Faculty Editor: Professor Heather Olins
The absolute greatest controversy in today’s agriculture industry is the production and sale of genetically modified crops, even despite the safe consumption of GM crops by hundreds of millions of people worldwide for over 15 years. The debate over these foods among everyday consumers and the push to carefully label GM products has stigmatized what has been identified in the scientific community as a potential solution to many of the world’s agricultural ailments. GM crops have been developed to alleviate everything from nutritional deficiencies to high cost of growing, but one of the greatest areas of potential for genetically modified crops is the role they play in combating the ever-increasing environmental stress of climate change. The growing problem of climate change makes biotechnology, like genetically modified crops, an important method for reducing existing environmental strains on agriculture, but also for ensuring that the people who live in regions most affected by climate change can continue to support themselves nutritionally and financially.
While climate change is a global issue, its effects are not felt equally among the world’s various populations. The major contributors to climate change have been the most industrialized nations of the world, but, according to a paper from the World Health Organization, “the greatest risks are to the poorest populations, who have contributed least to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” The economies of underdeveloped nations rely even more heavily on agribusiness, thereby making climate change a serious economic issue, as well as a nutritional one. In 2017, the United Nations Climate Change Annual Report identified that nearly 84% of the economic consequences of drought affect the agricultural sector. Another report by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development predicted that water availability in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North and Southern Africa is projected to decline dramatically due to climate change and population growth in the next several decades. Furthermore, developing countries tend to rely on developed countries for advancements in agricultural technology; however, those advancements often do not address the specific economic and environmental needs of the developing countries. A huge economic gap separates the nations that cause climate change from the nations that most feel its effects, and, subsequently, those economically-limited nations tend to lack access to technology that would combat climate change effects.
The implementation of biotechnology offers farmers a host of solutions to the problems created by climate change. Several varieties of crops have been designed to include tolerance to heat, drought, and salinity (to combat rising sea levels), as well as to increase the speed of maturation to reduce the time of potential exposure to extreme weather. Additionally, scientists anticipate that global increases in temperatures could alter pest and disease pressures by shortening dormant periods, enhancing the speed of pest maturation, and increasing the resistance of pest populations to intervention by farmers. Biotechnology is essential to combat these environmental pressures at the present time, but we can also expect the need for this technology to increase significantly as the effects of climate change grow ever more severe.
Currently, certain developing nations are engaging biotechnology to assist their farming-dependent populations. Specifically, Uganda is thoroughly exploring the GM crop field by conducting research on banana, maize, cotton, and cassava. This research aims to promote resistance to bacterial wilt, drought, bollworms, herbicides, cassava mosaic disease, and cassava brown streak virus disease, all of which contribute to crop failure due to natural occurrence and climate change causes. Since 2008, the Ugandan government has invested in GM crops by training scientists, building biotechnology laboratories, and funding research into disease-resistant varieties of banana and cassava. Across the planet, over 15 million people are farming GM crops and most of these farmers are from developing nations including India, Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa.
However, GM crops not only benefit the farmers experiencing the effects of climate change, but also serve to combat climate change itself. GM crops have resulted in environmental benefits including reducing pesticide usage, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and bolstering non-food crop production, all of which decrease pesticide and fossil fuel consumption. Biotech crops have been engineered that allow for decreased usage of fertilizers, pesticides, and the associated equipment and the use of this technology has already lowered pesticide usage by 503 million kilograms (-8.8%). Increasing temperatures due to climate change also result in the proliferation and wider distribution of insects or other pests, thereby increasing the need for pesticides in farming. Not only do GM crops have the potential to be environmentally-friendly alternatives to pesticides, but they also help to break a cycle of pesticide use that begins and ends with increasing climate change. Additionally, the agriculture industry accounts for 10-12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and biotechnology has brought about a significant reduction in greenhouse gases since the inception of their use. In 2012 alone, the reduction in greenhouse gas emission due to GM crops was equivalent to removing 11.88 million cars from the roads. Finally, while the bulk of GM crops include food products, there are several uses for crops outside of the food industry, including timber, paper, and chemicals for use in biofuels. The development and usage of these GM materials similarly encourage a reduction in waste, greenhouse gas production, and other historical climate change causes.
Genetically modified crops have been a controversial part of the agriculture industry for years, but these crops offer a multifaceted solution to many causes and effects of climate change. They also offer farmers in developing nations an inexpensive way to combat the effects of climate change. The avoidance of harmless genetically modified foods has developed into a class symbol for the wealthiest members of industrialized nations in Europe and North America; however, farmers in the developing nations who have been hit hardest by climate change should not go without this technology for the sake of prejudice against GM crops. Biotechnology has already proven a huge boon to the climate change-stricken agriculture industry and will continue to prove essential as the effects of climate change worsen.
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