Corn Commentary

Bill Gates Calls for Biotech Crops to Feed Poor

At the World Food Prize Forum in Des Moines on Thursday, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates praised the work of Norman Borlaug and called for a new “Green Revolution” to help feed the poorest of the world’s poor. Gates also announced grants totaling about $120 million to help small farmers in developing countries such as Africa.

“In the middle of the 20th century, experts predicted famine and starvation, but they turned out to be wrong – because they did not predict Norman Borlaug. He not only showed humanity how to get more food from the earth – he proved that farming has the power to lift up the lives of the poor,” Gates said.

The billionaire noted that Borlaug’s Green Revolution “helped avert famine, save hundreds of millions of lives, and lift whole countries out of poverty” but “it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t go to Africa.”

He blames that on ideological differences between technology and environmentalism that forces a “false choice” between productivity and sustainability. “It blocks important advances. It breeds hostility among people who need to work together. And it makes it hard to launch a comprehensive program to help poor farmers. The fact is, we need both productivity and sustainability – and there is no reason we can’t have both.”

“We have to develop crops, including new inputs to go with them that can grow in a drought,” Gates said. “We have to have crops that can survive a flood, that can resist pests and new diseases. We need higher yields on the same land, despite more difficult weather. And we will never get there without a continuous and urgent, science-based search to increase productivity, especially focused on the needs of small farms in the developing world.”

I’m no big fan of Bill Gates, but I was very pleased to hear him standing up to radical environmentalists who want us to move backward instead of forward and supporting the use of biotech crops to help the poor in developing countries grow enough food to feed themselves.

You can watch Gates’ address on YouTube in three different segments (due to the 10 minute limit on videos for YouTube). Here is the first installment.

Missouri Corn Grower at the United Nations

Missouri corn grower Rob Korff recently had the opportunity to tell United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon about the important strides American farmers have made to produce more abundant, affordable food.

Korff, who is vice chairman of the Missouri Corn Growers and chairman of the National Corn Growers Association Biotechnology Working Group, took part in a United Nations food security meeting and discussion on June 12 in St. Louis.

“Beginning with a description of my family’s farming operation, I explained how technology has made corn production more efficient and stabilized yields,” said Korff. “Technology has reduced the amount of herbicides and pesticides needed, requiring less energy per bushel produced, thus reducing our carbon footprint.”

Korff shared facts and figures about how advances in precision farming and biotechnology have helped U.S. farmers produce more food on less acreage and stressed that it can help other countries do the same. “I believe biotech has been fully tested and is safe for consumption. It is allowing farmers to produce a more secure, abundant and affordable food supply,” he said. “As education and awareness spread, technology, and more specifically, biotechnology will be the answer to feeding our rapidly expanding world population.”

Vaccine on the Cob

Iowa State University researchers are studying how to put flu vaccines into the genetic makeup of corn, which could someday allow humans and animals to get a flu vaccination simply by eating corn or corn products.

“We’re trying to figure out which genes from the swine influenza virus to incorporate into corn so those genes, when expressed, would produce protein. When the pig consumes that corn, it would serve as a vaccine,” said Hank Harris, professor in animal science and one of the researchers on the project.

The corn vaccine would also work in humans when they eat corn or even corn flakes, corn chips, tortillas or anything that contains corn, said Harris.

The research is funded by a grant from Iowa State University’s Plant Sciences Institute, and is their Biopharmaceuticals and Bioindustrials Research Initiative. The corn vaccine may be possible in 5 to 7 years if research goes well.

Read more here.

Meet Us in St. Louie

World Ag ForumRepresentatives of agribusiness in St. Louis pitched the importance of the Show Me state and the Bio Belt at the 2009 World Ag Congress Tuesday.

Novus International, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the American Soybean Association (ASA), and the University of Missouri were among those touting Missouri’s unique agribusiness climate and characteristics. NCGA Director of Biotechnology and Economic Analysis Nathan Fields said they were proud to call St. Louis home, which gives them a grassroots perspective.

World Ag Forum Nathan FieldsI talked with Nathan about the World Ag Congress and how the corn growers are working on the missions of sustainability and feeding the world. “We feel that U.S. corn production is a model system for the world,” he said. “We we have the greatest efficiency in production and we think that we have a lot of information that we can impart internationally to promote the technology that we use to increase productivity.”

You can listen to my interview with Nathan here:

Drought-Tolerant Corn Gets Closer

Drought-tolerant corn is another step closer to reality.

Monsanto Company announced today that its first-generation drought-tolerant corn has moved into the final R&D phase before market launch. The company also announced that it has submitted the product to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for regulatory clearance.

Officials with Monsanto say this is the fastest that a product has ever advanced from one phase into another.

Drought-tolerant corn technology is just one of the products currently under development as part of Monsanto’s R&D and commercialization collaboration in plant biotechnology with BASF aimed at developing higher-yielding crops and crops more tolerant to adverse environmental conditions such as drought.

