Further, while a biotech plant such as cotton may boost an American farmer’s crop by 10 percent or more, I met with African farmers at a U.S. meeting who said that same biotech plant doubled their cotton yields. That’s because the biotech seed is their only advantage, with no access to tractors, pesticides and even the global positioning system U.S. farmers can use to indicate exactly where to spray and fertilize.

Speaking of which, one of Monsanto’s pipeline products is corn that increases nitrogen use. Most plants, including corn, must draw all of their life-sustaining nitrogen from the ground, so farmers must regularly apply fertilizer. Fertilizer costs money and, if not properly managed, can harm the environment when rain causes it to run off into waterways, causing algae growth explosions that crowd out both plant and aquatic life.

In developed countries, engineered nitrogen-efficient plants can reduce the fertilizer needed, or produce greater yields with the same amount. Poor farmers can afford only the fertilizer they collect from their animals and families. Each year their meager crop yields decline. They may create greener pastures by cutting down rain forest, which has much value to us, but none to them.

Currently, almost all biotech crops cut use of either insecticides or herbicides. Coming Monsanto products, however, more effectively kill pests and even combine the two traits. The Agriculture Department has approved one that protects corn against both weeds and rootworms. These are actually voracious beetles nicknamed “the billion-dollar pest” because of their estimated annual cost to U.S. farmers.

Other pipeline products directly target consumers. Soybeans are emphasized, because they are healthy to begin with and are common in our food both as oil and meal.

Monsanto is introducing into the bean omega-3 fatty acids, strongly connected to reducing heart disease. It’s also improving the protein in soybeans and eliminating trans fats and saturated fats, both linked to heart disease.

I chose to focus on Monsanto for lack of space and because their annual report was plopped onto my lap while I was hunting for a column idea. But their pipeline represents a fraction of what the biotech industry as a whole — large companies and small, here and abroad — will bring to your supper table. These are truly exciting times for producers, consumers and those who care about the environment.

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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