Washington, 12 Dec 2003
The adoption of agricultural biotechnology in the United States continues to grow, offering increasing economic and environmental benefits, according to results of a study funded by a major U.S. biotechnology institute.
The study, presented to reporters December 11 at the National Press Club in Washington, sought to determine the level of adoption of biotechnology in the United States, current U.S. biotechnology research and development (R&D) activities, and the future direction of the industry, according to principal investigator C. Ford Runge. Runge, who is director of the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota, received funding for the study from the Washington-based Council for Biotechnology Information.
Runge focused on eight crops: maize, soybeans, cotton, rapeseed/canola, wheat, potatoes, rice and sugar beets. Biotech varieties of the first four -- maize, soybeans, cotton and rapeseed/canola -- have been commercialized in the United States, while biotech varieties of wheat, potatoes, rice and sugar beets are still undergoing field trials.
He found that in 2002 half of the $40 billion in the value of harvested maize, soybeans, cotton and canola was from crops grown from seeds improved by biotechnology.
Of the four commercialized biotech crops, maize produced the largest increase in value per acre -- $60 -- over acres planted in traditional varieties. One acre is slightly half a hectare. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans improved profits nearly $15 an acre, Runge said.
Eighty percent of soybeans grown in the United States in 2003 was from biotech seeds, up from 9 percent in 1996. The number of acres planted in biotech cotton in 2003 was 73 percent compared to 17 percent in 1996 and the number of biotech-planted acres of maize increased from 4 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2003, Runge said.
Current agricultural biotechnology research in the United States is focusing on improving agronomic, environmental and product quality traits, according to Runge.
Agronomic traits include further yield improvement of varieties, increased stalk strength and cold and drought tolerancies.
Environmental traits include low-phytate corn and soybeans that, when digested by livestock, produce lower levels of phosphorous in waste, which in turn means less harmful run-off going into the country's water supply.
Product quality traits are nutritional improvements such as better digestibility of wheat, more beta carotene in potatoes and reduced transfat acids in crop oils, Runge said.
Between 2001 and 2003, 100 traits have undergone testing by 40 universities and 35 companies, he said. By 2001, 41 of the country's 50 states had some type of biotech initiative, he said.
Runge found that biotechnology research and development spending is increasing at both the federal and state levels among governments, universities and the private sector. Funding from the National Science Foundation, most of it funneled through universities, increased 70 percent between 1996 and 2002, he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected to spend more than $2.3 billion on agricultural biotech research in 2004, Runge said. Private companies are expected to spend $2.7 billion, he added.
During questioning, Runge said U.S. farmers are choosing biotechnology because it benefits them and consumers. Farmers spend less money and time on pest control and reap higher yields. Consumers are offered foods with greater nutritional value, he said.
"As consumer confidence grows, it will feed the demand for new biotech varieties, increase the advantages of those willing to and able to supply them, and indirectly establish a base of support for continued public investments in plant biotech," Runge said.
The researcher also urged more investment for public education about the benefits of biotechnology.