Monsanto also announced today that profits for the first quarter of 2009 more than doubled on increased sales of seeds and Roundup herbicide and the company is now raising projections for earnings the rest of the year.

King of Bionic Ag

Wired Magazine has crowned Kip Cullers the “King of Bionic Ag.”

Kip WiredThe issue out last week featured the famous corn and soybean yield contest winner from Purdy, Missouri as an example of how farmers are using biotechnology and precision agriculture to feed the world.

Kip has become somewhat of a legend in the corn and soybean world, consistently producing top yields in national contests. While this year was a little challenging for him weather-wise, with drowning rains during the spring in his home turf of Southwest Missouri, Kip still managed to earn top honors in three categories for the 2008 National Corn Yield Contest - taking first in the AA No Till/Strip Till Non-Irrigated category with almost 321 bushels per acre.

Read the article about Kip in Wired Magazine here.

European Biotech Resistance

It was pretty evident at last week’s World Food Prize symposium in Des Moines that European nations remain the most resistant to biotech crops. But some farmers are bucking the system.

Oliver Ransmann of Germany participated in a Truth about Trade and Technology farmer roundtable that included over 20 producers from nearly as many countries discussing the benefits and challenges of biotechnology in their parts of the world. I had a very interesting conversation with him about the lack of acceptance of biotech in his country and Europe in general. He just started using Monsanto’s corn borer resistant genetics two years ago on his 400 ha farm that grows mainly corn and rye to generate biogas. He talked about the stringent government regulations on biotech crops and the general distrust of biotech by both farmers and the general public.

He told me that farmers who choose to grow biotech crops in Germany are “branded” in a way and subject to vandalism. “This year my ground was damaged by activists - we had iron sticks in the fields and spoons and knives in the grain,” he told me. “We can’t understand why people are doing it and it’s very dangerous.”

So why does he still choose to grow biotech crops on his farm? “If I’m not using Bt maize, I have 30-40 percent less productivity and I can’t afford it,” he said. He understands that biotech varieties offer environmental benefits by allowing farmers to use less chemicals and to produce more on less land, but he says that message is being ignored in Europe.

Listen to an interview with Oliver here:

Increasing Productivity to Feed the World

Several speakers at the World Food Prize symposium this week in Des Moines were from the major agricultural chemical companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International president Paul Schickler was on a panel that focused on the “Promises and Challenges of Next-Generation Science and Technology.” He took the first question to the panel, which was “How optimistic are you that the world can reduce hunger by half by 2015?”

Schickler stated that he was very confident that goal could be reached, simply on the basis of increased food production, using hybrid corn as an example. “If you look back throughout the development of hybrid corn, productivity has improved at about one and a half percent per year,” he said. “As we look to the future, we think we can double that, and that has already started to show up in the last 8-10 years through the use of biotechnology, plant genetics and improved agronomic practices.” That would mean corn yields in the United States could hit 210 bushels an acre in ten years, and what that means is increased sustainability because more food can be produced on less acreage.

Listen to Paul’s answer to that question here:

Technology that’s really cutting-edge

Boosting yield — the amount of corn grown per acre — is crucial not just for increasing corn production to meet all needs, but to do it in a sustainable way that uses natural resources more efficiently. And developing new seed technology is one of the most effective ways of boosting yield.

But this can be a slow and daunting process. And that’s why new technology from DuPont may be important. DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred International division is using laser technology to help speed up research. The competitive landscape of seed technology has gone far to help feed and fuel the world and should be welcomed by all who are concerned about energy security and world hunger.

World Food Conference to Focus on Biotech and Biofuels

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer will present a three pronged strategy to deal with rising food prices, climate change and energy security when he travels to Rome next week for the conference on World Food Security being held by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Schafer says the strategy is basically to “provide food and other support to people who are hungry now, direct development assistance to those countries best able to rapidly increase the production of key food staples that can help feed the hungry, and encourage action to address multilateral and country-specific policies that prevent access to food and the technologies that produce food.”

Ed SchaferTo try and encourage greater use of biotechnology, Schafer and Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance Henrietta Fore will host a side event focused on new technologies to showcase developing countries that have moved forward with public investment in adoption of bioengineered products. “Bioengineered crops are one of many situations that need to take place for increasing yields around the country if we’re going to meet the demands of increased consumption,” Schafer says.

Biofuels will most definitely be on the plate at the World Food conference and Schafer is prepared to defend US ethanol production policy. “I would point out that in the United States and in other countries as well, all ethanol production specifically has come from increased yields in the corn crops,” Schafer said. “Our export markets are up in corn out of the United States. The yield increases are taking care of it, and certainly the benefits derived are much more than the 2 to 3 percent that is contributing to the rising inflation in food costs internationally. We think it’s an important initiative, and while people do have some concern I think we can point out the facts here, not the emotions but the facts, that this is not distorting the global price of food. And it’s an important direction we need to go.”

The conference will be held June 3-5.

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