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Biotechnology and Sustainability

April 23, 2012
Last week, a post ran on BIOtechNOW celebrating Earth day and discussing biotechnology’s contributions to sustainability. It turns out; we’re not the only ones talking about it.

In a Council on Foreign Relations blog, Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at Harvard, writes that biotech crops are a necessary agricultural solution to help address the challenges of climate change and population growth. In regards to biotech crops he says, “It doesn’t make sense to reduce the size of the toolbox when the challenges are expanding.” In an earlier post, Juma gets specific showcasing stats on agricultural biotech’s impact on the environment:

  • “Over the 1996-2010 period, biotechnology crops have reduced 443 million kg of (active ingredient) pesticide use.”

  • “Another major impact of the adoption of biotechnology crops has been reduction of carbon emissions. In 2010 alone the world reduced 19 billion kg or carbon dioxide due to the use of biotechnology crops. This is the equivalent to taking about nine million cars off the road. The world also reduced its use of land by 91 million hectares by adopting the crops.”

Last month at a meeting of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), Professor Josephine Nketsia-Tabiri, director of Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) encouraged farmers in Ghana to embrace biotech crops. “Some critical challenges facing farmers including weeds, pests and diseases, spoilage due to over-ripening, inadequate irrigation and lack of mechanization can be addressed through effective application of biotechnology”, she said.

Recently, Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman spoke at the Norfolk Farming Conference, urging the EU to accept biotech crops. In addition to the economic sustainability it could bring, he highlighted environmental benefits saying, “But it would be irresponsible for us to turn our back against the enormous environmental and developmental benefits of GM and other agricultural innovation, at a time when the planet desperately needs these breakthroughs for sustainable development.”

A post just this past week shows researchers from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse are using biotechnology to try to bring back the historic American chestnut tree that has been nearly wiped out because of the chestnut blight, a fungus that made its way to the North American range from imported Asian chestnut trees. "This was a key species in the eastern forest. It was super at producing nuts for wildlife; very important for agriculture for human consumption of the nuts; very important for the lumber industry, making a rot-resistant, fast-growing wood product; and it was an important part of our history," William Powell, a plant biotechnology expert, said in a SUNY release. "We really want to bring it back. The only way it can come back is to make a resistant tree because no one has been able to control the blight any other way."

Despite all this recent news, biotech’s role in sustainability is not a new discussion. Read this 2010 Economist piece where Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology, University of California, Davis, says the future of our planet requires that we improve the environmental, economic and social impacts of our global farming systems—the three essential pillars of sustainable agriculture, and that biotech crops will continue to play an important role in this future.

The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture shows that the United States has seen productivity gains in agriculture since the adoption of biotech crops, while also improving efficiency in its use of resources including land, energy and water. As the population continues to grow stretching our planet’s resources to their limits, agricultural biotech practices can help conserve resources ensuring that future generations will have enough food and fuel.