Innovation is key to America's breadbasket
The holiday season is a good time to recognize the important contribution of America’s farmers to our quality of life. Agriculture is a tough business. Farmers have to cope with production factors outside of their control, such as weather and geography. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, America’s 2 million farms are the world’s most productive, not only feeding our nation, but providing crucial grains and foodstuffs to help feed other people around the world.
American farmers grow about 60 percent of the world’s corn, the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) reports, and 33 percent of the world’s soybeans, according to the American Soybean Association. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that Americans import more manufactured goods than we export, resulting in a significant trade deficit, but our balance of trade in agriculture is positive – and by a large margin.
“We’re a very productive country. We are a breadbasket for the world. Half of our soybeans are exported, as well as a lot of our corn, to Europe and Asia. Because we are capable of producing more, the balance of trade is very promising,” says Dr. Thomas Carter, research geneticist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service. “We’re seeing greater technological innovation, from the lab to the field.”
Beyond providing income for farmers, the American Farm Bureau Federation points out that agriculture employs 23 million Americans when you include employment resulting from farm to fork, such as manufacturing farm equipment and inputs, food processing, transportation and marketing, and retail and wholesale sales. Innovation is important to the success of farming, just as it is for any economic enterprise. Thanks to modern farming techniques, America's farmers are producing more food than ever before on fewer acres. Among recent innovations in agriculture is the use of seeds improved with biotechnology – using scientific research to enhance the plant’s ability to resist harmful pests, more effectively utilize water, and allow the farmer to control weeds more efficiently.
Today, 88 percent of U.S. corn acreage is planted with biotechnology varieties. The average yield (bushels per acre) of corn in 2011 was 16 percent higher than in 1996 – the first year biotech varieties were planted, according to the ERS. This has enabled farmers to produce enough corn to not only meet our growing demand for food and animal feed, but also to manufacture ethanol that reduces our nation’s dependency on imported oil.
In addition, 93 percent of the U.S. soybean acreage is now planted with biotech varieties. Soybean yields have increased about 10 percent since 1996. And 94 percent of U.S. cotton is now genetically engineered. The result is that cotton yields have increased approximately 12 percent since 1996, the ERS reports.
This has been a particularly difficult year for American farmers, who confronted the worst drought since 1988. They experienced reduced yields, earlier harvests and reduced income. There is no total solution to drought, because the reality is that plants need water to survive and thrive. But to help alleviate the effects of drought on the U.S. food supply, seed companies have been working with farmers across America's farm belt to make available corn varieties that can improve a crop's ability to use water more efficiently and tolerate drought conditions.
Farmers who planted drought-tolerant corn varieties this year say their corn crop appeared to endure the drought better than other varieties. Even a small improvement in tolerating drought – just 4 to 8 percent – can have a huge economic impact when magnified across the broad scope of America’s corn crop. This is encouraging to agriculture scientists, because developing plant innovations that improve a crop’s ability to use water more efficiently is critical to addressing weather conditions in the face of our changing climate.
“Continued research and breeding, including the use of biotechnology, is essential in developing varieties that can survive and sustain economic yields despite seasonal droughts and higher temperatures we expect in the future,” says Dr. Kent Bradford, professor and director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.
There is no single solution to helping farmers grow the food an expanding U.S. and global population needs today and in the future. But, as in other areas of our economy, science can offer improved seeds and soil inputs, or help farmers conserve the quality of their land and water resources. Innovation is essential to ensuring our farmers remain the world’s most productive, and in turn, keep America’s rural economy strong.
For more information on the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, visit www.whybiotech.com.