The Positive Impact of Biotechnology on the Sustainability of the Agricultural and Food Industry


Originally published in 2013
By John Conrad, Vice President of Operations, Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization

Where does our food come from? Most of us don’t really think about this question, even when we are enjoying the fruits of the production of crop and livestock farmers. This question is addressed, however, by teachers throughout Illinois in a program called Ag in the Classroom. It is directed primarily at elementary and middle school students to raise their awareness of and provide a better understanding of our food supply and the critical role played by our farmers.

Many of these students don’t know or realize that milk comes from dairy cows on area farms and cereal is processed from grain grown on farms across the prairie. And we adults are so used to the vast supply and variety of foods available at our choice of many outlets that we, too, rarely think about the origins of this food supply.

Yet the evidence is right in front of our noses. We see the farms as we drive down the state’s highways. We see the trucks and rail cars transporting grain, livestock and milk to stops along the food processing and marketing chain. And we find the result of all of this activity that we take so much for granted on the shelves and in the coolers or display cases of the many outlets at which we shop. It is always there when we want it, so it is worth our time to think about how all of this happens to create an abundant, safe and reliable food supply now and in the future.

Farming in Illinois is huge. According to the 2012 Illinois Farm Bureau Farm & Food Facts, annually the state is either the #1 or #2 producer of corn and soybeans in the U.S. Last year Illinois farmers produced 416 million bushels of soybeans and 1.9 billion bushels of corn, which totaled to $17.2 billion. Annually Illinois’ 74,600 farms export about $3.1 billion in soybeans and $1.7 billion in feed grains, most of which is headed to Canada or China.

Illinois is also home to the world’s leading agricultural biotechnology companies and processors. The Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization (iBIO) just completed a comprehensive study on the Illinois biosciences community, which found that over 8,000 Illinois citizens are employed in the agricultural feedstock and chemical sector, earning an average salary of $103,465. The sector has one of the highest employment multipliers; for every one job in the sector, an additional 9.6 jobs are supporting it in the community. The ag-feedstock sector contributes $28.4 billion in Illinois economic output and $572 million in state and local taxes. Our universities are drivers of innovation, increasing agricultural research budgets by 20.6% since 2006.

Of the 1.9 billion bushels of corn produced last year, 85% was genetically modified (GM) in some way, as was 90% of Illinois soybeans. It is a very safe bet that almost everything in the boxes, cans, bags and other containers on the shelves at your local Super Target contains ingredients that comes from genetically modified crops.

Over the past three decades, anti-GM activists thought they were protecting the public from large multinational corporations and saving the environment. They sought to generate fear. In so doing, these activists portrayed GM crop researchers as mad scientists who were playing with the building blocks of life. In some parts of the world, their campaign was very successful; in just a few years GM crops were banned in much of Europe, India and Asia.

A British writer named Mark Lynas was one of the original architects of this campaign. Until 2008, Lynas participated in the anti-GM movement by speaking at events and writing articles about the dangers of GM crops. It wasn’t until one day in 2008, when he was reading through the comments of one of his online articles, that he stopped to think about a particular comment left by a reader: “Are you also opposed to the wheel because it is marketed by the big auto companies?”

Deciding to arm himself with the science relating to genetically engineered food, Lynas started researching studies on biotechnology and GM crops. What he learned was that his key beliefs about GM crops were no more than “green urban myths”.

  • He assumed that GM crops would increase the use of chemicals instead of decreasing them. That proved to be totally wrong.
  • He assumed that GM crops only benefitted large seed companies, whereas billions of dollars in new profits were accruing to farmers; moreover, 95% of the farmers using GM crops are in developing countries.
  • He assumed that no one wanted GM crops, but pirated GM cotton is used heavily in India and Roundup-Ready® soy is used in Brazil — because the farmers want it. In China, GM cotton is credited with saving thousands of lives among farmers no longer exposed to harmful pesticides.
  • He assumed that GM crops were dangerous, but it turns out that they are safer and more precisely inspected than foods from conventional breeding. In fact, the USDA, FDA, and EPA all review the safety and ecological viability of bio-engineered strains
  • And he believed that cross-species mixing of genes had no precedent in nature, but found that it has been done by nature for millennia. The process is called gene flow.

