By Tom Still

MADISON – Biofuels such as ethanol are in vogue these days, thanks to record oil prices and the gnawing realization that our national security would be enhanced by producing more energy at home. While the debate continues on how best to unlock the energy potential of crops such as corn, a quiet revolution is well under way in a related field – genetically engineered crops.


About 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grew engineered crops on 222 million acres in 2005, up 11 percent over the previous year. Nearly 8 million of those farmers were considered “subsistence” farmers, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. In 1996, the first year genetically engineered crops were commercially available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotech cultivation.


In Wisconsin in 2004, more than 1.4 million acres of biotech corn and nearly 1.4 million acres of soybeans were planted, making it a national leader in both categories.


From cotton to papaya, and from soybeans to cassava, biotechnology is offering hope for millions of people who don’t get enough to eat because drought, disease, worn-out soils, harsh growing conditions, pests and weeds that have grown resistant to herbicides are hampering food production.

More than two-thirds of the people in the world grow what they eat. Despite the successes of the “Green Revolution” that began in the 1960s, millions of them still suffer from hunger and lack of nutrition. The reasons are many, including first-world farm subsidies that undercut poor farmers and developing world governments that impede markets and food distribution systems.

But another undeniable fact is that crops genetically improved during the Green Revolution were large-volume commodity crops, not crops grown solely by small-scale, subsistence farmers.

The first Green Revolution passed by many of those farmers. It was dependent on farming practices that required significant upfront investments – irrigation systems, machinery, fuel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By and large, that was beyond the reach of the average farmer scratching out a living in sub-Saharan Africa, or even the delta country of Mississippi.

“The New Green Revolution” isn’t capital intensive, but knowledge-intensive. The advances being made today due to biotechnology and genetic engineering are incorporated in the crop seed, which makes it possible for all farmers to reap the benefits.

In a sense, this isn’t new. People have been genetically engineering plants and animals for thousands of years, usually by trial and error, in a search for better crops and herds. Only since Gregor Mendel made a study of peas in the 1800s has science taken some of the chance, and time, out of the process. But the goals are pretty much the same as they have always been: Higher yields; resistance to diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses; the ability to withstand hot summers, drought and short growing seasons; and resistance to pests and weeds, Biotechnology does that by tapping into natural defense systems within plants, thus triggering mechanisms that allow plants to better protect themselves. It can also produce biopesticides, such as microorganisms and fatty acid compounds, that are toxic to targeted pests by harmless to humans, animals, fish, birds or beneficial insects.

There are several criticisms of biotech agriculture so far. First, most of the progress has involved feed corn, soybeans, cotton and canola rather than crops, such as rice, that are widely consumed in developing countries. About 250 million farmers grow rice and it’s a staple for 1.3 billion people. Iran and China appear closest to commercializing biotech rice, but more innovation is needed to fulfill the promise of feeding the world’s hungry.

There are enduring concerns about oversight. A recent internal audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that regulation of field trials of biotech crops has been inadequate, although 23 of 28 specific recommendations were quickly adopted by the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Still, the United States isn’t the only nation regulating such crops, which have gained growing acceptance in the European Union and beyond. Farmers around the world are reporting results, even as regulators keep a closer watch.

The ISAAA ( predicts the second decade of biotech crops will far surpass the first, and that innovation will come in some surprising areas.

“Beyond the traditional agricultural products of food, feed and fiber, entirely novel products to agriculture will emerge including the production of pharmaceutical products, oral vaccines, specialty and fine chemicals and the use of renewable crop resources to replace non-renewable, polluting, and increasingly expensive fossil fuels,” the organization reported.

Biotech crops are fueling “The New Green Revolution.” With the right mix of innovation and oversight, it will continue to fulfill expectations – and fill empty stomachs.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.