Keeping agriculture environmentally sustainable while improving productivity is a growing challenge, and a new report shows that agricultural biotechnology is a key tool in overcoming it.

Biotech crops help growers around the world increase yields, improve crop quality and characteristics, and adopt sustainable farming practices such as conservation tillage — all vital to keeping up with the world’s growing demand for food, feed, fuel and fiber.    

The booklet — Facilitating Conservation Farming Practices and Enhancing Environmental Sustainability with Agricultural Biotechnology — was developed by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) to dig deep into the data surrounding the adoption of biotech crops.

Among many important statistics, the document describes:

  • The projected growth of the global population to 9 billion by 2040;
  • The 69% increase in no-till farming since the 1996 introduction of herbicide-resistant crops;
  • A drop in herbicide usage of 47.4 million pounds of active ingredient where herbicide-tolerant soybeans or cotton were planted in the U.S. in 2007;
  • The replacement of 8.67 million pounds of insecticide active ingredient in 2007 where U.S. growers planted insect-resistant cotton and corn varieties;
  • Reductions in soil loss of 90% or more, and reduced movement of phosphorus by more than 70% where no-till is used;
  • The capture of billions of pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in conservation-tilled soils across the U.S.

The new document is the latest in a vast library created by CTIC throughout its 25-year history as a repository for information on conservation farming practices.

“As crops emerge across the country, this is a great time to consider what it will take to feed the earth’s growing population while safeguarding our natural resources,” says Karen A. Scanlon, executive director of CTIC in West Lafayette, Ind. “What we found in developing this report is that agricultural biotechnology — by allowing growers to reduce tillage and reduce their use of crop protection products — offers significant improvements in soil, water and air quality.

"Biotech crops can help farmers meet the projected demand of 9 billion mouths to feed, while also helping the world address issues like reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and improving water quality.”

The United Soybean Board (USB) funded the paper, which updates a document prepared by CTIC in 2003. David Wilson, a farmer from Lincoln, Ala., and USB’s sustainability committee chair, puts it in personal terms.

“We started no-tilling in 1974, and we did it because the savings in fuel and the savings of horsepower per acre,” he notes, pointing out that the current focus on greenhouse gases highlights an unforeseen benefit of those reductions. “We figure we’re saving approximately 4 gallons of fuel per acre, and that amounts to about 22 pounds per gallon of carbon that’s not put into the air.”

People both on and off the farm often overlook the environmental benefits of biotech, adds USB director Mike Thede, a grower from Palmer, Neb.

“Biotechnology has increased the ability of the nation’s fields to be able to continue to produce on a high level, and has reduced the amount of environmentally negative impacts,” he points out.

The paper, which was reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel of experts, is available online or in hard copy by calling CTIC at (765) 494-9555.