The Age of Farmerless Farming is Coming
January 15, 2003
by Alex A. Avery
Dennis T. Avery
It is now clear that agricultural biotechnology is the future of farming. Biotech has already delivered eco-friendly crops that protect themselves from insects and disease. Now, recent research reveals a future where crops will also protect themselves from weeds. One by one, biotechnology is finding ways to breed into crops the solutions to farming’s most vexing problems, all while alleviating the most worrying aspects of modern agriculture.
We’re headed rapidly toward a time when farmers will be able to plant a biotech crop and literally walk away until harvest time without worrying about the weeds, drought, diseases, and plagues of locusts that have threatened the human food supply since time immemorial. And consumers will get pesticide-free food without the steep organic food prices.
Sound far-fetched? It isn’t.
In aviation terms, agricultural biotech is still in the bi-plane stage, having reached farmers’ fields only seven years ago. Yet farmers have enthusiastically embraced the technology.
Some of this acreage is planted to insect-resistant Bt crops that contain a natural protein toxic only to plant-eating caterpillars. Bt crops allow big reductions in insecticide use without additional crop losses—while making fields safer for wildlife such as the monarch butterfly. More biotech insect-proofing strategies will emerge, eventually eliminating much of the need for insecticide sprays.
Biotechnology has also given us more effective protection against crop diseases. By engineering the “coat protein” for a virus into a crop, the plant becomes protected against the virus. Until biotech, humanity had never defeated a plant virus. Already the Hawaiian papaya industry has been saved from near-total collapse due to the devastating papaya ringspot virus.
And that brings us to biotech weed-fighting crops.
Weeds can reduce crop yields by nearly 100 percent. Weeds steal soil nutrients, sunlight, and moisture. For eons farmers have killed weeds using “steel solutions”—plows and hoes. But tilling the soil uses a lot of fuel or hand labor, kills earthworms, ruins soil structure and encourages erosion. To put it bluntly, plowing and tilling should be avoided.
That’s why thirty years ago farmers devised no-till farming, where weeds are killed chemically rather than mechanically. Instead of needing six or ten passes with a heavy tractor and tillage device during the growing season, weeds can be controlled with only one or two passes of a light spray rig. The benefits in saved fuel, improved soil structure, and reduced erosion are huge. With no-till, we’re now creating topsoil, rather than losing it. It’s the biggest advance in farming sustainability in over a century.
No-till depends on herbicides instead of plowing, and biotech herbicide-tolerant crops have made no-till farming infinitely easier. Herbicide-tolerant crops can be sprayed at nearly any time in the growing season if weeds become a problem. But the farmer still has to monitor the field and spray, costing time, fuel and herbicides. And some consumers are wary of herbicide residues on their food.
What if the crop produced its own herbicide instead? Before you think what a horrid “Frankenplant” we’ve just proposed, understand that herbicide-producing plants already exist naturally. The creosote bush and walnut are common examples.
The spotted knapweed is another. Since the early 1800s, botanists had strongly suspected that the spotted knapweed secreted an herbicidal chemical from its roots, but until now it had never been identified. Scientists at Colorado State University recently identified the herbicide, a chemical called catechin. So far it has killed all of the twenty different plants it’s been tried on.
Catechin can be readily synthesized and could make it onto the market as a natural herbicide within a couple of years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a ‘fast-track’ regulatory review for catechin because it is natural and already present in the environment.
But the really exciting prospect is engineering crops to fight weeds themselves, something the Colorado researchers are already working on. As lead researcher Dr. Jorge Vivanco noted, if the genes for catechin were transferred to crops, we wouldn’t have to spray herbicides.
Combining weed-proof, insect-proof, and disease-proof strategies would eliminate the need to spray pesticides—and eliminate any reason to pay more for organic foods.
No wonder organic farmers and retailers have fought so ferociously against agricultural biotechnology.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on July, 22, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.