Biotechnology Beat Drought in 2005

Published December 1, 2005

After this past summer’s drought in major corn-producing states, such as Indiana and Illinois, the U.S. corn harvest may establish 2005 as a hallmark year in the genetic modification of plants, industry experts said on September 29.

Second Highest Harvest Ever

The federal government is predicting corn production this year will be the second-highest in U.S. history, despite the droughts. Corn experts give much credit to the widespread use of corn that has been genetically modified to protect it from bugs, which makes the plants more resilient to adverse weather conditions.

“This year [brought] the fourth-driest summer in 100 years, with over 60 percent of the U.S. grain belt in a drought, yet we’re seeing yields that are far greater than before,” said Tim Hannagan, senior grain analyst at Alaron Trading Corp., a Chicago-based futures trading firm.

Last year’s yield of 11.81 billion bushels remains the U.S. record. This year, the government’s predicted yield is 10.6 billion bushels. “Ten years ago, without genetically altered corn, [the drought] may have cut production by two to two and a half billion bushels,” Hannagan said. This year, the decline is about 1.2 billion bushels, he said.

The last time it was this hot was the summer of 1995. That drought, more severe than this year’s, stifled production. The corn price doubled that year, reaching a high of $5.50 a bushel. This year, by contrast, corn futures expiring in December closed at the Chicago Board of Trade on September 29 at $2.034 a bushel.

Improved Corn Barely Affected

The reason: Corn is a completely different product today, said Gerry Gidel, a crop analyst at Midland Research Inc. in Chicago. “Weather now has just a modest impact on the harvest,” Gidel said.

Illinois production this year lagged, but the decline was nothing when compared with what happened a decade ago, when the average amount of bushels produced per acre in Illinois was 113, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. This year, as of September 1 the estimated average was 136, compared with last year’s record-breaking average of 180 bushels, according to the service, said Brad Schwab, the director of the service’s Illinois field office.

Many Illinois farmers use genetically modified corn for protection against corn borer and rootworm, corn’s most damaging insect pests. “These farmers certainly capitalized on this,” said Schwab.

In 2005, one in three bushels of Illinois corn was genetically modified. More than half of the nation’s corn is genetically modified. Schwab said other regions of the nation use more genetically modified crops generally because of tougher growing conditions.

However, traditional breeding methods used to improve corn seed are still more effective than creating genetically modified seeds, said Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. But the two taken together have changed the farmer’s life, he said. “Weather is becoming less important,” he stated. “But it still is the most important.”

Herbicide, Fuel Use Decreasing

For fifth-generation farmer Leon Corzine, genetically modified crops have changed his life in more ways than just how intently he listens to the weatherman. Harvests on his soybean and corn farm in Assumption, Illinois have grown by 30 percent in the seven years he has been using the technology.

“We especially raised the lower end yield,” said Corzine, president of the National Corn Growers Association. All of his soybeans and a quarter of his corn are genetically modified. He said he’s enjoyed “dramatic” spending reductions on herbicides and gas for his farm machinery. Corzine runs the farm with his wife, son, and two grandchildren under the promise to his family that he will “leave the farm in a better way” than he got it, he said.

With less pesticide on his crops because of this technology, his grandchildren can play without worrying about being exposed to toxic chemicals.

“It’s really about my grandchildren,” Corzine said.

Alexander V. Ragir is a writer for Northwestern University’s Medill News Service. An earlier version of this article was written for the Medill News Service.

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