College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Genetic technology boosts food production

March 14, 2011

By: Don, Curlee, Visalia Times-Delta

It looks like genetic technology will be responsible for the next big increase in food production, just in time to meet the world's exploding populations.

At least that's the way a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California and his professor see it. They have completed a study showing that genetically engineered plants also are resulting in farming practices that create less carbon dioxide than traditional farming methods.

Less CO2 means less climate change.

Steven Sexton is the Ph.D. candidate, and his professor is David Zilberman. Both are in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley. The results of their study were reported in the November/December issue of Update, published by the department.

One of the foundations for the conclusion reached by the two researchers is the genetically engineered compound glyphosate, the basic ingredient in the somewhat controversial herbicide Roundup. Roundup gained popularity with off-farm residents 35 years ago for its ability to control Bermuda grass, a troublesome pest when it grows where it's not invited.

Since then it has become the center of a worldwide discussion as plant breeders have developed plants such as alfalfa that can withstand a glyphosate application while surrounding weeds curl up and die. Several other plants have been bred or are being bred to be Roundup-ready.

While growers line up to buy Roundup, those in the naturalist camp discredit it as a human created intervention in the scheme of plant geneology. Some believe dire outcomes will result with persistent dependence on Roundup-readiness.

But Sexton and Zilberman have found that producers of several crops can drastically reduce the number of times they drive their tractors and other equipment across their crop lands when they use glyphosate. The compound does some of the weed controlling work formerly done by tractors and cultivating equipment.

All of this supports the fairly recent agricultural practice of no-till or minimum-till farming. One way it works is to allow this year's crop to be planted among the residue of leaves, stalks and other crop materials left in the field from last year's harvest. Before no-till, growers might have made several passes through their fields to carefully disk that residue into the soil.

As they made pass after pass through their fields and bedded them up for planting, they created levels of CO2. Most of it was released by opening the soil, but the vehicles used added to the volume as well.

The two researchers say their econometric analysis of genetically engineered seed adoption and crop yields throughout the world shows that the technique has boosted some yields substantially. Corn yields were 45 percent higher. Increases were 25 percent for canola and 12.4 percent for soybeans. But cotton showed the greatest yield increase, 65 percent.

Other aspects of their study showed that pesticide applications are lower on fields planted to genetically engineered seed. ". . . empirical evidence from field trials and farmer surveys confirm that overall pesticide use declines (on fields planted to genetically engineered seed)," their report states.

Those who have been crying wolf about the supposed damage genetic engineering causes now face a dilemma. Their position stands directly in the way of a practice and a chemical compound developed by agricultural scientists that can contribute to millions avoiding starvation in the decades ahead.

Another bothersome issue for them has been the profit accruing to Roundup's original creator/supplier, Monsanto Chemical Co. That has become a non-issue as the product's price has dropped by 50 percent or more in the past year. Manufacture of generic forms using raw materials obtained in China is responsible.

But lawsuits and other legal action continue to swirl about the concept of genetically engineered technology, Roundup-ready crops and no-till culture. So far, nobody has come up with legal action that will avert starvation.

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