Farming, high-tech

Some Missourians find that genetically altered seed equals higher profit margin. Critics say there’s no guarantee.
Friday, February 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Terry Hilgedick owns a farm in Hartsburg and has been planting genetically modified seeds like YieldGuard corn and RoundUp Ready soybeans since they were introduced about nine years ago.

“Performance is the number one consideration when growing a commodity,” Hilgedick said. “You need to produce bushels per acre as cheaply as possible, and biotech crops allow you to do that.”

Hilgedick is one of the growing number of Missouri farmers who uses biotech seeds despite concerns over the price and yield. In a new book, MU professor Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes has concluded that this may have a positive effect on the economy and environment.

The book, “The Economic and Environmental Impact of Agbiotech: A Global Perspective,” is a collection of studies of genetically modified crops that focuses on how profitable biotech crops are and who receives the most benefit from them.

“We wanted to find out, if you take multiple years of data and multiple countries, can you find consistent patterns?” Kalaitzandonakes said. “We looked at biotech from the very local to a very global level.”

A diverse compilation

Each chapter was written by an authority from a country where biotech crops have been commercially used, like Mexico, the United States, Canada, Argentina, China, Spain and South Africa. Many of the studies were the first of their kind, Kalaitzandonakes said. The studies determined that there was a lot of variety on how beneficial biotech crops were, depending on the region and the agronomic practices.

“(Biotech crops) may not be beneficial for every farmer to use,” Kalaitzandonakes said. “It’s not a silver bullet.”

He said conventional wisdom was that the vast majority of profits from biotech crops go to biotech companies, but depending on the country and circumstances, much of the profits go to the farmer and are ultimately transferred to the consumer. This percentage of profits is strongest in developing countries. Even so, Kalaitzandonakes said the most biotech companies have been able to capture is 35 to 40 percent in the United States.

The problem is that genetically modified crops are more expensive for farmers and are not proven to increase a farmer’s bottom line, said Bryce Oates, spokesman for the Rural Missouri Crisis Center.

“A lot of the challenges we see is that once the (genetically modified organisms) have become prominent on the marketplace, all the research is done on them,” he said. “The progress on conventional seed varieties has stopped. “

Oates also opposes patents that companies hold on the seeds. Previously, farmers could save their seeds from year to year. Now they must purchase new seed each year.

A healthier environment

Even though farmers must purchase new seeds annually, Kalaitzandonakes said the change in farming practices has a positive impact on the environment.

“If you buy biotech (crops), you expand no-till and reduced-till (farming) practices, which is better for the soil and water,” Kalaitzandonakes said.

The study also determined that insect-resistant crops lead to a reduction in insecticide use, no matter the country.

Hilgedick’s farm is no exception. Hilgedick said that he’s had consistently good results since he started using the crop.

“A slight benefit, especially to corn, is that we don’t use some of the insecticide treatments that we used to use,” Hilgedick said. “(YieldGuard corn) is basically 100 percent effective against the European Corn Borer. We also don’t have to spend the dollars to buy the insecticides, and we keep the insecticides out of the environment.”

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