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Biotechnology Touted As Key to Reduce Environmental Footprint

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Biotechnology Touted As Key to Reduce Environmental Footprint

- Tom Doran, Agrinews Online, August 9, 2009

Kevin Eblen, Monsanto vice president, public policy and sustainable yield leader, said at the International Farm Management Association Congress the study counters claims from those outside agriculture. “A lot of people say that the first-generation traits that were on the market didn’t do any good from an environmental standpoint,” he said.

Calling the group brought together by Keystone as “diverse” would be an understatement, but, in the end, it worked. The first-of-its-kind report creates a framework for measuring agriculture sustainability “Keystone’s mission essentially is to bring unlike minded parties to the table to try to find common ground around issues relating to the environment,” Eblen said.

The “Field to Market” study involved 30 organizations, including companies such as Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science, DuPont, John Deere, Syngenta, Bunge, Cargill and others. “But also, and this was very critical to the outcome, there were organizations involved like the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, World Resources Institute, Conservation International and others,” Eblen said.

“What this group did is 30 of us got together and tried to not look at the process of agriculture, but rather the outcome of modern agriculture, and are there any benefits from an environmental perspective, and really what has been the contribution if you look at it of the last 15 years or so with some of these first generation biotech traits.”

The study focused particularly on the use of corn, cotton, soybeans and wheat in the United States from 1987 to 2007. The report evaluated national-scale metrics over two decades for land use, water use, energy use, soil loss, and climate impact in crop production.

During that timeframe, biotechnology traits have penetrated 80 percent of the market for corn and cotton and about 95 percent for soybeans. The initial index shows the soil loss efficiency trends have improved substantially by 30 percent to nearly 70 percent for the four crops evaluated.

Energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybeans and cotton production by nearly 40 percent to more than 60 percent. Irrigated water use per unit of output decreased by 20 percent to nearly 50 percent while carbon emissions per unit of output have dropped by about one-third in three crops.

“It showed the dramatic efficiencies that farmers are gaining by putting all the tools to use for corn, cotton and soybeans,” Eblen said. “However, in the case of wheat, this is a crop that suffered from really little investment either from a breeding perspective or from a biotechnology perspective, and only in the case of soil losses we’ve made some gains, and that’s primarily due to farmers adopting direct seeding practices over the last 20 years.

“But in the case of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of wheat produced we are actually going the wrong way. This is a message that’s endorsed by a lot of very credible (non-governmental organizations) outside of our industry, and I believe it is one of the strongest stories about agriculture and the benefits of putting all of the tools to use.”