Saturday, September 18, 2010

First day in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse: Learning About Biotechnology

View from my hotel.

We arrived at Neustadt an der Weinstrasse (aka New Town) two nights ago. Since then we have been led around this region by Dirk Gerling, a 2009 McCloy fellow whom I had the honor of meeting last year when he visited North Dakota. Dirk is the District Manager for the
Bauern & Winzer Verband (the Farmer's and Winery's Association). This organization covers four counties and has about 5,300 members.

Dirk has done a tremendous job lining up farm visits and cultural experiences so that in just a few days we can sample all the best this area has to offer. He is also very patient with our constant barrage of questions, even while cruising on the highway at 160 km, trying to keep us on schedule. Not a problem, as there is no speed limit on the highway here :)

I am constantly impressed at how well respected he is by the farmers in this area, so it is no surprise to me that he has done well positioning his organization as THE source of ag information for the members and providing an array of services for members, including farm financial management assistance, a stellar website, and a listening ear to those facing the many challenges of farming and wine making in a densely populated area.

To start the day, we visited AlPlanta, an institute for plant research that includes a state of the art laboratory, greenhouse and training school for plant breeding and biotechnology. AlPlanta has three main research priorities: fruit diseases and phytoplasmas, RNA-mediated gene regulation, and grapevine biotechnology.

Dr. Wassenegger demonstrating how to analyze DNA while one of my fellow fellow's, Eric, watches.

Dr. Wassenegger in a cooler with thousands of samples of plant tissue. These samples will be used to study plant genetics and plant diseases.

Dr. Michael Wassenegger presented information on genetically modified organisms (GMO's) and the EU and the vast array opportunities and challenges that exist. To feed the growing world population, we in agriculture need a yield increase of 70% by 2050. WOW!

The benefits to utilizing genetically modified plants (such as RoundUp Ready soybeans) include: 1) providing affordable food production; 2) conserving biodiversity (wilderness, wetlands, etc) by savicng additional land from being developed; 3) decreasing agriculture's environmental footprint; 4) decreasing the use of pesticides; 5) providing cost effective production of biofuels; and 6) sustainable economic benefits by increasing genetically modified crop farmers' income.

There have been a number of lawsuits in the EU by farmers wanting to use genetically modified crops, but for now farmers' hands in the EU are tied and they have very limited access to this technology. This certainly presents a challenge as farmers are faced with feeding an increasingly hungry world.

Dr. Wassenegger also presented some of the absolute hypocrises with the current laws for organic farming and livestock production in the E.U. and it is clear that at this point the "bio" (organic) label is basically just a marketing ploy.

The U.S. ranks number one in the world for production of genetically modified crops. I did not realize until today how very fortunate I am as a farmer to have access to biotechnology and the opportunity to grow genetically modified crops.

As he bid us farewell with a wide smile and a good, firm German handshake, Dr. W. said something that really summed up the feelings of so many people in agriculture here: "In the U.S. you are in a happy situation with GMO's. I am jealous."
Here I am outside AlPlanta with the lovely landscape of the Palatinate region in the background.

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