Measuring Agricultural Biotechnology: One Combine Round At a Time

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It has been an interesting week driving a combine.  It stopped for me this afternoon as rain started pounding on my combine window.  After a rush across the field and mad scramble I got things under cover.  It’s kind of funny when the rain starts coming down.  Suddenly you see your neighbours scrambling around just like you are trying to get things undercover.  I’m still looking for the sun.   This week I managed to get some combining done in a few soybean fields but without the sun.  Let’s hope next week brings out old sol.

This fall across the greater American Corn Belt it’s turning into quite a story.  For instance last week we saw market pressure as prices went up based on a snowstorm in the American Midwest.  We’ve always known that this 2009 crop is late.  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.  However when I drove my big green combine into an unsuspecting soybean field today, I never could imagine it wouldn’t be ready.  So when the combine groaned under the pressure of green straw, one look in the bin told me these soybeans needed some more time.  It’s October 15 for crying out loud!  If there was ever an example of this year being late, that was it for me.  I can’t even imagine what corn will be in like.

So when I got home I saw the article on DTN written by Chris Clayton regarding the battle over biotechnology and sustainability that threatens world hunger according to former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.  Bill Gates is now concentrating all his time on the Gates foundation and looking at ways of putting his vast billions to work improving the welfare of the world’s poor.  In his address he mentioned improving productivity through the use of biotechnology and increasing the efficiency of small farmers in the Third World.

I admire what Bill Gates is doing with his vast fortune.  He has a lot of options and helping the world’s poor is a very good one.  When I read his comments about biotechnology all I could think about was the soybeans that were going underneath me through my combine.  After all this time and all this advancement in agricultural biotechnology your loyal scribe still hasn’t bought into biotech soybeans.  Those beans dropping into my bin are the same type of old beans that I planted many years ago.  As I’ve told many farmers in my local area, when it comes to soybeans, I just don’t get it.

Of course that is another story.  I have my reasons.  I did though, read about an Illinois farmer recently who thought that his soybeans were in the 70 bushel per acre range.  In the article he said he was a bit disappointed because he thought they looked like 75-bushel soybeans.  So with me probably averaging 30 bushels less per acre in the 2009, who’s the dummy?  I’ll let you figure that out.  The point being I think my problem is more with the land I farm than any particular management decision on what I plant.  However, as always I’m open to suggestions.

The point being regardless of why the Illinois farmer gets more soybeans than me, at the end of the day he is far more productive on 1 acre of soil. We both have 24 hours in the day to figure things out.  Needless to say I imagine we are both hardwired to be more productive next year.  How biotechnology fits into that mix may surely be a deciding factor.

Bill Gates clearly comes down on the side of agricultural biotechnology to increase productivity in the Third World.  He recently announced nine foundation grants totaling $120 million to help empower millions of small farmers to grow enough food to build and sustain healthier lives.  I’m sure there is some new agricultural biotechnology in that mix to help get that done.

I have seen this type of new agriculture biotechnology at work in poor countries such as Bangladesh.  As many of you know I lectured there this past January.  My question is have the advances in agricultural biotechnology truly benefited farmers in the developed world like you, me and that guy in Illinois who is getting 75 bushels per acre?  Or are the big corporate interests getting richer and richer and the traits more mundane and imaginative?

It’s something to ponder in the hours you spend on the combine this fall.  Something tells me those soybeans that yield 75 bushel in Illinois would only yield 42 bushel on some of my land.  So it’s a very good thing that agricultural biotechnology is helping feed the poor around the world thanks to good philanthropists like Bill Gates.  However, as I peer out of my combine this fall I’m questioning all the hype.   We need to produce more for less but sometimes I think we are producing the same for more.  But what do I know? I’ll leave you to contemplate that when combines roar to life once again.