Biotech soybeans help soil quality, industry says
NASHVILLE - Genetically modified soybeans are promoting soil conservation by allowing farmers to plow less, a biotechnology industry group said.
\"Biotech is allowing farmers to practice more conservation tillage,\" Linda Thrane, executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, told reporters at the Commodity Classic, the annual joint convention of the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association.
With conservation tillage, farmers leave the plant residues from harvested crops on the surface of the soil before planting again, rather than plowing them under. The decaying organic matter puts nutrients back in the soil and acts as a sponge for water, reducing runoff from heavy rains and preserving moisture during drought.
The drawback is that weeds can thrive in unplowed fields. Farmers have attacked that problem by using strong herbicides known as glysophates, but these can pose a risk to crops as well as weeds.
Soybean varieties engineered to resist the herbicides, primarily Monsanto Co.\'s Roundup brand, were introduced in 1996 and quickly grew popular, making up nearly 70 percent of the 2001 U.S. soybean crop.
Soybean farmers have increased their use of conservation tillage in recent years, Thrane said. She cited an American Soybean Association survey last fall of 452 soybean growers in 19 key soybean states.
The growers doubled their no-till soybean acres between 1996 and 2001 to 49 percent of total soy acreage, and were practicing reduced tillage on 33 percent of their fields, an increase of 25 percent since 1996. Gene-altered varieties made up 74 percent of the respondents\' 2001 soybean crop, the survey said.
\"Although farmers have been practicing con-till (conservation tillage) long before the biotech crops, it has become a weed-control resource that lets them do so even more, and with much more confidence,\" Thrane said in an interview.
The debate over the safety of genetically modified crops has overshadowed some of their environmental benefits, said Dan Towery of the nonprofit Conservation Technology Information Center, which analyzed data from the ASA survey and other studies.
\"One of the reasons we did the study was for the ag and the non-ag audience to recognize that there are some benefits from biotechnology that are not readily apparent,\" Towery said. \"Improved water quality, less treatment costs at the water treatment plant, more wildlife when they\'re driving in the countryside - those are some of the intangibles, if you will.\"
Story by Julie Ingwersen
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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