Biotechnology-derived crops and the sustainable farming systems they facilitate are key tools in the race to grow more food, feed, fiber and fuel while protecting the environment, according to recently released report by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC).
To meet the projected soybean demands of 2030, growers will need to add 168 million acres of soybeans to existing production if global yields remain the same as today, or double those yields to 59.5 bushels per acre to harvest enough soybeans on today’s acreage.
Biotech crops show promise to double or triple the current rate of yield increase in corn, and match or exceed the average 0.5-bushel-per-acre annual increase in soybean yields.
Not surprisingly, millions of farmers have adopted biotech crops readily, the CTIC says. In the United States, 91.5% of the soybeans, 85% of the corn and 88% of the cotton in the 2009 crop was planted to biotech varieties.
The first wave of biotechnology-derived crops focused primarily on input traits, which improved production efficiencies. The CTIC says the worldwide economic benefit of agricultural biotechnology between 1996 and 2007 was calculated at $44 billion.
The next generation of biotech crops will feature additional input traits such as tolerance to more herbicides and insects, as well as more efficient use of water and nitrogen. It will also introduce valuable output traits, including:
- Improved health profiles of oils and grains
- Modification or elimination of major allergens, and
- More efficient conversion to biofuels.
According to the CTIC report, environmental benefits from biotech input traits add up quickly in pounds of herbicides and insecticides eliminated from the production system. For example:
- Herbicide-tolerant soybeans and cotton reduced U.S. herbicide usage in 2007 by 47.4 million pounds of active ingredient
- Insect-resistant cotton and corn varieties decreased insecticide applications that year by 8.67 million pounds of active ingredient.
There are significant long-term benefits, too, the CTIC reports. The adoption of biotech crops — especially soybeans — closely tracks the expansion of conservation tillage and no-till production.
Between the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996 and the 2008 cropping season, the U.S. acreage of no-tilled full-season soybeans grew by nearly 70%.
Conservation tillage and no-till improve soil quality, conserve water and provide wildlife habitat, the CTIC report says. They also significantly reduce soil erosion, nutrient enrichment of streams and herbicide runoff. A number of studies, the CTIC says, show reductions in soil loss of more than 90% and reduced movement of total phosphorus by more than 70% on no-till fields.
High-residue farming practices also build up soil organic matter by capturing and storing atmospheric carbon. The CTIC says reducing tillage can quadruple carbon sequestration in cropland soils, and no-till can increase annual carbon storage five-fold. Reducing or eliminating tillage also lowers fuel consumption, cutting greenhouse gas emissions further.
In all, conservation tillage and no-till can significantly improve the carbon footprint of farm operations.
Markets for water quality and carbon credits are emerging that could make environmental services such as combating water pollution and sequestering carbon — which conservation farming practices can often accomplish more cost-effectively than many alternatives — into income opportunities for farmers.
The CTIC report says that no other options have been identified with the potential to improve yields and safeguard the environment as well as biotech crops farmed with sustainable practices.
"Every ton of soil saved on the field, every pound of pesticide that doesn’t have to be applied, every dollar that helps a farmer stay economically viable and every bushel of yield produced is a milestone in the effort to provide for a steadily increasing global population," The CTIC says.
You can read the entire report here.