WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 12, 1999) Biotechnology is delivering on promises to make farming more efficient. Those are the findings of the first-ever analysis aimed at assessing whether crops genetically modified to resist pests actually yield benefits.
The 98-page study, released today, was conducted by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C. It examined the impact of planting corn, cotton and potatoes modified to ward off destructive pests. The modification involves taking genes from a soil bacterium, called Bacillus thuringiensis, and making them part of the plants themselves.
The Bt plants, as they are called, are toxic only to specific pests. Bt corn is protected against European corn borers; Bt cotton targets bollworms and budworms; and Bt potatoes are resistant to Colorado potato beetles.
These insects are responsible for more than $1 billion worth of crop destruction annually.
ôThe findings make clear that rapid adoption of this technology is directly tied to benefits of greater effectiveness in pest control technology and very competitive cuts in farmer's costs,ö said Leonard Gianessi, senior research associate at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.
For example, in 1997 when European corn borer infestation was high, Bt corn increased total yields in the United States by 47 million bushels, boosting profits by $72 million. That year, however, only 4 million acres of Bt corn were planted among the 80 million acres nationwide.
In 1998, when 14 million acres of Bt corn were planted, corn borer infestation was extremely light, but farmers still realized an increase of 60 million bushels with the genetically modified corn. The biotech corn crop also resulted in 2 million fewer acres being sprayed with insecticides.
Corn is the largest acreage crop grown in the United States. Up until now efforts to strengthen the plants' resistance through conventional breeding and use of chemical sprays have been inefficient and unsuccessful.
Analysis of Bt cotton crops shows even more dramatic benefits from biotechnology. In 1998, Bt cotton accounted for 17 percent of the total cotton crop in the United States. Most of the biotech cotton acreage was planted in the Southeast, Mid-South and Arizona.
Bt cotton boosted total yields by 85 million pounds. Five million fewer acres had to be treated with insecticides and farmers planting Bt cotton increased profits by more than $92 million in 1998.
As for Bt potatoes, their introduction has not yet had a major impact on production costs, insecticide use or yields overall. Last year only 4 percent of the potato acreage in the United States was planted with Bt potatoes, so growers did not have to apply insecticides to control the Colorado potato beetle. But the study showed these growers applied insecticides for other pests, meaning the reduction in pesticide use costs was minor. Yields of Bt potatoes were about the same as yields of non-Bt potatoes.
For potatoes, however, the potential to reduce insecticide use will be greatly enhanced through introduction of cultivars genetically modified to control Colorado potato beetles and resist viral infections caused by aphids.
Gianessi presented a detailed briefing July 13 on his report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The report and the presentation materials are available on-line at www.bio.org.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is an association representing more than 850 companies, state centers and academic institutions involved in the research and development of healthcare, industrial and agricultural biotechnology products. BIO provided funding to support the NCFAP study.
The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) is a non-profit, non-advocacy research organization based in Washington, D.C.