So last night I devoted some free time to two of my great loves -- open government data and food policy -- and checked out the data on the rate of U.S. adoption of genetically-modified food crops in the United States that was released by U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month. Now, you can talk about the changing nature of the U.S. food supply until you're blue in the face. Or you can point to the numbers. And in this case, the USDA's new data on the U.S. adoption of genetically-modified food crops is so off the charts that there was little choice but to make a chart:
Wowza. The blue line represents soybeans. The red line is corn. What we're looking at is the growth in the percentage of all the acres of U.S. farmland used to raise the respective crops that is now used to grow what's known as Herbicide Tolerant, or HT, varieties. HT crops are designed in a lab to be resistant to chemical herbicide; the best-known HT brand are Monsanto's Roundup-Ready products. Sprayed on a non-modified plant, Roundup kills. But HT are engineered to be able to tolerate the herbicide, allowing for weed control through blanket-spraying of farm acres. For years, food advocates and food producers have been arguing over the merits and risks of HT crops. Monsanto, for example, has engaged in a long battle with food advocates over whether or not it should develop strains of genetically-engineered wheat.
But what's clear from the new USDA numbers is how quickly the U.S. food supply is changing, whether we eaters like it or not. The simple fact is that for many of us, the food we eat today is simply different than what we ate as kids. When I was a sophomore in college* back in 1996, for example, just 3% of farmland used to grow corn was given over to HT varieties of the crop. Today, 68% of U.S. farmland used to grow corn grows corn that is genetically engineered to be HT. The leap has been even greater for soybeans -- from 7% in 1996 to a whopping 91% in 2009.
We might, as American eaters, still be having a healthy debate about whether we want to eat genetically-engineered corn, soybeans, and other foods. But the USDA data shows that our farmland is much farther along in making up its mind.
* I really am a math whiz. This originally read "high school," but I ran the numbers again. I was in college back then. Been fixed.