The march of science and technology is nowhere more evident than in agriculture and agri-food. Research into improved crops continues around the world, not least at the University of Manitoba. The evidence of the size of its economic and environmental dividends is overwhelming.
In a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, whimsically entitled Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?, author Jonathan Rauch describes the environmental problems that transgenic crops can solve. The term refers to the transfer of beneficial genes from one organism to another, like embedding genes from bacteria to make crops disease resistant, for example. Rauch admits to “being agriculturally illiterate,” but his fiercely independent and objective reputation is the ideal trait for the needed critical evaluation of bio-tech farming.
Rauch examined the American trend to “no-till” farming, referred to on the Canadian Prairies as “zero-tillage.” This practice is taking the agricultural world by storm, but it depends on the widespread adoption of genetically modified crops. In Virginia, Rauch examined a no-till wheat field located on poor, hilly land. The crop yielded twice the local average, and zero tillage created a soil structure that held fast in the face of a 19-inch rainfall from Hurricane Floyd in 1999. No soil and chemicals washed into rivers from this field.
Runoff from cultivated lands is a significant sources of water degradation in North America, especially for row crops like soy beans. That was the case, until herbicide-resistant genes allowed American farmers to grow one-third of their soybeans without ploughing. The more it’s done, the purer our natural water.
The environmental benefits from the application of bio-technology are enormous and verifiable, while the objections to transgenic crops are vague and smack of motherhood and sentiment. Rauch notes that the use of transgenic cotton in the United States reduced pesticide use by more than two million pounds between 1996 and 2000. China has been able to cut pesticide spraying in half in some cotton-growing regions. The development of transgenic corn resistant to rootworm could reduce or eliminate spraying on 23 million acres of U.S. farmland, an area equivalent to half of Saskatchewan’s farm belt.
Irrigation can make land unfit for crops, as evaporation from irrigated fields leaves behind salt residues. Researchers are working on a salt-tolerant tomato that can use these damaged lands and bring millions of acres of “crippled” land back into production, says Rauch. The transgenic plants shed excess salt.
Wait, it gets even better. Rauch estimates that modern, high-yield agriculture has saved over 20 million square miles of forest land not needed for farming. And that was without transgenic crops. Their expanded use will create much more wildlife habitat and improve water quality, too.
Should we ask questions about transgenic crops? Of course. But the answers seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of their use. Our environmental quality depends on them.