Genetically engineered (GE) crops have had one of the fastest adoption rates of any new agricultural technology in history. Why are so many farmers planting biotech seeds in their fields? Wednesday morning’s first panel discussion at BIO addressed this very question, titled Ag Biotech – Improving Farmers Lives.The panel was moderated by Tami Craig Schilling, and brought the perspectives of three farmers from across the world to talk about why they farm they way they do. They also talked about what they would like to farm in the future.
Rosalie Ellasus, from the Philippines, grows GE corn, the profits from which allowed her to pay off her tractor and increase the size of her farm. As a result, she helped renew Monsanto’s permit for MON 810 in her region. She said that being an early adopter helped her become a community leader of farmers.
“And that’s why they call me the ambassadress of biotechnology in Asia,” she said.
Ellasus also delved into seed production, which gave her a new-found appreciation for the process.
“It’s really, really taxing. I saw how much money they put into seed growing.”
She talked about some of the challenges of farming in her part of the world such as floods that can wipe out fields of crops, and what new biotech traits are in the foreseeable future. Drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency sound fine, but what she really needs, she said, is a flood-tolerant corn.
Terry Wanzek, a state senator of North Dakota and a fourth-generation farmer spoke about the dramatic changes that have happened on his farm and in his life as a result of growing biotech crops.
“The most important thing that it has allowed us to do is to move to no-till farming.”
North Dakota is typically a semi-arid state, so water availability is an important consideration for farmers. No-till farming, aided by growing herbicide-tolerant crops, conserves soil moisture and reduces erosion. And in his case these benefits have come with a reduction in fuel use.
“We’ve probably cut the hour usage of our tractors in half.”
As a former vice-chair for the Senate Ag Committee, Wanzek talked about how the profitability of corn and soy farming has led to a reduction in wheat and barley production. Wheat can also succumb to a disease called fusarium wilt following bad weather, which does not happen as much to soybeans.
“The soybeans I grow have more security, he said.”
Maria Gabriella Cruz is also a fourth-generation farmer from Portugal, currently tending 500 hectares of durum wheat, barley, peas, and corn.
She talked about some of the challenges of farming in Europe, particularly in her country. Cereal prices have decreased, while fertilizer costs have gone up and the price of water is expected to increase 40% this year.
“Politicians sometimes forget that to have water you have to have dams.” She remarked that farmers are seen as devils – the highest consumers of water.
Erosion is another big issue in Portugal. Cruz said that fields can lose up to 17 tons of soil per year, which is a major reason why she adopted Conservation Agricultural (CA) practices. Intended to reduce alterations to the soil, Cruz said she has experienced reduced costs of labor, fuel, water, and energy, and higher soil productivity.
But with higher soil productivity comes more problems with weeds. With the fewer agrochemicals that the European Union will have available in the near future, she argued, that herbicide-tolerant GE crops will be needed. They are not yet available in Europe. The only biotech crop that Cruz is able to grow is Bt-corn, which is resistant to insect pests.
“Conservation Agriculture, no-till and strip-till are not viable in the long term if we do not have biotech crops. Sustainable farming is not possible without CA and biotech.”
The audience asked several questions about the farmers’ experiences with weed control in Roundup-Ready fields, and how to convince the European Union to allow biotech crops sooner.
Rosalie Ellasus said that GE crops reduce the use of pesticides on her farm, and has not affected her rice-corn rotation. Gabriella Cruz said that if she was to grow Roundup-Ready crops, she would have to have a rotation. Wanzek added that he looks at rotation as a prudent, responsible practice, and that his rotation has been improved by GE crops.
Terry Wanzek spoke about the importance of educating people about where their food comes from is very important as people move farther and farther from the farm. Addressing his participation in the panel, he said, “I’m not getting paid to do this.”
On European acceptance, Gabriella Cruz had one thing to say: “Human beings always find a way to overcome problems.”
The farmers each expressed their connection to and concern for the land they manage.
“There is no one that has more interest in my land than me,” said Wanzek.
Quoting Gone with the Wind, Cruz concluded,
“Land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.”