Biotechnology Offers US Farmers Promises And Problems
Transgenic crops promise to drastically change how farmers produce and market their feedgrains and oilseeds. These changes will produce challenges for United States (US) farmers and the entire agricultural industry. How these obstacles are resolved will impact the future use of biotechnology on US farms.
Key words: agriculture; biotechnology; farmers; genetically modified crops (GMC); input traits; output traits, transgenicBiotechnology promises to add another chapter to the revolutionary changes that have shaped US agriculture over the past 100 years. Just like the switch from horses to horsepower and mechanical weed control to chemical control, genetic engineering will forever change how farmers produce crops. But unlike previous breakthroughs, biotechnology may rewrite the book on production agriculture—and the entire industry.
What determines whether or not a farmer adopts a new technology? Basically, it comes down to two simple questions. First, does it work? And second, will it make money? From a farmer's perspective, technology is successful only if it is profitable.
To find out, farmers generally try a promising new technology on a limited basis first. If they see a clear advantage and are comfortable using it, they expand acreage until it becomes a standard production scheme on their farms. This adoption process usually occurs over several years, through steady and sustained growth.
But acceptance of biotechnology down on the farm is occurring at an unprecedented growth rate. In 1995, there were no commercial plantings of genetically modified crops (GMCs) in the US Today, it is estimated that 33% of the corn crop, 44% of the soybean acres, and 55% of cotton fields are planted to transgenic hybrids and varieties that have built-in resistance to selected insects and herbicides. Industry watchers expect the bio-engineered expansion to continue as new products come on the market.
The First Wave Of Biotechnology
Input traits represent the first wave of biotechnology. They provide a new level of protection against pests and are a powerful weapon in weed control arsenals. Early commercial products include Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn. These genetically-altered hybrids contain a naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Bt, that kills European corn borers. Bacillus thuringiensis cotton protects the crop against tobacco budworm and bollworm. Farmers can expect to see genetically engineered corn hybrids that resist rootworms in the next two to three years.
To fight weeds, farmers have several genetically-engineered options to choose from. Roundup Ready (glyphosate-tolerant) soybeans and corn, and LibertyLink (glufosinate ammonium) corn are some examples. These crops are immune to the broad spectrum, but non-selective herbicides, such as Roundup, Touchdown and Liberty. When applied, the herbicide kills the weeds without harming the crop. In the case of cotton, farmers can turn to BXN (Bromoxynil) or Roundup Ready herbicide-tolerant varieties. More herbicide-resistant crops are on the way.
The rapid adoption of biotechnology can be attributed to several factors. These are as follows:
That is good news for farmers. Biotechnology will offer them additional tools to protect—and increase—yield potential. But while the benefits of these biotechnology crops are readily apparent, farmers are still sorting out how they fit into their overall operation. Questions they continue to ponder include the following:
The second wave of biotechnology is output traits. Unlike input traits that are designed to protect and enhance yield, output traits promise to enhance the value of the crops from the farmer to the consumer. A myriad of specialized grains with unique uses is, and soon will be, on the market. For growing tailored traits, farmers can earn premiums on each bushel. These premiums range from as little as 20 cents per bushel to several dollars per bushel depending on market demand and specifications. Dr. Charles Hurburgh, a specialist in grain quality at Iowa State University, predicts that 40% of the corn and soybeans grown in the US will eventually contain a value-added trait for a specific end use.
Early efforts in valued-added crops have focused on enhancing the value of animal feed since livestock are the dominant users of feedgrains. This has led to the development of high-oil corn and hybrids with increased levels of amino acids and starch, to name a few. Other traits include low phytate corn, also known as high available phosphorus corn, that increases the digestibility of the phytate nutrient by swine and poultry. As a result, less phosphorus is excreted in the manure, making it more environmentally friendly.
For soybeans, many of the tailored traits are being developed to produce healthier oils and soy foods. The most common specialty soybeans are high oleic, high sucrose, low saturate, low linolenic and low null (produces a less beany taste).
Work is also progressing to turn plants into factories, using bio-engineered crops for renewable energy sources and industrial uses. Genetic engineering may also help tailor plants into nutraceuticals—the blending of a regular food product with a health-enhancing attribute, like calcium-enriched orange juice.
Finally, some see biotechnology as a way to use plants to produce vaccines and other important medicines. Or the crop could be manipulated to contain a drug allowing it to be distributed and administered orally.
Like their input trait cousins, specialty crops that contain bioengineered output traits also face potential challenges that will impact the rate of adoption by farmers. These challenges are as follows:
Suggested citation: Hillyer, G. (1999). Biotechnology offers US farmers promises and problems. AgBioForum, 2(2), 99-102. Available on the World Wide Web: http://www.agbioforum.org.
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