Sustainably enhancing agricultural production

Today, achieving sustainability in food grain production and food security in its totality continue to be a huge challenge for the world, especially for the developing countries. Soil erosion, water shortages, climate change and shrinking farmland pose serious threats to essential resources, while human needs continue to grow. By 2050, the world will have to feed more than nine billion people. To meet future food and agricultural raw materials demands, current levels of global agricultural production must double by that time. To achieve this, the world desperately needs to continuously increase per acre yields of all major crops. In other words, the world direly needs sustainable agriculture, which means producing sufficient, affordable, quality food, while protecting the environment and biodiversity and ensuring farming is economically viable and contributes to the well being of local communities, while maintaining the ability to do all of this in the long term. Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has repeatedly said that the world needs paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture to meet future needs.

But, the question is how the world can increase agriculture productivity and sustainability in future? Like always, science and innovation, which have always been the key forces behind agricultural growth in the past, in the form of biotechnology can greatly help the world meet future agricultural needs. Currently, dependence on biotechnology or biotech crops for sustainably enhancing agriculture production is imperative because this revolutionary technology is already helping countries in all six continents of the world to produce more with less. And most importantly, considering the ongoing research work for previously-unimaginable crops improvement globally, biotechnology has enormous potential for future, say by 2050, when even lesser land will be available for farming and climate change too would have become a gigantic threat to world’s agriculture.

Today, it is only biotechnology that can contribute significantly to address current global challenges and help address food insecurity because it is this technology that has delivered, and continues to deliver, technologies and solutions which were unimaginable in the past. The use of biotech crops enables farmers to produce more food on less land and with less impact on the environment. Among the benefits are reduced pesticides uses and decreased soil erosion and increased farmer’s incomes. Furthermore, biotechnology can help to overcome some limitations of conventional breeding and can generate more crops with increased tolerance to diseases and pests, crops with drought tolerance and crops with enhanced nutritional value to fight malnutrition in many developing countries. These beneficial traits can have a major impact on the challenges the world is currently facing.

As far as contribution of biotech crops to sustainability is concerned, the technology has already delivered in five ways. Firstly, biotech crops are contributing to food, feed and fiber security and self-sufficiency, including more affordable food, by increasing productivity and economic benefits sustainably at the farmer level. Global data shows that provisional economic gains at the farm level of around US$133.3 billion were generated globally by biotech crops during the eighteen years period 1996 to 2013, of which 30% were due to reduced production costs (less ploughing, fewer pesticide sprays and less labor) and 70% due to substantial yield gains of 441.4 million tons. For 2013 alone, economic gains at the farm level were US$20.4 billion, of which approximately 12% were due to reduced production costs and approximately 88% due to substantial yield gains of 64 million tons.

Secondly, biotechnology is conserving biodiversity and is a land-saving technology. Biotech crops are a land-saving technology, capable of higher productivity on the current 1.5 billion hectares of arable land, and thereby can help preclude deforestation and protect biodiversity in forests and in other in-situ biodiversity sanctuaries. Approximately 13 million hectares of biodiversity – rich tropical forests, are lost in developing countries annually. It is important to note here that if the 441.4 million tons of additional food, feed and fiber produced by biotech crops during the period 1996 to 2013 had not been produced, an additional 132 million hectares of conventional crops would have been required to produce the same tonnage. Some of the additional 132 million hectares would probably have required fragile marginal lands, not suitable for crop production, to be ploughed, and for tropical forest, rich in biodiversity, to be felled to make way for slash and burn agriculture in developing countries, thereby destroying biodiversity.

Thirdly, biotech crops are contributing to the alleviation of poverty and hunger. To date, biotech cotton in developing countries such as China, India, Myanmar, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, South Africa and even our country Pakistan, which is officially planting Bt cotton since 2010, have already made a significant contribution to the income of around 16.5 million small resource-poor farmers in 2014, and this can be enhanced significantly in the coming years, when more improved biotech crops, which are currently being developed globally, would be available, especially for developing countries.

Fourthly, biotech crops are also reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint. 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 for the period 1996 to 2012 was estimated at 497 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. 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. Drought tolerance is expected to have a major impact on more sustainable cropping systems worldwide, particularly in developing countries like Pakistan, where drought is more prevalent and severe than industrial countries.

Fifthly and lastly, biotech crops are also helping mitigate climate change and reducing greenhouse gases. The important and urgent concerns about the environment have implications for biotech crops, which contribute to a reduction of greenhouse gases and help mitigate climate change in two principal ways. First, permanent savings in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through reduced use of fossil-based fuels, associated with fewer insecticide and herbicide sprays. Provisionally in 2013 alone, this was an estimated saving of 2.1 billion kg of CO2, equivalent to reducing the number of cars on the roads by 0.93 million. Secondly, additional savings from conservation tillage (need for less or no ploughing facilitated by herbicide tolerant biotech crops) for biotech food, feed and fiber crops, led to an additional soil carbon sequestration equivalent in 2013 to 25.9 billion kg of CO2, or removing 11.5 million cars off the road for one year.

Based on what biotechnology has already achieved, it can be said that biotech crops are already contributing to sustainability as they help farmers increase crop productivity, conserve biodiversity, reduce agriculture’s eco-footprint, mitigate climate change and alleviate poverty and hunger, and most importantly the potential for the future is enormous. In short, if the world wants to sustainably enhance agricultural production in the coming years to meet ever-increasing needs, it will have to expedite efforts towards a sustainable agriculture by promoting biotechnology. Currently, the world in general and developing countries like Pakistan in particular do not seem to be on course to feed the growing population but we all can certainly get back on track by embracing biotechnology, which can pave the way for more efficient agricultural practices that make better use of fast-shrinking farmland.