Grooming wheat growers for Monsanto
Skogen's pitch to wheat growers is utterly discreditable. With emotive language -- perfectly captured in the headline: 'Tired of Being Left Out In the Cold' -- the article constantly implies that if only growers had GM wheat varieties all their problems would be at an end.
Skogen tries to groom wheat growers with come ons that suggest that GM has transformed the yield potential of other crops - corn, soybeans, cotton - and that if only wheat growers adopted GM wheat all their troubles would be over.
"We already have the know-how," he tells them.
But this is nonsense. If corn and soybeans have seemed more bouyant to wheat farmers, this is because they've benefitted from the massive subsidies of the "biofuel" boom. GM cotton acreage has actually gone into a decline as cotton farmers have been faced with rapidly growing weed resistance and pest problems Bt cotton cannot meet.
Skogen's big lie is in suggesting GM already has the answers when in reality it's all hype and unfulfilled promises, not least on yield. Here's what Skogen says:
"Farmers who plant biotech crops have enjoyed large increases in yield. Some seed companies are even talking about new technologies doubling the yields of these crops over the next two decades."
Let's be clear. GM has not improved the yield potential of a single crop. Not one.
Its more careful proponents claim that it may have protected crops from losses due to weed competition and insect pressures, but even this is far from certain. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluding from peer reviewed evidence that any yield gains in GM crops "were highly variable" and that in some cases "yields declined".
But the cruelest joke by far, in relation to the direction in which Skogen is trying to take wheat growers, is that even Monsanto has admitted that GM is not going to be the most effective tool for improving wheat. Non-GM biotech approaches like Marker Assisted Selection (or Marker Assisted Breeding) have far more to offer, as Monsanto has stated unambiguously outside of N. America.
This is from an article in Farmers Weekly: "Biotechnology rather than genetic modification is the key to improving wheat varieties, says Monsanto. Although GM techniques may develop some traits, most will stem from conventional breeding backed by sophisticated biotech tools.
"Biotech to aid conventional wheat breeding is already attracting 10 to 20 times more effort than the [GM] genetic transformation of the crop, says US-based Tom Crosbie, Monsanto's global head of plant breeding.
"'[GM] Genetic transformation is just one particular wrench in the biotechnology toolbox. We have lots of other [non-GM] tools to accelerate the development of new wheat varieties,' he says.... 'Genetic transformation can only be used to introduce one segment of novel genetic material to a variety at a time, but biotech tools can be used to enhance a host of existing traits. It's a numbers game and ultimately non-transformation biotech offers the greatest potential.'"
And in case anyone's in any doubt, here's Jeff Cox, general manager for Monsanto Northern Europe, in another Farmers Weekly piece: "The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting and they are achievable with existing technologies. Within the wheat plant we have a vast reservoir of genes. We also have the advanced analytical equipment necessary to pinpoint the molecular characteristics we need. And the marker-assisted systems to reliably build these characteristics into high output varieties through conventional plant breeding."
And, of course, what Skogen never mentions is the customer. Commodity crops like soy, corn and cotton have been channelled into non-food uses (eg biofuels, fibre) and animal feed, or into highly processed products, where consumer resistance becomes difficult to focus, particularly in N. America with no GM labelling.
But wheat is another matter entirely - just think bread. Skogen is trying to use wheat grower frustations to divert their attention from market realities. GM, far from giving wheat growers the kind of competitive advantages Skogen claims, would only promise without delivery while triggering a market meltdown. And that really would leave wheat growers out in the cold.
Tired of Being Left Out In the Cold
Truth About Trade and Technology, March 25 2009 [via AgBioView]
The poet T.S. Eliot knew what he was talking about when he called April "the cruelest month."
We're approaching the critical time of year when wheat farmers in the Upper Great Plains will first get an idea what the crop potential may be. If the weather lets us plant in mid-April, we'll be in luck. If we can't start until the middle of May--because we've suffered through a cruel April, due to cold wet soils--we'll be in trouble. Our yields could drop by as much as 40 percent.
One month makes a huge difference in yield potential, and we're completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. We can put seeds in the ground while there's still snow in the ditches, but seeds will lay there for weeks without progress. While seeds will slowly sprout in soils as cool as 40 to 45 degrees, it's not until the soil temps approach 60 degrees and wheat plants really begin to feel the warmth of spring that plants will rapidly grow and flourish.
What if modern science was to give us an edge?
We already have the know-how.
Biotechnology has transformed agriculture for farmers who grow soybeans, corn, and cotton. Earlier this year, they passed a significant milestone: 2 billion acres of genetically modified crops planted around the world since commercialization began 13 years ago. For these farmers, GM crops are not a cutting-edge fantasy but the new reality of conventional agriculture.
Wheat farmers, however, are left out in the cold, both literally and figuratively. We not only need to shake off the chill of January, February, and March, but we also want to take full advantage of the Gene Revolution--something that we've been blocked from doing, thanks to a toxic mix of political confusion and scientific illiteracy.
Farmers who plant biotech crops have enjoyed large increases in yield. Some seed companies are even talking about new technologies doubling the yields of these crops over the next two decades.
Where's wheat? Twenty years behind and counting. Years ago, several players in the wheat industry grew nervous about biotechnology, primarily spooked by misguided fears about consumer acceptance in foreign countries. Consequently, producers and consumers alike are paying a steep price. While the rest of the planet started to embrace biotechnology, wheat retreated. Now, while many years behind other major crops, the wheat industry is uniting and strategically moving forward toward enhancing wheat through biotechnology.
Cold-tolerant wheat, possibly obtained through genetic modification, would provide a big boost. Crops able survive in slightly colder temperatures--even by just a few degrees--would help us increase our output. That would lead to earlier harvests, better yields, lower food prices and greater global food supplies. Each point takes on more importance when you consider the global relevance of wheat as a staple food crop for billions.
Even more important is drought tolerance. Wheat grows in dry climates, and plants that make efficient use of water perform the best. The goal is more production per unit of available water. If biotech wheat is ever commercialized, drought tolerance could possibly become the first available trait because the science behind it is already proven and soon available in other crops.
Biotechnology also promises a solution to an emerging problem in Africa and parts of Asia, where a deadly fungus called stem rust pose a huge threat to small-acreage farmers and their staple crop. Some diseases depress yields. This new stem rust is different--it wipes out whole harvests. "It has immense destructive potential," said Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, in a recent interview.
The last stem-rust epidemic occurred half a century ago. Scientists thought they had defeated it permanently through better breeding. But now the disease is back, in a virulent new form that could imperil the world's food supply. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico has warned of "a pending disaster in global agriculture."
Fungicide sprays offer marginal relief, but not a cure. We need to defeat this disease. Some new discoveries indicate that genes that convey resistance to this rust exist today however, we need all the scientific tools available to us - and that includes biotechnology to defeat this threat. Unfortunately, the answers to this problem lie not merely a season or two away, but years in the future. That's why the work to annihilate it for another half-century or longer must begin immediately.
T.S. Eliot's famous line about April appears in a poem called "The Waste Land." If we don't take advantage of biotechnology, wheat farmers will have to endure not only more cruel Aprils, but brutal years of mediocrity as fertile wheat lands are deprived of their potential while other crops flourish with the biotech advantage.
Al Skogen produces wheat, corn and soybeans, using minimum and no-till production practices, on a diverse grain family farm in east central North Dakota. Mr. Skogen is chairman of Growers for Biotechnology, participated in the 2008 Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.