Western innovator: Farmer leads biotech push
Growers' organization advocates for greater acceptance of biotech
By DAVE WILKINS
When Doug Jones retired from farming he immediately started to look for something that would allow him to stay involved in the industry.
He found it in a group called Growers for Biotechnology.
The organization is a strong advocate for research, development and acceptance of agricultural biotechnology through public policy outreach.
Jones' extensive farming background, coupled with two decades in the Idaho Legislature, made him a good fit as executive director, members of the group said.
"He brings a good perspective to an organization like ours that has a focus on broad policy issues," said Barry Bushue, a member of the organization's board of directors.
For farmers, influencing public policy "is what it's all about these days," said Bushue, who is also president of the Oregon Farm Bureau. "Doug brings an understanding of that process."
Jones and Celia Gould, now director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, served together on the House Agricultural Affairs Committee. Jones was the chairman for 10 years.
"Doug was always very active in agricultural issues in the Legislature," Gould said. "That was the primary focus for him."
He was instrumental in pushing through legislation that strengthened Idaho's commodity warehouse indemnity law, Gould said. The measure helped protect growers from the financial fallout when warehouse operators fail.
"That legislation was very innovative at the time and still serves us well today," she said.
Jones owned and operated an irrigated row crop farm for 35 years near Filer, Idaho, with his father and brother.
In 2005, he accepted a position as vice president of agricultural services for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., a 37,000-acre plantation and sugar cane processing company on Maui.
He managed all of the tillage, weed control and planting activity on the plantation.
"It wasn't something I planned," Jones said. "I was recruited into the job."
It was no vacation.
"We farmed 24/7, 365 days a year," he said. "I'm glad I went. I learned a lot. But after two and a half years on the island, we were ready to come back home."
While biotechnology doesn't enjoy universal support among farmers, it's supported by the vast majority of producers, Jones said.
"I think the technology has come a long ways in the past few years in terms of acceptance, certainly within the farming community," he said.
That strong acceptance can be seen in the high percentage of certain crops that are now planted with genetically modified seed, Jones said.
More than 90 percent of U.S. corn acreage and 85 to 90 percent of all soybeans are now biotech. Cotton and canola plantings are in the range of 80 to 90 percent biotech, and sugar beet plantings were about 95 percent last year, he said.
"Those are extremely high numbers," Jones said.
Genetically engineered crops such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready varieties are helping farmers grow a higher-quality crop with less impact on the environment, he said.
"Yes, farmers are spending more money on (biotech) seed, but less on chemicals and tillage," Jones said.
"Farmers are saving money on fuel, labor costs and tillage. That leads to better environmental stewardship, with less wind and water erosion," he said.
Jones is convinced that scientific research has shown biotech crops to be safe, despite critics who continue to express doubts.
"These companies have spent tens of millions of dollars developing this technology, then have had to run it through the whole regulatory process of the federal government," he said.
Government scientists wouldn't approve biotech crops if the technology hadn't been found to be totally safe, he said.
"We have the safest food supply in the world," Jones said.
Looking ahead, Jones fully expects to see more biotech crop introductions, both for large program crops and smaller specialty crops. Biotech wheat probably isn't far away.
Farmers have found that they can make a lot more money growing genetically modified corn and soybeans than they can with conventional wheat, Jones said.
"Wheat acres are declining," he said. "The industry has recognized that they are going to have to do something or people are going to stop growing wheat if they have other options."
Position: Executive director of Growers for Biotechnology
Family: Married to Mary Elizabeth; three grown children, three grandchildren
Hometown: Filer, Idaho; now lives in Meridian, Idaho
Education: Bachelor's degree in agricultural mechanization, University of Idaho, 1972