Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the commercialization of transgenic crops (commonly called biotech crops). At the same time, some farmer somewhere in one of 21 countries (where biotech crops are approved to be grown) planted the one-billionth biotech crop acre.

That one-billionth biotech acre could very well have been planted in the United States since U.S. farmers continue to be the lead adopters of biotech crops (soybeans, corn, cotton and canola) globally. American farmers planted some 123 million acres to biotech crops in 2005, according to the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.

Farmers planted 61% of the 2006 total U.S. corn acreage (estimated at 79.4 million acres) to hybrids with biotech traits. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reports that hybrids containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) were planted on 25% of this acreage, while herbicide-resistant hybrids were planted on 21% of the acreage.

The NASS estimates the total U.S. soybean acreage in 2006 to be 74.9 million acres. Of this, 89% were planted to biotech soybean varieties.

Biotech's benefits

Farmers here and abroad have adopted biotech crops for several reasons, most notably for their economic and environmental benefits. The most recent report on biotech crops from the National Center of Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP), states that production costs have dropped significantly since farmers began using the technology. In 2001, growers reduced their production costs by $1.2 billion using products with biotech traits. These costs were further reduced by $1.7 billion in 2004, reports the NCFAP.

Higher yields from biotech crops also have improved grower incomes in the last few years. U.S. farmers earned $2.3 billion in revenues in 2004, 53% more than in 2001.

Of the six biotech crops studied, transgenic soybeans resulted in the largest net returns to growers at $1.4 billion followed by cotton with $561 million and corn with $349 million.

Meanwhile, reduction in pesticide use was greatest in corn at 23 million pounds followed by soybeans at 22 million pounds and cotton at 16 million pounds.

Since 1996, the use of transgenic soybeans has helped to reduce pesticide applications worldwide, “accounting for cumulative reductions of 41,000 metric tons [more than 90 million pounds],” reports Monsanto. The company adds that YieldGard corn rootworm products are expected to eliminate one million plastic insecticide containers and five million pounds of insecticide worldwide.

More efficient operations

Of the biotech corn hybrids planted in the U.S. in 2005, 17% were herbicide tolerant only, 26% were insect resistant only and 9% were stacked, according to the NASS. In the future, growers will see more corn and soybean crops planted with stacked traits. Trait technology suppliers are already seeing significant growth in stacked trait sales because growers generally like the convenience of having all of the traits they want in one package.

“Biotech crops have allowed growers to simplify their operations in terms of herbicide and insecticide use. This is one of the reasons why growers have readily adopted biotech crops,” says Jack Bernens, head of Agrisure Traits Business, Syngenta Seeds. Another reason is that these crops have improved the grower's productivity on a per-acre or per-enterprise basis, he says.

“Hybrids with resistance to the European corn borer, for example, have saved growers millions of dollars by preventing yield loss,” Bernens says. “A single corn borer tunnel per plant can reduce yields up to 6%, and severe infestations can cut yields as much as 30%.”

Input traits have helped growers manage risks and maximize efficiency, says Jerry Harrington, sales and marketing public relations manager, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont. For example, herbicide-tolerant products enable growers to apply less expensive herbicides with a broader application window, he says.

Herbicide-tolerant products also have enabled growers to practice more conservation or no-till farming, which has helped reduce the number of times a grower must drive over the field to cultivate. This saves millions of gallons of fuel each year in addition to reducing soil erosion and pesticide runoff.

One could reasonably assume that the recent rise in no-till farming is in part due to the advent of biotech crops. NCFAP statistics, for example, indicate that no-till cotton acreage increased in the U.S. by 371% in 2004. Soybean and corn no-till acres increased by 64 and 20%, respectively.

Insect-resistant corn hybrids, in turn, can help improve yields because they provide broad, long-lasting insect protection. Prior to the introduction of Bt corn, growers might have sprayed only at an economic threshold, meaning that corn did not necessarily reach its optimal yield if it was affected by subeconomic insect damage or not sprayed at the proper time. With the corn borer-protected products, insect protection is now available over the entire season and is effective against many secondary pests, helping corn reach optimal yields.

Although insect-resistant traits have reduced the need to apply insecticides, they have not totally eliminated it, says Ben Kaehler, traits and germplasm licensing leader, Dow AgroSciences. The traits have reduced the need for treatment of lepidopteran and coleopteran insects. “But there are still many other insects that need to be scouted for and treated,” Kaehler says.

The reduced need for granular insecticides and planter boxes, however, has helped speed up the planting process. This has allowed growers to plant more acres in a shorter amount of time, Kaehler says.

When you eliminate steps like adding treatments to planter boxes, you can work more acres in a day, agrees Marshall Kostiuk, corn marketing manager, NK Brand Syngenta Seeds. Eliminating some steps also can reduce the amount of labor or number of people needed to do the farm work, he adds.

Industry impact

There is no doubt that biotech crops have changed agriculture. The huge sums of money necessary to bring new trait technologies from the research bench to the field have resulted in new industry players, mergers, acquisitions and collaborations between former competitors. The subject of intellectual property rights has “cropped up” in more everyday conversations (and lawsuits). The ag retailer's product portfolio also has changed from a crop protection focus to one centered on seed.

Because they have created more choice and more complexity, biotech seed products demand greater attention from ag retailers and seed companies as well as growers. Kaehler has observed that growers ask many more questions and talk with more sources than ever before about product agronomics and traits. He also has seen growers talking with more people within a company — not only the sales rep and other agronomists, but sometimes the corn breeders as well.

The grower's decision-making process may not only involve the trait, but also a crop protection product, Kostiuk adds. Growers may often benefit by using a combination of the new biotech traits and a crop protection product. “Farmers are very smart. They'll look at the costs and do the math. They'll determine what yield benefits they can get from technologies,” Kostiuk says.

Seed orders

Now it's not long after harvest that growers are ordering seed. By ordering before the end of the year versus the following February, for example, growers are more assured of getting the hybrids/traits they want. A huge challenge for seed retailers is having the numerous new products and traits available for growers without also overbuilding inventories.

In some cases, a company's introduction of new traits and grower demand for them are so intense that growers may not actually see the product growing in the field the summer before the product introduction. Pioneer's Harrington explains that some of the new seed products come straight from winter production fields in South America.

Greater change ahead

Biotech seed probably has changed what you buy and how you buy, the way you farm, and your bottom-line results. But, from what the major trait developers report, this is only the beginning.

Impacts of plant biotechnology by crop trait
Crop trait Increased net farm income Reduced pesticide applications Reduction in field EIQa
Herbicide-tolerant soybeansb $9.3 billion 41.4 million kg 19.4%
Herbicide-tolerant maize (corn) $579 million 18 million kg 3.4%
Herbicide-tolerant cotton $750 million 14% 22%
Herbicide-tolerant canola $713 million 4.8 million kg 20.7%
Insect-resistant maize (corn) $1.9 billion 6.3 million kg 4.4%
Insect-resistant cotton $5.7 billion 77 million kg 18%
Other virus-resistant & insect-resistant crops $37 million No data avail. No data avail.
Global total $27 billion 172 million kg 14%
aEnvironmental index quotient. bExcludes Argentina second crop benefits. Source: Monsanto Company