Reducing the environmental impact of agriculture through biotechnology

Reducing the environmental impact of agriculture through biotechnology

Biotechnology can play a major role in helping farmers overcome challenges such as protecting crops against insects, weeds and disease, as well as battling vagaries of the weather.

Much can be achieved without resorting to environmentally-harmful products and processes or over-reliance on irrigation, contributing to more sustainable farming practices as well as helping the EU meet its energy and climate-change goals.

Biotechnology has long provoked strong differences of opinion and the debate shows no sign of calming. But the technology has been here for many years and its advocates argue that the unique qualities and characteristics of genetically modified (GM) crops can bring about a positive environmental impact.

To date, scientists do not consider that the technology poses added risk. The World Health Organization, for example, says GM foods currently available have passed assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of consumption of such foods in countries where they have been approved.

Efficient water and carbon use

Advocates of biotechnology list many advantages of GM crops in addition to increased yields. They point to innovative second-generation products which are either already grown in countries outside Europe or still in development – such as ‘Golden Rice’, a variety designed to contain extra beta-carotene and so alleviate vitamin-A deficiency.

Biotech companies are experimenting with crops that can be modified to be drought and salt tolerant, or less reliant on fertilisers, opening up new areas to be farmed and increasing productivity, as well as helping to decrease amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of oxygen in the environment.

Drought-tolerant maize could be available to farmers within a few years, providing yield stability during periods of low rainfall by mitigating the effects of water scarcity. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops could help farmers save fuel by reducing the need to plough fields before planting, while insect-resistant crops will require less pesticide – together leading to more carbon-emission reductions.

Farmers growing biotech crops have been able to make use of no- or reduced-tillage systems that use weed control rather than ploughing. Apart from saving fuel and cutting emissions, this helps improve soil health and water retention by reducing runoff and not inverting the soil, so allowing moisture to be trapped. It also permits more efficient carbon storage in the soil.

Agriculture accounts for 70% of all water use. Given that many scientists predict worsening drought and hotter temperatures around the globe, agriculture will need to adapt to climate change if the EU is to meet its ambitious energy and climate agenda. Biotechnology can contribute by helping farmers reduce emissions and water loss.

Savings on pesticides

While there are longstanding disagreements over the merits of biotechnology for reducing pesticide use, there is some evidence that, in Europe at least, farmers have managed to cut down on pest control costs when growing biotech crops. At present, only one such crop for food use is authorised for commercial cultivation in the EU. That crop is MON 810 maize, developed and marketed by US company Monsanto; the only country where it is grown to any significant extent is Spain.

Monsanto’s product is a type of Bt maize, which gives plants resistance to attacks from corn borers, a pest prevalent in Europe that thrives in warmer climates and attacks stalks primarily by causing tunnelling damage. Chemical control of borers in conventional crops is difficult since insecticide sprays are only effective in a narrow timeframe.

In the first empirical study on the economic performance of a GM crop in the EU, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre showed average yield increases of 4.7% for Spanish farmers using Bt maize over conventional maize. The study, conducted over three growing seasons, showed average costs of insecticides used against corn borers varied between €4.50 and €20 a hectare in the regions examined. The report refers to several ex ante evaluations for potential adoption of herbicide-tolerant crops in the EU – rapeseed in France and sugar beet in Britain – and estimates significant savings in weeding costs.

Although Bt maize is generally more expensive than conventional seed, Spanish farmers using the biotech maize spent less on pest treatment than conventional growers and also obtained higher gross margins. Overall, combining the varying costs of seed and reduced expenditure on pesticides, average on-farm savings were significant – a net increase of €84 per hectare, representing an increase of 12% over the average gross margin obtained by a conventional maize farmer.

Place in future farm policy

Biotechnology looks set to continue to have a place in EU farm policy, particularly as an innovation-based science within the EU 2020 smart growth strategy. With the Commission’s November 2010 Communication on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), it is clear that a key priority after 2013 will be greater integration of environmental concerns, particularly the use of sustainable farming to help mitigate climate change and a mandatory ‘greening’ component within direct farm payments.

Innovation is stressed in terms of allowing EU farming to ‘release its latent productivity potential’ – something that biotechnology would be well placed to achieve by raising yields. The Communication also refers to a positive contribution through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, together with improvements in energy efficiency, biomass and renewable energy production, carbon sequestration and protection of carbon in soils based, again, on innovation.

While EU governments continue to disagree on plant biotechnology, the Commission has broken the years of deadlock with a proposal aimed at getting more cultivation approvals for GM crops. This would permit GM-wary countries in the EU to restrict cultivation of an EU-approved crop on part or all of their territory and, at the same time, allow farmers in more GM-friendly Member States to grow the biotech crops that they wish. It looks like a change is going to come, allowing biotechnology to play a large part in helping Europe tackle a series of key challenges.

More information