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Ag biotech: critical to global sustainability

Agricultural biotechnology is making substantial footholds in small and large countries worldwide and must remain a part of sustainable agriculture so farmers and consumers can reap the benefits.

Sharon Bomer-Lauritsen, executive vice president, food and agriculture section, Biotechnology Industry Organization, Washington, D.C., says U.S. farmers grow biotech crops on about 300 million acres — about 48 percent of the harvested crop acreage.

“Biotechnology has saved the fruit and vegetable industry from destruction,” said Bomer-Lauritsen. She spoke about ag biotech’s virtues and challenges during the California Association of Pest Control Advisers conference in Anaheim, Calif.

BIO represents over 1,100 biotech companies, academic institutions, and related organizations in the United States and 31 other nations in the research and development of health care, agricultural, industrial, and environmental biotechnology products.

In U.S. agriculture, biotechnology is utilized in 86 percent of cotton, 92 percent of soybeans, and 80 percent of corn, Bomer-Lauritsen says. Corn yields have increased by 30 percent and soybean yields have climbed 17 percent over the last decade due to biotech and practices incorporated by farmers. Similar trends are expected to continue.

Sustainability is becoming the buzzword among public opinion leaders worldwide. According to the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, sustainable agriculture includes three main goals: economic productivity, environmental health, and social and economic equity. Its success, Bomer-Lauritsen says, must include technologies including biotech.

While the 1990 farm bill legally defined sustainable agriculture, the “big players” including Wal-Mart are developing sustainability standards for suppliers. Other players include the Grocery Manufacturers Association, food processors, retailers, Food Marketing Institute, Western Growers Association, and the California horticultural industry.

“The challenge is to ensure that technology, including biotechnology, pesticides, and pest control, is not excluded from any definitions or standards in achieving sustainability,” the biotech advocate said. “These technologies help our farmers become sustainable.”

Yet the road to sustainability has included a few chuckholes. Bomer-Lauritsen told the pest control advisors about an invitation-only meeting held last year at the University of California, Berkeley, designed to discuss sustainable agriculture. The meeting included draft voluntary standards developed by the Leonardo Academy for possible inclusion by the standard-writing American National Standards Institute.

“The standards developed by the Leonardo Academy are what I would consider organic plus,” Bomer-Lauritsen said. “To be certified in sustainable agriculture you either need certification under the USDA’s National Organic Standards Program or you were converting to organic acreage.”

BIO saw the draft as failing to consider the contributions offered by technology. The draft also violated the 1990 farm law’s sustainability definition.

According to Bomer-Lauritsen, the 1990 farm law requires an integrated system to satisfy human food, fiber, and fuel requirements to meet the world’s growing population.

The law also mandates improved environmental quality and a natural resource base, plus the efficient use of non-renewable resources. Practices must provide for economic viability so farmers can stay in business, and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Bomer-Lauritsen says biotechnology supports sustainable agriculture in five ways. The first is by increasing crop production and yields as stated earlier.

While biotech was embraced early by large countries, data collected by Clive James, international biotech researcher from 1996 to 2007, showed biotech is now gaining more acceptance in less developed countries. Of the estimated 11 million farmers in the world utilizing biotech, 9 million are from developing countries or farmers who lack key research information.

Last year 23 countries allowed ag biotech crop planting while more countries allowed imports of products derived from biotech including Japan and Korea, Bomer-Lauritsen says. Egypt approved biotechnology for cultivation this year.

Biotech also promotes resource conservation and energy efficiency, and reduces the environmental footprint of agriculture.

One study indicates biotech had a role in decreasing pesticide active ingredient use by 630 million pounds from 1996 to 2006 in fields with biotech seeds. Biotech seeds also allow farmers to expand no-till farming.

“We saw a 35 percent increase from 1995 to 2002 in the amount of carbon kept in the soil and less water runoff,” Bomer-Lauritsen said. “We also have a study that shows total carbon dioxide emissions are down 15 million tons due to biotech.”

The reduction is based on more carbon left in the soil from no-till, plus insect-resistant corn reducing the number of tractor passes across fields for pesticide application.

Technology has reduced the water needs to grow cotton by 93 million gallons over the last six years. Bomer-Lauritsen says the future focus on water is “more crop per drop.”

Regarding cash flow, biotech has helped improve farm income by $30 billion to $34 billion worldwide in a decade. U.S. production costs decreased $1.3 billion in 2005; in part due to reduced pesticide costs and related fuel savings.

Biotech improves the economic viability and quality of life for farmers on small and large operations. Bomer-Lauritsen shared how a small farmer with corn borer damage in the Philippines switched to Bt corn. As a result the farmer increased the corn acreage and began growing vegetables.

The BIO executive says biotech helps contribute to the sustainable production of biofuels.

“We’re not talking about food versus fuel; we’re talking about food and fuel. Crop yield increases will be critical to that,” Bomer-Lauritsen said. “Much work is under way on genetic and non-genetic engineered cellulosic biomass to increase the availability and yields of different grasses.”

Several energy crops for fuel under development include the perennial grass miscanthus and corn stover.

The future pipeline for biotech crops include those with improved drought and salinity tolerance plus reduced nitrogen requirements. Companies are working on allergen-free wheat and peanuts; even cattle incapable of developing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease).

As to the Leonardo Academy’s proposal for organic-based sustainability standards for agriculture, USDA filed an appeal. The end result has seen the academy’s proposal off the table.

Bomer-Lauritsen said, “It’s important that developed standards are technology neutral to have the best hope to adopt truly sustainable agriculture that benefits farmers and consumers.”

Bomer-Lauritsen is a former deputy assistant U.S. trade representative for agricultural affairs.

e-mail: [email protected]

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