Industrial Seed

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: This article outlines the new markets biotechnology advancements can create for family farmers. However, the article does not address the marketing impact of heightened controversy and public concerns, both within the United States and abroad, over genetically modified agricultural products.

After many years of hearing about what biotechnology could do for crop agriculture, farmers in the late 1990s began to experience it. Genetically improved crops hold the promise of creating a host of new agricultural markets.

Starting in 1996, American farmers had the opportunity to buy seed for major commodity crops, such as corn, cotton and soybeans modified through recombinant DNA technology. The two major classes of biotechnology crops currently available are either herbicide tolerant or pest resistant.

Herbicide tolerant crops, such as Round-Up ready soybeans, allow herbicides to be applied without harming the crop, but are effective in eliminating weeds in a field. The pest resistant crops, primarily corn and cotton, contain a gene from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that produces a protein that protects the plants from insects, such as the European corn borer or the cotton bollworm. The bacterium-derived protein destroys the target pest but does not harm beneficial insects or humans.

Farmers have adopted these new crop varieties at record rates. In 1999, herbicide tolerant corn accounted for 35 percent of the total crop planted in the United States and herbicide tolerant cotton made up more than 50 percent of the planted acreage. Herbicide tolerant soybeans also accounted for more than 50 percent of that crop.

Farmers have adopted these new crop varieties because they increase productivity by about 10 to 15 percent, and they decrease chemical input costs by as much as 50 percent. It is clearly a win-win situation for farmers.

Tomorrow's Products

In the future, biotechnology also will produce crops that add value to products, such as high oil corn, soybeans high in oleic acid and high protein soybeans.

The implications of these changes for farmers, both large and small producers, are dramatic. Biotechnology will provide new choices, marketing channels and relationships and will require new management skills.

In the farm sector today, approximately 350,000 commercial-size farms, those with more than $250,000 in gross sales, produce about 88 percent of the food and fiber in this country. …