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Happy birthday biotech, a decade of discovery
According to the organization Truth About Trade and Technology, on October 2 somewhere in the northern hemisphere, the one billionth acre of biotech crops was harvested. This amazing fact was arrived at by statisticians using the same formula that is used to determine how many chips are in a Chips Ahoy cookie, they took an educated guess. While the exact acre is not important, the fact that biotechnology has survived and thrived a decade of misinformation, misguided legislation, and misfit organizations is the real story.

Scientists and plant breeders were quick to spot the agricultural advantages of this new technology; Luddite technophobes were also quick to see the potential of this technology as a cause. Predictions of new food products that were safer, healthier, and easier to grow were met with predictions of catastrophic ecological calamities and two-headed children born to parents who eat the Genetically Modified (GM) food. Over the past decade, the promises of the scientists have come true while the prophecies of the fear mongers have not.

For most U.S. farmers, their first experience with biotechnology was Roundup Ready soybeans. Plant the seed, spray the field, and wow no weeds! Say, this is easy. This technology then spread faster than a cold at a day care center. It quickly spread to corn and cotton, and today 24 different crops in the U.S. are using or testing biotechnology. Like most great U.S. inventions, it did not take long before the whole world was catching on. According to a study by the University of Minnesota, GM crops are grown in 18 countries today and adoption of biotechnology is being considered in another 45. The study by the Center for International Agricultural Policy reported that biotech research was currently underway on 57 food and fiber crops.

Meanwhile, a host of environmental and consumer organizations have been busy churning out millions of pagers of rhetoric denouncing the new technology and predicting all kinds of dire consequences. They have also been busy making millions of dollars. By coining the word “frankenfood,” they have engaged in an international campaign to scare people and bilk them out of millions of dollars in donations. Biotechnology has been the best thing that has happened to the environmental movement since save the whales.

“The war is about over,” said Truth About Trade and Technology President Dean Kleckner. Outside of Western Europe, most of the rest of the world has or is rapidly accepting biotech. China, the most populous nation on earth, is about to start planting GM rice. Chinese scientists have been field-testing three varieties and will meet next month to formally endorse biotech. Kleckner points out that rice is the most grown and consumed grain in the world. In the next few years, most of that rice will be GM rice.

Another hotbed of biotech activity is Africa. South Africa already ranks sixth in the world in biotech crop production growing corn, cotton, and soybeans. Other African nations are slowly discovering that biotech can help solve some of their chronic food shortages. While well-fed activist groups from Europe have been spreading a lot of fear and misinformation among African nations, the science is winning out.

In the community of Chura not far from Nairobi, Kenya, biotechnology is bringing hope. Families raise bananas for food and for income. With the help of DuPont and African Harvest, a Kenyan non-profit agricultural organization, production has increased from 20 to 45 tons per hectare. Families have seen their income go from $1 a day to $3 a day. For many, this has meant they can send their children to school instead of having to keep them home to work.

While biotechnology will continue to change how food is produced, as it enters its second decade we will change the very food we produce. For the first time, this year, farmers across the Midwest are harvesting a new heart-healthy soybean. Soybeans containing low levels of linolenic acid will be used to produce vegetable oil free of trans-fatty acids. Other products about to hit the market include: white corn with higher levels of unsaturated fat, sunflowers with low saturated fat, and vegetables that ripen more slowly allowing more time to travel from field to market. Then there are the wheat that can grow in very dry conditions and the myriad of vitamins and minerals that can be placed into the food products we grow.

Yet, the drumbeat of doom will continue. As Kleckner put it, “In 10 years not one person in the world has even gotten the sniffles from biotechnology.” Still, those who make money and build careers on being against things will continue to deny the evidence. It is estimated it will not take another 10 years to grow our second billionth acre of biotech crops; that is expected to happen in four years.