Biotech crops contribute to reducing the environmental impact of productive agriculture, thereby increasing global food security without the need for increased land clearance. Insect resistant crops offer an alternative to chemical inputs on some crops and have allowed development of more targeted, flexible, effective and sustainable integrated pest management programmes. Biotech applications in the R&D pipeline (disease resistant, drought and stress tolerant crops) offer additional opportunities to increase global food security while further reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture.
The adoption of GM insect resistant and herbicide tolerant technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 671.4 million kg (8.2%) and, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops (as measured by the indicator, the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ)) by 18.4%. The technology has also facilitated important cuts in fuel use and tillage changes, resulting in a significant reduction in the release of greenhouse gas emissions from the GM cropping area. In 2016, this was equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars from the roads.(Brookes and Barfoot, 2018)
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In 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion people. It is currently 7 billion, and projections are that it will reach 9 billion by 2050. It is estimated that the world needs at least 70% more food by 2050. Improvements in agricultural practices and technologies have achieved huge successes in helping to meet the food, feed and fibre needs of this growing population. However, by its very nature, agriculture is disruptive to the environment, and much work and research is now taking place to limit and decrease the “environmental footprint” it leaves.
Biotech crops help to reduce the environmental impact of productive agriculture in several ways. Biotech crops have helped reduce the use of pesticides for several economically important crops, contributing to reductions in fuel, water and packaging that are eliminated from the manufacturing, distribution and application processes.
Biotech crops assist in bringing higher yields per hectare, making farming more efficient and productive on limited land area. Habitat destruction is the biggest single threat to biodiversity. Higher yields mean farmers can produce increasing amounts of food without increasing arable land and this has a major impact on protecting wildlife habitats.
Herbicide tolerant crops are great enablers of zero-tillage agriculture, a substantial contributor to sustainable agriculture. Zero-tillage means sowing seed directly into the field, without first ploughing to remove weeds. By leaving the soil undisturbed, more moisture is retained, which is good for water conservation. Other indirect benefits of zero-tillage are improved conservation of beneficial soil insects and earth worms. By using fewer fuel powered agricultural machines, carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere are decreased and fossil fuels are conserved. Less tractor traffic also causes indirect benefits to soil quality, and hence a reduced contribution towards global warming.