Environment now the starting point

Photo of Leon Corzine

Brendon Cant speaks to visiting US grower Leon Corzine on his approach to innovation and modern farming"s challenges

[Photo: Leon Corzine "We expect that in 2005 more htan half of US corn acres will be planted to biotech hybrids"]

Fifth-generation farmer Leon Corzine, president of the National Corn Growers Association in the US, is convinced the centre of his universe is his 800-hectare corn farm in Assumption, Illinois.

He makes the point clearly and often that his farming philosophy, shared by son Craig, who is taking the reins as the sixth generation, is all about sustainability.

"On my family farm, we continually strive to increase our efficiency, production levels and product quality," he says on a trip to Perth to speak at the GRDC-supported Agribusiness Crop Updates, on the topic "Biotechnology on the family farm".

"To achieve this, we constantly experiment with new production techniques, new inputs and new seed products. We"re willing to try anything new that has the potential to make our farm a better operation and when we find something that works, we stick with it."

For Mr Corzine, the quest for sustainability and minimal environmental impact has been significantly boosted by his access to biotech products. However, he does not automatically assume a new biotech product is what he needs. When about to try biotech crops for the first time, he asks himself three key questions:

In 1998 Mr Corzine applied his three questions to a new biotech product, Bt corn, which contains a gene that defends against corn rootworm, corn borer and other insect pests.

The product met his criteria, and has also become popular with other growers that have struggled under high insect pressure. The Bt corn accounted for 27 per cent of US plantings in 2004.

Similarly, Mr Corzine says herbicide tolerant corn, which helps farmers protect against weed pressure, has also been useful in certain areas: "Both types of corn have helped US farmers reduce the use of herbicides and insecticides. A recent study showed biotech corn reduced use of these treatments by 13 million pounds (5.85 million kilograms) in 2003, while boosting total corn production by 87.5 million bushels."

Another benefit of biotech crops, according to Mr Corzine, is reduced tillage, which helps preserve topsoil, reduce soil erosion and consume less fuel. A 2001 American Soybean Association study reported that soybean farmers saved 893 million litres of fuel by reducing tillage practices.

"There"s no doubt production efficiencies from biotechnology help farmers increase their profits. In 2003, biotech corn, for example, boosted farm income by US$258.4 million."

Mr Corzine, who says he farms with no problems alongside an organic corn grower, acknowledges that biotech crops are not the answer for every grower. For example, there are several reasons why a farmer might opt to use conventional corn instead of biotech hybrids.

"When the first generation of these products was first introduced in 1996, I wasn"t entirely convinced they"d help my operation because I wasn"t experiencing the level of insect pressure some growers were. That"s a major reason why some don"t use these hybrids. If they farm where pressure from corn rootworm and corn borer is low, they may not have a need for the technology."

Mr Corzine says he is looking forward to the next generation of biotech products, which, unlike the first-generation products, he expects to be offering protection against drought, nematodes and other region-specific pressures.

"Some of the biotech traits currently under development will offer growers more options to deal with these problems," he says.

Mr Corzine says his corn growers" association places a lot of emphasis on community consultation, education and dialogue to help customers - from livestock producers to average consumers - understand and accept biotech corn.

"The 2005 planting season will be the 10th year we"ve had access to this technology and it"s important to point out there haven"t been any adverse human or animal health issues related to the use of biotechnology in that time.

"Groups like Greenpeace and other extremist organisations would have you believe otherwise, but there"s no denying the facts - 10 years and zero cases.

"We expect that in 2005 more than half of US corn acres will be planted to biotech hybrids. As more hybrids with new traits come on to market, that percentage will increase more."

For more information: Leon Corzine, lpcfarms@direcway.com