Biotech Advances Boost Agriculture

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

The march of high-tech agriculture continues in spite of the spurious obstacles thrown in the way of progress by the anti-trade and anti-globalization crowd. Yields are going up and more efficient use of water, land, and soil resources continues. Whether this is good for the economics of farm-based communities can be debated (high yields usually equal low prices) but in terms of feeding the world and improving the environment, high-tech wins, hands down.

In a recent column, the Hudson Institute’s Michael Fumento noted that in Canada over 3 million hectares of transgenic crops were grown with the vast majority of that land area being devoted to canola. Genetically modified corn and soybeans accounted for most of the rest. As any farmer knows, such crops are cheaper to grow, require fewer pesticides and lend themselves very well to soil saving zero-tillage. Manitoba potato growers should be watching the development of new potato varieties with built-in resistance to some serious insect pests, obviating the necessity of constant spraying.

One can only marvel at the sheer gall of biotech opponents who boldly declare themselves to be “environmentalists.” In terms of the transgenic potatoes, for example, scientists have grafted a gene from the BT bacteria into the potatoes that confers insect resistance on the crop. Ironically, BT, used by itself, is touted as an organic alternative to synthetic pesticides by the anti-technology crowd. Modified potatoes require far less spraying, something that you would think would please so-called environmental advocates but their opposition to bio-technology masks a far more deep-seated, anti-modern, agenda.

The author of the Green Revolution, the distinguished scientist and Nobel laureate, Dr. Norman Borlaug, has recently entered the fray. In his article, “We Can Feed the World. Here’s How,” he notes “If the world is to avoid a Hobson’s choice between starving children and extinct wildlife species, the first order of priority is higher yields on the land we already farm.” Borlaug noted that Africa is facing such a situation right now. Millions of children are starving and millions of acres of wild lands are going under the plow simply because most of African agriculture is “organic” and low-tech. Though some may call such a system “sustainable” it is surely not especially since the “new” lands being farmed are quickly depleted of nutrients and the whole downward cycle starts all over again. In Manitoba, we can thank high yield agriculture for the wildlife habitat we still have. We simply do not need to farm all of our lands.

Borlaug goes on to say, “But low yield farming is only sustainable for people with high death rates (my emphasis), and, thanks to better medicine more babies are surviving.” Think about that one, folks.

We in the First World have the luxury of questioning any and all that we do simply because we are rich by world standards. But to date all we hear from are the opponents of modern agriculture who, by the way, claim to be on the side of the poor and down trodden. Well, on the subject of organic farming and low yield agriculture the results are there for all to see. Modern, free market agriculture equals higher yields and more sustainable cropping systems, not to mention that all Canadians, regardless of income, have access to high quality foods at very reasonable prices. Now THAT’S progress.