Lynas took the dramatic step of publicly apologizing for his anti-GMO efforts. “What we didn’t realize at the time was that the real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it,” he said.

Lynas now lectures about the naturalistic-fallacy that is at the core of the anti-GM and pro-organic debate: that “natural” is good, and “artificial” is bad. So-called “pure” organically farmed crops, for example, can cause big problems. In 2011 German organic bean sprouts caused the same number of deaths and injuries as the Chernobyl disaster. An E. coli infection from using animal manure as a fertilizer infected the seeds of the bean sprouts. Fifty-three people died and 3,500 suffered serious kidney failure. These people chose the organic because they were scared of the comparatively trivial risks posed by highly regulated chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In fact many third-generation GM crops allow us not to use environmentally damaging chemicals, because their genome has been altered so the plant can protect itself.

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant stated, “They (GM crops) are the most-tested food product that the world has ever seen. Europe set up its own Food Standards Agency, which has now spent €300 million ($403.7 million), and has concluded that these technologies are safe.” Environmentalism is supposed to be science-based, but the anti-GM-food forces have been lacking any science to support their claims.

The stakes for a hungry planet facing climate disruptions are high. The American Midwest this past summer experienced a severe drought. By the end of July, over 60% of the United States was experiencing some form of drought–the largest area in more than half a century. Corn yields fell by at least 16%, and prices rose to record highs as farmers confronted fields of dust. The drought of 2012 cost the economy as much as $18 billion. It may be the beginning of a longer-term change in climate.

Because we can’t change the weather, we need to find a way to produce crops that are more resistant to drought conditions. And that is what agribusiness is hoping to achieve with new GM crop strains Monsanto is working on a hybrid line of corn providing increased yields in dry soils. Hundreds of farmers in the western end of the U.S. Corn Belt are field-testing this new strain, and Monsanto says early results indicate that the GM crop might improve yields by 4% to 8% over conventional crops in some arid environments. “This year magnifies how important it is to have drought tolerance,” said Monsanto CTO Robert Fraley.

One ironic result of the anti-GM movement’s push for more government oversight and regulation of GM crops is that the activists have extended the amount of time it takes to introduce new crops to the market place by at least five years. The latest estimate by the advocacy group CropLife America is that it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialization, large seed companies are the only organizations that can afford to develop these innovations in the face of increased regulatory costs.

Although anti-GMO forces have been increasingly discredited by those armed with actual safety data, activists have recently been pushing for labeling of GMO products. Such labeling has been deemed misleading and unnecessary by the U.S. FDA, the American Medical Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others; they point out that labeling is required for nutritional elements: sodium, fats, sugars, etc. but not according to whether the food traits were developed by older or newer technologies.

In fact, the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a letter recommending against the special labeling of GM food and quoted from a recent E.U. report on GM crops:

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding.

Unnecessary labeling would mean huge cost burdens for food manufacturers and grocers. Growers and processors would also likely be hit badly.

In the United States, the highest-grade corn can contain as much as 2% foreign material, like crop residues. In Europe, a food product can contain as much as 0.9% GM material and avoid a GM label. But California’s defeated Prop 37, a likely model for future labeling legislation, would have imposed nearly twice as stringent purity standards, tolerating only 0.5% GM content in non-GM food. Such a high purity standard would likely require farmers to invest in separate planting, harvesting, storage, hauling, processing and packaging equipment for GM production. Ultimately the threat of the increased cost of food related to the rules surrounding the purity standards, and the potential for multiple costly lawsuits related to meeting those standards led to the demise of Proposition 37 in California. But the anti-GM labeling activists succeeded in gaining a national platform and have been working in more than 20 other states to introduce labeling legislation for GM foods, including right here in Illinois.

Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant has said that he would welcome a discussion about labeling of GM foods, and that as a community, we need to do a better job communicating the benefits of GM foods to meet the growing global demand, changing environmental climate and addressing malnutrition and food safety. It’s an important—perhaps life and death—issue, because by 2050 the planet will be home to two billion more people.

We hope that this article contributes to the ongoing dialog about these critically important issues. GM crops are the answer to many of the problems now facing us, and we want to see the community that supports this industry continue to succeed and grow in order to feed populations around the world.


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