Numerous scientific studies show that the use of biotechnology in agriculture can help to protect biodiversity and stem its loss.
The main causes of biodiversity degradation are habitat/species loss, invasive species, over-exploitation, pollution and climate change. Biodiversity conservation has become a global concern requiring a comprehensive and integrated approach. There are different methods and strategies to conserve biodiversity, and biotechnology can play an important role in many of them.
Some biotechnology related methods can be applied directly to species of interest, for example, through cryopreservation of cells, tissues, gametes, oocytes, DNA samples, etc. stored in a genetic databank; a range of in vitro techniques (tissue culture, micropropagation and cloning); and artificial insemination, to mention a few.
Other biotechnology related methods can be applied to entire ecosystems to address pollution or control invasive species. Since agricultural practices are the second largest contributor to biodiversity loss the changes made to agricultural systems through biotechnology can also have great positive impacts on biodiversity.
Agriculture is practiced in approximately 40 percent of the world’s landmass. By replacing natural ecosystems, it has become the largest terrestrial biome on our planet. Most of the land used to produce crops (~96 percent) is farmed using conventional methods but this trend is shifting. Since the first genetically modified (GM) plants — antibiotic resistant tobacco and petunia — were successfully created in the 1980s, GM/biotech crops have been the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.
How GM crops benefit biodiversity
After so many years of production, there is ample scientific literature that demonstrates how GM crops have had a positive impact on biodiversity. Some include:
Protecting farmland biodiversity
There is a substantial body of literature addressing the potential beneficial impacts of GM crops on the environment in the context of farmland diversity. GM crops preserve varietal diversity in many crops. For example, they can be engineered to resist insect pests, reducing the use of synthetic insecticides and resulting in higher insect biodiversity on farms when compared to planting similar conventional varieties and using synthetic insecticides.
Reducing pesticide use
Modern biotechnology can help protect the environment from pesticide use. GM crops that are resistant to pests have significantly contributed to the reduction of insecticide sprays around the world. It is estimated insect-resistant crops reduced global pesticide use by 37 percent.
Reducing toxic levels in herbicide use
Many GM crops produced through modern biotechnology have helped decrease the use of herbicides with acute (or short-term) toxicity and chronic (or long-term) toxicity.
Decreasing CO2 emissions
The use of some GM crops contributed to tens of millions of acres transitioning to zero-tillage. The reduction in tillage has produced a significant environmental benefit, resulting in 2.4 billion kg fewer carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, the adoption of GM technology in corn, soybean and cotton reduced agricultural land and input use, saving 0.15 Gt of GHG emissions, equivalent to roughly one-eighth the emissions from automobiles in the US.
Avoiding farmland expansion
Modern biotechnology can help produce more with less land. Higher yields on cultivated land could reduce the need for additional cropland expansion, thus preserving natural biodiversity. Without the productivity gains from GMOs during recent years, around 25 million hectares of additional farmland would have to be cultivated globally, in order to maintain current agricultural production levels. Farmland expansion is an important contributing factor to biodiversity loss and climate change.
Addressing climate change
GM crops currently under development have produced evidence that if adopted they could contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Drought-tolerant maize varieties have been reported to perform better than conventional varieties across several countries in eastern and southern Africa. Moreover, GM crops have been proposed as an important part of an integrated strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as drought and potential damage of fall armyworm in Africa.
Because agriculture is the second-largest driver of biodiversity loss, agriculture must also be a part of the solution to biodiversity loss. Biotech crops are not going to solve all our agricultural problems, but they have shown great promise as noted in the examples above. Cooperation and community involvement will be essential to continue communicating these benefits and helping farmers add this technology to their agricultural tool box.
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Sol Guerrero Ortiz is a Department Member at Cornell University specializing in ethnozoology, ethnobiology and mastozoology.