Viagra rates higher than sheep cloning. A Pew Research Center study had Americans rate how some specific technological developments improved their lives. Respondents reveled in computers, cell phones and cable TV. They marveled at a multitude of pharmaceuticals. But technology to better feed the world? Its positive ratings were at the bottom and nearly half believed it made their lives worse.
Biotechnology, be it applied to animals or plants, isn’t popular. Foods produced via this modern know-how are perceived as unnatural or unsafe. Concerns are magnified by detractors decrying “Frankenfoods.” That’s great marketing by biotech opponents, but it’s a disservice the world cannot afford. The United Nations says that to keep up with population growth the world needs to double food production in the next 40 years. We can all quit our jobs and start farming, plow under the rainforests and pray for perfect weather worldwide. Or we can rely on science.
The first dozen years of the biotech seed era make a compelling argument. Beginning in 1996, seeds were introduced that resisted insects and pests and were tolerant of crop protection compounds. U.S. corn yields increased 36 percent, soybeans 12 percent and cotton 31 percent. It would have required farming an additional 106 million acres of crops from nonbiotech seeds to match that explosion in production. In that same period, these new-generation seeds allowed farmers to reduce pesticide applications by 359,000 metric tons. In 2007, high-tech seeds reduced the need for plowing, resulting in lowering carbon emissions at a level equal to taking 6.3 million cars off the highway.
Of the 13.3 million growers in 25 countries planting biotech crops, 90 percent are struggling farmers in developing nations. Global crop losses due to diseases and pests, which are estimated to cut food production by 35 percent, are being reduced. Researchers are developing seeds that in early tests maintain their yields while receiving 70 percent less water. Beyond providing more food, biotech seeds are coming that improve quality by making foods more nutritional.
Clearly, the science works. But challenges remain. The National Science Foundation (NSF) reports federal expenditures on scientific research and development have declined for the fifth straight year. The NSF’s board notes that in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, “U.S. dominance has eroded significantly.” Another Pew survey reports 87 percent of scientists believe a lack of funding is harming basic research. We’re ignoring the old adage about not eating our seed corn.
Ohioans knew better back in 1873, when the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College opened its doors with the intent of bettering lives through science. Its value expanded through putting knowledge into the hands of farmers and launching an extensive research initiative. Today that institution still provides the building blocks of a well-fed world, although its name changed a few years back to The Ohio State University. Ohio State’s researchers, scientists, lab techs, teachers and Extension educators assist farmers, businesses and communities in maximizing Ohio’s $98 billion agbioresources industry.
There is little argument science improves our lives. Specific to biotechnology, if you choose not to partake of its benefits, that’s fine. Ohio’s scientists and farmers will still provide you the foods and products that meet your needs. If you’re on the fence, please study more science and less propaganda. And regardless of your food preferences, appreciate and support science and technology as tools to feed the world.