Genetic revolution benefits farming, environment

Farmers always have been an optimistic, enterprising lot. They face a series of challenges scarcely imaginable only a few decades ago: cutthroat international competition, costly environmental regulations and, to top it off, a hostile consumer public that increasingly views all facets of farming as a grave threat to the environment.

Yet, their optimism and enterprising spirit never seems to waver. Like the famed Energizer Bunny, they “keep going, and going and going,” adopting new technology to stay one step ahead of the twin challenges of global competition and expanding state and federal environmental regulations.

An example of this enterprising spirit is their widespread adoption of genetically modified crops.

With most of the attention focused recently on completion of human genome mapping, many people tend to overlook the stunning advances already made in the genetic mapping of other animal and plant species.

American farmers, on the other hand, have kept abreast of these advances from the very beginning. They're already harnessing this technology to increase crop yields and make significant reductions in insecticide and herbicide spraying.

Herbicide-resistant crops, for example, have enabled them to reduce both the numbers and types of herbicides used during the growing season and to avoid many of the chemicals that linger within the environment for long periods after application.

One of the major focuses of farming in the future will be finding ways to store larger amounts of carbon in the soil that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere and possibly contribute to global warming.

U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists estimate soils already store about 20 million metric tons of carbon each year. However, by helping farmers adopt improved farming techniques over the next few years, they hope to store an additional 180-million metric tons annually.

Farmers using herbicide-resistant crops already are one step ahead of this curve.

Adopting these crops has enabled them to make dramatic reductions in tillage. As tillage is reduced, carbon that otherwise would contribute to global warming remains in the soil.

Less tillage also results in more organic matter remaining in the soil - a factor contributing to enhanced soil quality and lower rates of erosion. As an added advantage, less soil and chemical residue is washed off into nearby lakes and streams. Despite their many advantages, genetically modified crops have ignited a firestorm of criticism, especially in Europe. Much of this criticism stems from widespread concerns that herbicides used in combination with genetically altered crops will produce a new generation of weeds super-resistant to herbicides.

However, just as medical researchers always have coped with resistance of disease-causing organisms by developing new antibiotics, herbicide developers will adapt to the threat of resistant weeds by developing newer, more improved herbicide chemicals.

The insight we are gaining through genetic mapping of animal and plant species will only enhance this process.

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