U.S. farms are producing more food per acre because of genetically modified crops than farmers in Europe where genetically modified organism are banned, a retired Montana State University economist said Monday.

Gary Brester told attendees at the Montana Farm Bureau Federation convention in Billings that farmers are producing more crops per acre because of biotechnology. The convention brought 400 Montana farmers to Billings this week.

Brester said news reports that GMOs hadn’t improved production missed the point that farmers produce twice as much food today than they did 60 years ago, but use the same amount of fertilizer and other growth-enhancing inputs.

“That’s just not been my experience. And I understand you should not generalize with one observation, but if you get enough observations, it’s called data,” Brester said.

Brester grew up on a sugar beet farm near Laurel. The family farm averaged 40 tons of sugar beets per acres at fall harvest, which ended in October. The yield is up from 17 tons an acre in the 1960s.

“We went from about 17 (tons) to 24 as a result of the natural process, whatever’s natural. And then after GM we were about, kind of 30, that jumped it to there. And now, yeah, it was a good year, but that’s my GM experience,” Brester said.

Western Sugar Cooperative farmers for the past decade have seen record annual yields best denoted with an asterisk to indicate the crops were genetically modified. In 2007, farmers were reporting a bumper crop with 26 tons of beets per acre. During the next decade, tonnage increased every year until hitting 36.4 tons on average for Montana farmers feeding the cooperative’s Billings sugar factory.

Sugar beets were modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, better known as "Roundup." That resistance has allowed farmers to kill weeds that previously competed with sugar beets, which before genetic modification has to the recover from a chemical hangover whenever weeds were sprayed.

Corn, cotton, soybeans and rice have seen similar benefits from genetic modification, Brester said.

Not the full story

The argument that genetic modifications hadn’t produced crop yields was published roughly a year ago in The New York Times, which charted the production of crops in non-GMO-friendly Europe and the United States. The Times article concluded there was no difference in yield between the two countries, and therefore questioned why farmers would use GMOs at all.

Brester argues that the article should have looked back 60 years during all the changes that have boosted productions, advancement in mechanized farming that reduced labor and fertilizer, and soil management. Farm production has been on a steep increase since the 1940s and the progress has been on the same path in Europe and the United States with the exception of the last few years.

"We’ve seen farm productivity increase by 250 percent and the amount of input used, almost flat,” Brester said. “Now, you can always get more output by using more inputs — more labor, more land, more water, those sorts of things — but to do it without using more inputs is quite remarkable. And that’s what we mean by a technological change.”

United States farms are on the same steep growth pattern. European farm production is also growing, but the gains are flattening out, Brester said. The difference is European farmers are not using genetically modified crops.

Mechanical and biological technology has changed significantly in the previous 60 years, Brester said. It takes 70 percent less farm labor to grow the same amount of crops today than it did 60 years ago. The amount of land to produce the same amount of food has been cut 30 percent. Those improvements have been shared by farmers in Europe and the United States. But as genetically modified corn takes root in the United States, the difference in yield between U.S. farms and European ones has increased.

United States farms average 40 bushels an acre more corn than farms in Europe. The spread in 1961 was 20 bushels. Genetically modified corn, planted in the United States for more than 20 years, has increased the production gap, Brester said.

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