Environmental Benefits

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.

Progress to-date includes: a significant reduction in pesticides; saving on fossil fuels; decreasing CO2 emissions through no/less ploughing; and conserving soil and moisture by optimizing the practice of no till through application of herbicide tolerance. The accumulative reduction in pesticides, based on the latest information for the period 1996 to 2012, was estimated at ~500 million kilograms (kgs) of active ingredient (a.i.), a saving of 8.7% in pesticides, which is equivalent to an 18.5% reduction in the associated environmental impact of pesticide use on these crops, as measured by the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ).(Brookes and Barfoot, 2014)

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% to over 9.6 billion by 2050. The first biotech maize hybrids with a degree of drought tolerance were commercialized in 2013 in the USA, and the first tropical biotech drought tolerant maize is expected by ~2017 in sub-Saharan Africa. Drought tolerance is expected to have a major impact on more sustainable cropping systems worldwide, particularly in developing countries, where drought will likely be more prevalent and severe than industrial countries.(James C., 2015)

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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.

Key references:

James C., Global status of Commercialized biotech/GM Crops: 2015, ISAAA Brief No. 51-2015

James C., Global status of Commercialized biotech/GM Crops: 2016, ISAAA Brief No. 52-2016

Brookes P., and Barfoot G., 2014, Key global environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2012