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CONVENTION UPDATE: Agricultural Biotechnology – Improving Farmers’ Lives

By Michael J. Phillips
At the BIO Internationa Convention, this session featured three farmers from different regions of the world that have had substantial experience with agricultural biotechnology, and they provided testimony as to how the technology has improved their lives.

Rosalie Ellasus from the Philippines began farming in 1995 when her husband died leaving her with three small children to raise and educate. The office worker took a gamble and bet all her savings on purchasing a 1.3 hectare rice and corn farm.  She had no farming experience and faced repeated buyer rejections as her corn was affected by mites, disease and fungi producing toxins.  Rosalie persevered, and after joining an Integrated Pest Management program, she was introduced to Bt corn.

The Bt corn performed well on her farm, and in 2002.  From her first efforts in 2001 to 2008, yields rose from 3.5 to 7.9 tons per hectare.  And her success continued in 2009 – when her now 10 hectares – produced 8.9 tons per hectare.  The success on her farm has allowed Rosalie to send her children to college and provide financial security for her family.  Rosalie actively shares benefits of her success through local and international organizations.

Terry Wanzek, a fourth generation North Dakota farmer, raises corn, soybeans, wheat, dry edible beans, and sunflowers on 9,000 acres.  But Terry is more than a farmer.  He was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1992.  He became a member of the North Dakota Senate from 1994 to 2002, and was re-elected to the State Senate in 2006.  He has been Chairman of the Senate Ag Committee and has led the efforts to defeat a proposed moratorium on biotech wheat and led a study on biotechnology and renewable fuels. 

Terry considers the benefits of growing biotech corn and soybeans to be 1) allows use of no or minimal till methods; 2) conserves soil moisture and reduces erosion; 3) increases yield; 4) decreases herbicide costs ($84 vs $18/acre);  5) enhances wild life habitat; 6) improves soil organic matter; 7) produces more high-value crops;  8) increases production efficiencies leading to more family time; and 9) has made Terry’s farming operation more productive and profitable.

Gabriela Cruz manages a 500 hectare farm in Portugal that has been in their family for over 100 years.  Her farm produces maize, wheat, barley, and green peas.  Gabriela has grown biotech maize since 2006.

The potential for severe soil erosion is very real on her farm.  With the adoption of Bt corn, it has allowed her to use no or minimum till methods and significantly reduced any real threat of soil erosion. Also, Gabriela cites increased soil productivity, decreased fuel costs, reduced labor costs, and decreased water consumption for irrigation as additional benefits.

The testimonies provided by these three farmers from different parts of the world provide eye witness accounts that agricultural biotechnology can increase productivity and protect the environment. 

Michael J. Phillips, Ph.D. was BIO’s Vice-President for Food and Agriculture until he retired in 2007.  He is currently President, MJ Phillips and Associates LLC, an agricultural consulting firm – specializing in biotechnology.