GM crops: the green solution

December 2, 2014 | 0

The world is facing the multiple challenges of a growing population, climate change and increasing pressure on resources such as water and land. By 2050, the Earth will house 9.3 billion people, a rise of 3 billion in less than half a century. Adequate food production and its delivery will be critical, but also tremendously tough.

Meanwhile, the destruction of our forests and the increasing use of fossil fuels is raising temperatures – a rise of 1.4-5.80 C by 2100 is estimated. This will alter rain patterns and force us to change our agricultural practices.

In recent times, the climate has been getting inconsistent. Changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures can wreak havoc with crop life cycles. As can dropping nutrient levels in the soil and the transformation of arable land into arid.

There is a clear need to develop drought- and salinity-resistant crops, and advances are being made on this front. Many drought-tolerant genes have been identified and institutes such as ICARDA have been developing salt- and drought-tolerant wheat and barley through biotechnology. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has reported that experiments in Egypt have successfully reduced water use for wheat by 70%.

Genetically modified (GM) crops have significant environmental benefits: reduction in pesticide use as well as that of water, coupled with higher per-hectare farm yields.

‘A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops’, a study published on November 3, 2014, in the journal ‘PLOS One’ analysed the costs and benefits for agriculture and the environment.

The study examined the results of 147 studies looking at GM soybeans, maize and cotton, the world’s most common GM commodity crops. It found that GM technology increases crop yields by 22%, reduces pesticide use by 37% and increases farmer profits by 68%. The gains are greater in developing countries – such as India – than in developed countries.

There is earlier research that corroborates this and adds that GM technology lowers soil erosion too. Because GM crops produce insecticides in their tissues, they reduce labour man-hours, fuel use and chemical inputs.

A study of the environmental impact of biotech crops between 1996 and 2012 showed that GM technology reduced pesticide spraying by 503 million kg and reduced the environmental footprint of pesticide use by 18.7%. The technology lowered greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture equivalent to the removal of 11.9 million cars from the roads.

Biotech cotton has also been documented to positively effect on the number and diversity of beneficial insects in the US and Australian cotton fields.

Environmental stability is humanity’s greatest challenge. The ability to tackle it while simultaneously meeting food demand is a monumental task. Technology holds the key. GM has the power to help humanity meet these twin challenges.

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