What have the Romans ever done for us?

Reader Dan P. writes in to ask:

Joe, I read your post on GMO farming with great interest. Would you mind telling me, other than increasing the yields of a crop we don’t need and tinkering with the building blocks of life, what GMO crop developers have really achieved?

Dan, I couldn’t be more pleased to answer that. Here’s what Norman Borlaug wrote in the Wall Street Journal about a year ago:

• Since 1996, the planting of genetically modified crops developed through biotechnology has spread to about 250 million acres from about five million acres around the world, with half of that area in Latin America and Asia. This has increased global farm income by $27 billion annually.

• Ag biotechnology has reduced pesticide applications by nearly 500 million pounds since 1996. In each of the last six years, biotech cotton saved U.S. farmers from using 93 million gallons of water in water-scarce areas, 2.4 million gallons of fuel, and 41,000 person-days to apply the pesticides they formerly used.

• Herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans have enabled greater adoption of minimum-tillage practices. No-till farming has increased 35% in the U.S. since 1996, saving millions of gallons of fuel, perhaps one billion tons of soil each year from running into waterways, and significantly improving moisture conservation as well.

• Improvements in crop yields and processing through biotechnology can accelerate the availability of biofuels. While the current emphasis is on using corn and soybeans to produce ethanol, the long-term solution will be cellulosic ethanol made from forest industry by-products and products.

And those numbers don’t even begin to address reductions in the overall “carbon footprint” of agriculture worldwide, from carbon release (from tilling) to air pollution (from machinery). (For those who don’t understand the headline, I’ll refer you to Monty Python 101.)

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