Rain and cold weather - especially in southeast Minnesota - have made planting this year's corn crop challenging for many farmers. Regardless of what Mother Nature throws at farmers, demand for food continues to grow and the amount of land is shrinking due to an increasing population.

While farmers continue to bring innovations to the field to deal with the weather and meet growing demand, a tried-and-true technology is making a big difference - biotechnology. While the process today is much different, farmers and gardeners have genetically altered plants and seeds for centuries. A simplified way to look at it is like this: By taking naturally occurring traits in one plant and introducing them into another, we're able to grow the best crop possible. Biotechnology simply serves as a more technologically advanced method of plant breeding. Farmers and their families consume everyday foods such as cereal and rice that are products of biotech traits. Many farmers also feed their livestock with biotech feed.

For corn farmers, biotech corn varieties allow for more food to be grown using fewer chemicals, which results in the crop being better able to withstand the environmental challenges of drought, excessive moisture, extreme cold, disease and insect infestation.

Biotech crops don't guarantee a healthy yield - see the challenges farmers are facing this spring as an example - but it helps. An estimated 88 percent of all corn planted this spring in the United States will be crop varieties that have been developed through biotechnology. How does biotechnology improve society?

• Biotechnology helps us feed our families. Regardless of the weather, farmers need to grow enough food for our growing population. Biotechnology has also made various foods more safe and nutritious, such as corn with more protein and rice with more vitamins.

• Biotechnology isn't just reserved for growing food - it also helps develop medicines and vaccines to fight disease. Scientists using biotechnology were able to develop the chicken pox and flu vaccines. Using this knowledge, scientists continue to develop drugs to save lives.

• Biotechnology reduces farmers' impact on the environment. Over the past decade, since the commercial adoption of biotech crops, the United States has seen gains in productivity per acre, while improving agriculture's efficiency in its use of resources, such as land, energy and water.

In addition to conserving the land, biotechnology corn can reduce the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. For example, scientists have developed strains of corn and other crops that produce their own protection against specifically targeted pests, therefore reducing the amount of pesticides needed to control them.

"It's hard to ignore that biotech crops are getting a lot of attention and consumers are being inundated with all kinds of sources of information, leading some to be concerned that these are crops that are grown in labs," says Jerry Ploehn, a corn farmer from Jackson County, Minn. "In reality, biotech crops are grown on family farms like mine. Hearing consumers ask those kinds of questions made me realize that we need to do a better job as farmers to explain how food is grown."

A recent Iowa State University study shows that without biotechnology, global prices would be nearly 6 percent higher for corn, alone. The economic benefits to farmers are a result of increased yields and lower production costs, including fewer pesticides needed. In turn, this has a positive impact on food prices.

In recent years, genetically modified foods have undergone intense scrutiny and are exhaustively assessed to ensure safety, nutritional value and environmental friendliness by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). All of these organizations agree with the scientific consensus: Biotech foods pose no new health or environmental risks.

Many are looking to biotechnology to solve future problems related to food production and health issues. For example, several renowned philanthropists and activists promote the use of biotechnology. Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, notes that biotechnology gives farmers access to more-productive, less-intensive crops. In addition, Mark Lynas, a British environmentalist who helped spur the anti-biotechnology movement in the mid-90s, recently apologized at the Oxford Farming Conference, admitting the importance of biotechnology and noting that we must take advantage of all the technology available to us, including biotech crops, to feed the growing world population.

"Biotechnology has played a major role in food production, and I've seen it firsthand," says Ploehn. "We have a finite amount of land available to grow our food on, and through biotechnology, food production has more than doubled in the last 20 years without adding additional acres.

"With a growing population to feed, I believe biotechnology is the only way farmers will be able to produce enough food," continues Ploehn. "Without this technology, we could see crop failure, leading to malnutrition and disease."

A most-common question people ask about biotechnology is, "Is it safe?" Ploehn says it is very safe. "I feed biotech corn to my animals, and my family eats food, like corn flakes, made from corn developed with biotech," concludes Ploehn. "I would never do this if it weren't safe. I believe as consumers better understand how biotech improves their lives, they will be more supportive of its role in food production in the future."

Minnesota Corn Growers Association is a membership-based organization dedicated to identifying and promoting opportunities for Minnesota's corn growers, while informing the non-farming public about the importance of agriculture. On the web at www.mncorn.org.