Bumper Crop: Biotech Can Mitigate Climate Change

Can the biotechnology industry feed a hungry world?

Maybe not all by itself, but productivity gains through biotechnology are increasingly important, considering the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that feeding a world population of 9.1 billion in 2050 will require raising food production by 70 percent. That number jumps to 100 percent in developing countries, where farmers are more adversely affected by climate change.

The need for biotechnology to help offset climate change came to light in December at the climate talks in Copenhagen, when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released a report entitled The Effects of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems.

The USDA report identifies the following trends:

  • Grain and oilseed crops will mature more rapidly, but increasing temperatures up the risk of crop failures, particularly where precipitation decreases or becomes more variable.
  • Horticultural crops such as tomatoes, onions and fruit respond to climate change to a greater degree than grains and oilseed crops because of the high sensitivity of their quality and appearance to climate factors.
  • Livestock mortality will decrease with warmer winters. However, this will be greatly offset by higher mortality in hotter summers. Hotter temperatures will also result in reduced productivity of livestock and dairy animals because of changes in consumption and lower reproduction pregnancy rates.
  • Weeds will grow more rapidly under elevated atmospheric CO2, extend their range northward and be less sensitive to herbicide applications.
  • Disease and pest prevalence will escalate as a result of shorter, warmer winters, challenging crop, livestock and forest systems.

“According to this report, climate change is hurting crop production, distribution and yields directly through changes in temperature and precipitation and indirectly by increasing pest and weed outbreaks,” says Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, BIO’s executive vice president for food and agriculture.

“Through biotechnology, crops yield more per acre, plants naturally resist insect pests and diseases and farmers use less energy,” she adds. “Genetically engineered plants and animals can naturally fight diseases and adapt to environmental stress.”

In his address in Copenhagen, Vilsack pointed out that science and technology are already playing a critical role in combating the negative effects of climate change. Through research, the biotechnology industry is helping to increase yields, produce crops that are resistant to the effects of climate change, help farmers convert to no-till practices and develop solutions that decrease carbon-based fertilizers.

“Action by the United States and other developed countries is not enough,” he stressed. “Climate change is a global challenge that demands a global solution. There is simply no way to preserve a safe and livable planet unless major developing countries play a globally responsible role along with the United States in the climate negotiations.”