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Study examines biotechnology, environment link

Despite published reports to the contrary, a newly released study by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology finds that transgenic crops are, in fact, beneficial to the environment.

The study, funded by the United Soybean Board, consists of a comprehensive literature search of both positive and negative reports on biotechnology-derived crops. Its aim is to answer repeatedly raised questions about the environmental safety of biotechnology-derived crops.

“We wanted to answer any questions about how biotech crops fit into sustainable agriculture production systems,” Richard Borgsmiller, chairman of the United Soybean Board (USB) and a grower from Murpheesboro, Ill., said at a recent USB press conference announcing the study's findings.

“This report is what really is out there,” says Teresa Gruber, executive vice president of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. “In this report, we compiled everything we could find that was peer-reviewed and in the public domain; then we pulled it together with all of the current scientific literature.”

What the study does, according to USB International Marketing Chair Jerry Slocum of Coldwater, Miss., is allow the benefits of biotechnology to be quantified in an unbiased way. “This report validates the anecdotal evidence U.S. growers provide about the benefits of transgenic crops. It is a much-needed and long-awaited valuable piece of research,” he says.

Slocum has produced soybeans, corn and wheat on farmland that has been in his family for 107 years, and has seen first-hand the rapid adoption of biotech crops by Delta growers.

The reason for this heavy shift to transgenics, he says, is growers are looking for crop varieties that are environmentally sensitive and highly productive, and biotechnology-derived products can take care of both of those requirements.

“U.S. farmers are a diverse group, and while we're a bit different in our approaches, we also have a lot in common, including our deep concern for the environment. All of us want to do our very best to take care of the land that we live and farm on,” he says.

“Since the adoption of transgenic crop varieties, growers are reporting increased sightings of birds, insects, and animals, some of which they haven't seen on their farms in decades.” Slocum says, “I wanted to know if these anecdotal accounts would be proven out. It's clear from this report that biotech crops are an integral part of a sustainable agricultural production system.”

The United Soybean Board says that while the organization knew the science was there to support the benefits of biotechnology, it wanted to know what an unbiased study with researchers pulling together and analyzing peer-reviewed data would find.

One of the study's authors, Washington State University researcher Allan Felsot, says, “We cast a wide net for any literature regarding the environmental impacts of commercially available biotech-derived soybean, corn and cotton crops. Then we focused our attention on any potential changes in pesticide use patterns, tillage, pest resistance, pest populations, beneficial insect populations, human exposure, and land use. We found no differences between conventional and transgenic crops in any of these areas.”

In addition, Slocum says, the report will provide definitive scientific information about transgenic crops to potential trading partners.

“This says to potential marketplaces that biotech soybeans are not something to be feared. They are something to be embraced, and the environmental benefits we enjoy in the United States can be enjoyed elsewhere by soybean growers,” he says. “The fact is we sell U.S. soybeans in more than 100 markets abroad now, and I think the markets for U.S. soybeans will continue to be opened.”

Janet Carpenter, a researcher at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C., and study author, says, “The adoption of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans has been extremely rapid since their introduction in 1996. They are the most-widely planted transgenic crop worldwide, and the continued use of this technology may lead to increased yields and to enhanced weed control at a lower cost.”

The most striking impact of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans, Carpenter says, is the potential for reducing cultivation. “Growers who adopt the technology in areas with hard-to-control weeds may achieve higher yields as a result of more-effective weed control. Also, glyphosate is generally considered more benign than some alternatives, and extensive testing has indicated no increased risk through human exposure.”

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