Biotech crops help mitigate climate change, experts claim

  • 10 April 2015, Friday

Source: Manila Bulletin
11 Mar 2015

Unlike conventional agriculture, agri-biotechnology has positive effect on the environment, including helping mitigate climate change.

Such is one of the findings of a study dubbed the “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2014.”

The International Science for the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Applications (ISAAA) conducted the annual study, chiefly done by Dr. Clive James, founder and chairman emeritus of ISAAA.

“Conventional agriculture has impacted significantly on the environment, and biotechnology can be used to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture,” a summary of the study points out.

ISAAA identified these contributions as: significant reduction in pesticides, savings on fossil fuels; decreasing CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions achieved through the absence or less plowing of farm lands; conserving soil and moisture; and optimizing the practice of no till by applying herbicide tolerance.

“The cumulative reduction in pesticides, based on the latest information for the period 1996 to 2012, was estimated at around 500 million kilograms (kgs) of active ingredient (a.i.), a saving of 8.7 percent pesticides, which is equivalent to an 18.5 percent reduction in the associated environmental impact of pesticide use on these crops, as measured by the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ),” says ISAAA.

EIQ is described as a composite measure based on the different factors that contribute to the net environmental impact of an individual active ingredient.

Citing 2014 figures from Brookes and Barfoot, ISAAA said the corresponding data for 2012 alone showed a reduction of 36 million kgs a.i. (which is equal to a savings of 8 percent in pesticides and a reduction of 23.6 percent in EIQ.

The biotech agency also cited the contribution of GM crops on water conservation, particularly the drought resistant (DH).

“Increasing efficiency of water usage will have a major impact on conservation and availability of water globally. Seventy percent of fresh water is currently used by agriculture globally, and this is obviously not sustainable in the future as the population increases by almost 30 percent to over 9.6 billion by 2050,” ISAAA says.

It said the United States had already adopted for commercialization in 2013 the first biotech maize (corn) hybrids with some degree of drought tolerance.

Around 2017, it said the first tropical biotech drought tolerant maize is expected in sub-Saharan Africa, as ISAAA expressed confidence that drought tolerance “is expected to have a major impact on sustainable cropping systems worldwide,” especially in developing countries which suffer from likely prevalence of drought worse than in industrial countries.

 ISAAA’s study noted two principal ways that biotech crops contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gases and help mitigate climate change:

 “First is the permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions through reduced use of fossil-based fuels associated with fewer insecticide and herbicide sprays,” the agency notes.

The agency said this translated to a provisional estimated saving in 2013 of 2.1 billion kg of CO2, similar to getting off the roads 0.93 million cars.

ISAAA said the second way is the additional savings from conservation tillage for biotech food, feed and fiber crops. Conservation tillage is the need for less or no plowing because of herbicide tolerant GM crops.

It said this resulted “in an additional soil carbon sequestration equivalent in 2013 to 25.9 billion kg of CO2, or removing 11.5 million cars off the road for one year.”

When the permanent and the additional savings made as a result of sequestration of CO2 in 2013 were combined, the result “was equivalent to a saving of 28 billion kg of CO2 or removing 12.4 million cars from the road (for one year), up from 11.8 million in 2012,” citing Brookes and Barfoot in a forthcoming study this year.

Included in ISAAA’s global study is the Philippines, which since 2003 allowed the planting of Bacilllus thuringienses (Bt) corn. As a result, this placed the country  in the 12th spot of the top 19 countries the commercialized biotech crops in 2014 .

The small and resource-poor Filipino farmers numbering about 415,000, got the ranking for the country as they planted Bt corn to an estimated 831,000 hectares.

ISAAA and the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) launched recently the study in the Philippines.

In 2013 local farmers planted Bt corn to 795,000 hectares.

But since its commercialization in the country in 2003 as pest-resistant maize, biotech corn has steadily increased in land area.

Then in 2006, “a biotech corn variety with the combined traits of pest resistance and herbicide tolerant was introduced in the country,” which many farmers have adopted.

As a result, biotech corn by 2013 has contributed to security of feedstock supply as well as help in food self-sufficiency efforts, based on a separate report made by the National Corn Competitiveness Board (NCCB).

Eufemio T. Rasco, of the Department of Science and Technology-National Academy of Science and Technology, said this development of biotech corn meant bigger income for farmers because of significant reduction in their production expenses.

He was referring to less use of pesticide and the better quality of the  corn harvest as a result of technology.

Dr.  Rhodora Aldemita, senior program officer of ISAAA, discussed Clive’s study, saying that as of 2014, 18 million farmers worldwide, mostly in developing countries, planted various GM crops to 181 million hectares in 28 countries.

Biotech crops being planted around the world are soybean, corn, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, and papaya. Total value of biotech crops planted worldwide in 2014 was placed at $15.7 billion.