A Nebraska farmer touted environmental and production benefits of integrating biotechnology on his farm during a recent international symposium.
Steve Wellman of Syracuse, Neb., was among the panelists at the Illinois Soybean Association-hosted International Biotechnology Symposium.
More than 200 biotechnology regulators, government officials, industry and organization representatives, international trade experts and farmers from 13 counties attended the event.
Wellman, American Soybean Association chairman, first saw biotech crops in action years ago when he hosted on-farm trials of the Roundup Ready trait before it was commercialized.
“We couldn’t harvest, but had the opportunity to utilize the Roundup and see the benefits of the weed control,” he said.
“It was really easy for me to identify how it was going to fit into our operation, especially since we were moving toward all no-till. It became quickly obvious that Roundup Ready soybeans were going to play a role in making us more efficient in making that transition toward no-till production.”
About five years ago, he hosted an on-farm trial of the DroughtGard trait.
“We couldn’t take it to harvest, but it was evident of the quality and the improvement in the DroughtGard. It was able to utilize the moisture better and be able to have higher production when we don’t have sufficient moisture,” he said.
“I believe that biotechnology is the base that drove a lot of the improvements here in the U.S. and our ability to utilize conservation tillage.”
Wellman referred to a report issued in 2009 by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology that concluded “today’s commercialized biotechnology-derived soybean crops yield significant environmental benefits primarily by supporting conservation tillage on more fields than previously implemented.”
He agrees with that, adding the CAST report noted biotechnology use results in a 93 percent decrease in soil erosion, the preservation of 1 billion tons of topsoil, 70 percent reduction of herbicide and pesticide runoff, 148 million kilogram reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, 80 percent reduction in phosphorous contamination of surface water, annual soil evaporation loss reduction and 50 percent less fuel usage.
“It seem to me like it really all comes down to a sustainability message and the message to produce more with less resources, and I believe that biotechnology is the driver to reach the goals that we have of sustainable agriculture production,” he said.
Wellman also referred to a 2012 study conducted by Stanford University that found that advances in high-yield agriculture have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere, the equivalent of 590 billion tons of carbon dioxide.
“And in the end, the yield intensification has lessened the pressure to clear land. We do have a limit on land availability in the U.S. and if we want to compete internationally with production we have to make better use of the land we have,” he said.
“The improvement of crop yields should therefore be prominent among the portfolio strategies to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the Stanford study.
“We’ve faced a lot of discussion here in the U.S. and in the European Union and with some of our customers that we market to about the sustainability of production and can we demonstrate how sustainable we are. I believe we can, and the base of that has been biotechnology,” Wellman said.
He noted the current portfolio of traits, some of which are on hold awaiting EU approval. One of the traits on hold is the high oleic trait that has been in the approval process with EU for about six years.
“What we have done here in the U.S. is we haven’t taken a soybean trait to full production until we have approval in all the markets we export to, so to have a trait overseas that’s awaiting approval for six years really inhibits our ability as U.S. producers to take advantage and utilize those new traits and see the benefits of those new traits,” he said.
“I was really disappointed in the recent announcement by (Agriculture) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack and the administration that they are going to require a full environmental impact study which will delay the approval of the 2,4-D and dicamba resistance traits for at least two years.
“As farmers deal with some weed resistance of herbicides, glyphosate, in particular, those two tools are going to be very advantageous for U.S. producers. It comes at a bad time.
“We’ve had weed resistance to herbicides long before biotechnology, so to me it’s not a biotech problem to have weed resistance. I believe biotechnology is a solution to solving this weed resistance and another tool we can use.”
These efforts to sustainably increase production on the acres currently available is necessary to meet increasing global demand due to a growing population and increased income, Wellman said.
“Specifically on corn, between 2000 and 2030 it’s predicted that the demand for corn will increase 76 percent and the demand for soybeans will increase 125 percent globally, so that will be another 70 to 80 million metric tons of soybeans required per year the next decade,” he said.
“To me, biotechnology, increasing production agriculture and sustainable agriculture go together. I believe that biotechnology has been the trigger for our advancements, and it will be a future to production agriculture to continue to be sustainable and to improve upon that.”