New technology fights old pests, feeds more people

Published August 1, 2002

When I started farming 30 years ago, I never dreamed of how technological progress would revolutionize agriculture.

We still can’t control the weather. Yet recent innovations in biotechnology have improved agriculture beyond anything I ever thought was possible. We may even be on the verge of making another eternal scourge of farmers permanently obsolete. I’m talking about pests.

There’s nothing so frustrating as seeing a bunch of bugs destroy something that might otherwise feed hungry people. Old technology sprays offer one way of containing the problem, but they’re hardly foolproof. Moreover, there’s a fine line between insecticides that are strong enough to kill pests and those that are so powerful they harm the beneficial plants they’re supposed to protect.

Today, however, farmers have a new option. They can turn to crops that are better able to resist sprays because of agricultural biotechnology. Some can even ward off bugs on their own. This is a fantastic advancement, because it means farmers don’t have to use as many chemicals.

This year, farmers will plant a record number of biotech crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 74 percent of soybean acres and 32 percent of corn acres will consist of these remarkable plants.

There will be even more of this in the future. One estimate says the world market for biotech crops will be $8 billion within three years and $25 billion by 2010.

Good for the environment

This wouldn’t be possible without confident consumers. Yet there’s a disinformation campaign underway whose specific goal is to erode that confidence. Radical activists who prefer junk science to sound science are the force behind this propaganda.

There’s not a single scrap of evidence suggesting that biotech crops are unhealthy or bad for the environment. Yet the enemies of agricultural innovation have done everything in their power to make ordinary people think there’s a problem. They have discovered that fear raises money—and money provides job security.

Remember that story about biotech corn hurting monarch butterflies? In February, the Department of Agriculture’s top scientific research agency said genetically modified corn poses “no significant risk” to these butterflies.

In April, the prestigious journal Nature apologized for a false report last year about new strains of corn hurting Mexico’s biodiversity.

Biotechnology is actually good for the environment. By increasing crop yield, it allows the same amount of land to produce more food. This is good economics for farmers and consumers, but it also aids soil conservation. In developing countries, it decreases the pressure people face to turn rain forests into farmland.

Biotechnology allows us to grow food that can provide benefits for the people who eat it. The science is still young, but we’ve already discovered ways to make food more nutritious.

I’m really looking forward to the plants that will increase my vitamin intake, lower my cholesterol, and reduce my blood pressure. About the only thing these incredible plants can’t do is control the weather.

But who’s complaining? I’m busy farming.


Tim Burrack has farmed near Arlington in northeast Iowa for 30 years and serves on the board of directors for Truth about Trade and Technology.