Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published February 23, 2010, 10:00 PM

State Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, letter -- Biotech’s next miracle: Cold-tolerant crops

I suspect that in the right regulatory environment, we could be planting cold-tolerant corn within a few years.

By Terry Wanzek

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Almost nothing grows when snow covers the ground — except maybe the hopes of Olympic skiers and the frustrations of people who have to shovel driveways.

When the white stuff melts, farmers think about planting. The sooner seeds take root, the longer they’ll have to grow before we harvest them in the fall. That’s why I’m so encouraged by the possible advent of cold-tolerant crops.

The ability to start work just a few days earlier than we do now would make a big difference. The sooner we can plant, the more food we’ll produce. This would help not only with my bottom line but also with improving food security for Americans and people everywhere.

But before it can happen, we need to unleash the full power of biotechnology. The Gene Revolution already has transformed agriculture in the U.S. and elsewhere, but it can do more. An important article in the latest issue of the research journal Science makes a compelling case.

The lead author is Nina Federoff, who is the science and technology advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Despite the excellent safety and efficacy record of GM crops, regulatory policies remain almost as restrictive as they were when GM crops were first introduced,” she writes.

“As a result, the benefits of biotechnology have not been realized for the vast majority of food crops.”

That’s for sure. Last week, the government of India refused to approve pest-resistant brinjal (i.e., eggplant), even though brinjal is a staple crop in a country that struggles to feed a population of more than a billion people.

Writing in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal, Indian farmer Rajesh Kumar, a member of Truth About Trade & Technology’s Global Farmer Network, described his disappointment: “If we are going to produce enough food for our people, farmers must have access to the same tools as growers in the developed world.”

Federoff’s point is that even here in the developed world, farmers still don’t have as much access to biotechnology as they should. We need to embrace new varieties of GM crops in order to help ourselves — and also to serve as an example for governments such as India’s and farmers such as Kumar.

Of all the traits I’d like to see commercialized in the U.S., cold-tolerance tops my list. Scientists at several universities already are trying to identify the genes that will make this possible. I suspect that in the right regulatory environment, we could be planting cold-tolerant corn within a few years.

In North Dakota, cold tolerance is critical because our growing season is so short. It takes a while for the snow to clear and the ground to warm up. Then, there are a limited number of days before the fall’s first frost, at which time our corn must be fully mature. If it isn’t, our harvest can fail.

Success often depends on how soon we get started. Weather is an important factor. So is soil temperature: Seeds stay dormant until the ground heats to about 50 degrees or warmer.

Ideally, we try to plant between April 20 and May 5. What if biotechnology made it possible for seeds to germinate in slightly chillier soil temperatures? Starting just a week or two sooner would help enormously.

Think of it as a baseball season. Teams fight to win the pennant in September, but the games in April are just as important. In the standings, a victory on Opening Day matters as much as a win on the final weekend, when teams are scrambling to make the playoffs.

Cold-tolerant crops would have the effect of delivering a few extra wins at the start of the season. They would deliver an environmental benefit as well. One way to deal with the cold is to till the soil. By turning it over, we can warm it up. But this contributes to soil erosion, soil moisture loss and increased fuel costs.

Cold tolerance derived from biotechnology would let more farmers adopt no-till strategies while still achieving the benefits of early planting.

We must allow biotechnology to flourish—and put an end to the snow jobs.

State Sen. Wanzek, R-Jamestown, grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his family farm. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).

Tags: