Social benefits of biotech crops

A field of sugar beets

Ask any sugarbeet grower in the US how their lives have changed since the commercialization of Roundup Ready beets. Really. Ask them. Before you rail against the technology, or denounce the evil corporations for creating them. Before you argue on twitter or Facebook about how good or bad the technology is for society. Before you write your next post for the New York Times or Grist. Ask a farmer who uses the technology. And then think about what they say.

Don Lilleboe at The Sugarbeet Grower magazine recently published great profile of a great farmer: “A Love of Farming: Idaho’s Duane Grant.” Anyone interested in the current state of farming (particularly in the western US) should go read it. I’ve met Duane a few times at various meetings over the last few years, and he is extremely knowledgeable in all aspects of farming. In the article, Mr. Grant talks about the recent commercialization of Roundup Ready sugarbeet. For people who don’t work on a farm, it is easy to argue over things like corporate greed, perceived risks and benefits, or other issues surrounding biotechnology. But it is important to remember that the biotech traits currently on the market were developed to solve problems that growers face. These traits provide social and cultural benefits that are difficult to quantify in a peer-reviewed journal article. From the article:

Part of Grant’s intense interest in transgenic beets definitely stemmed from his own farm’s experiences with the “traditional regimen” of herbicide products and application timing and methods.  “It was a nightmare,” he recalls of those pre-Roundup days.  “We had failures all the time — fields that would become unharvestable because of our failure to control weeds.  We had an army of people applying herbicides around the clock or just at night.  We did micro-rates, we did maxi-rates, you name it.”

“It was a horrible life.  Just last spring (of 2011), as the Roundup litigation was progressing through the courts and it was unclear whether we’d be able to plant Roundup Ready seed, my sugarbeet manager flat-out told me, ‘If we have to be conventional again, I’m quitting.  I can’t do it.’
“I’m so glad we got to plant Roundup Ready beets!”

For Duane Grant’s farm, Roundup Ready sugarbeet didn’t just help the bottom line. It actually made life better for the families who worked on his farm. Weed control in the sugarbeet crop before Roundup Ready technology was extremely difficult, as Mr. Grant attests. To make things more difficult, the conventional herbicides used in sugarbeet often caused significant injury to the crop. For example, Betamix herbicide contains the following warning on the label:

BetamixRestrictions

So, spraying Betamix should ideally be done when temperatures are cool, but not too cool, when there’s no wind, not too much water, but also not too dry, and when no insects or diseases present. Oh, and don’t cultivate too closely or use other herbicides or chemicals. Even with all these restrictions, Betamix was the foundation for almost all sugarbeet herbicide programs in the US prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready sugarbeet due to a dearth of effective alternatives. When Duane mentions spraying herbicides “just at night” he is alluding to this problem. Once summer temperatures began reaching 80 degrees F, sugarbeet growers had to spray in the evenings to avoid damaging their crop. Countless softball and baseball games were missed by parents who worked on sugarbeet farms, because evenings were the only opportunity to spray. This social aspect is typically forgotten in many discussions (or arguments) about transgenic crops.

Duane Grant is not alone. In 2007, the first year of commercial Roundup Ready sugarbeet production in Wyoming, I stood with a farmer between two of his sugarbeet fields. On one side was a field of the new Roundup Ready beets, on the other side was a conventional variety. Both fields looked beautiful; healthy, weed-free, everything a beet grower would want. I asked him a question about any benefits or problems he had that year, since this was his first experience with the new trait. The grower simply pointed to the Roundup Ready field, and said: “If I’m going to go broke growing sugar beets, I had to work a hell of a lot less in that field.”

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