Biotechnology and Sustainability: Supporting Sustainable Solutions in Agriculture
Concerns about growing populations, increased food scarcity and the environment have led researchers, farmers, non-profit organizations, governments and industry representatives to work together to help find sustainable solutions to meet the world’s growing demand for food, fuel and water. Now more than ever, agricultural practices need to get more from cultivated land with a lighter environmental footprint, and in an economical way.
The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture—a diverse group of growers, conservation organizations, and companies throughout the agriculture and food supply chain—defines sustainable agriculture as follows:
- Meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs;
- Increasing productivity to meet future food demands;
- Decreasing impacts on the environment;
- Improving human health; and
- Improving the social and economic well-being of agricultural communities.
According to the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, over the past decade, since the commercial adoption of biotech crops such as corn, soybeans and cotton, the United States has seen gains in productivity (yield) per acre, while improving agriculture’s efficiency in its use of resources such as land, energy and water.
Every year, population growth is putting a heavier strain on the planet’s land and water resources. To conserve natural resources for future generations, it is necessary to use sustainable agricultural practices to produce enough food, fuel, feed and fiber for ourselves and for generations to come.
Agricultural biotechnology can increase protection against weeds, insects and diseases, and has the potential in the future to help plants better tolerate stresses like droughts, floods, excessive cold, and salt. The use of pest-resistant crops means that farmers can use more targeted crop protection products, which helps further reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint.
Biotech-derived crops allow for higher productivity on land currently under cultivation, preventing the conversion of tropical forests and land used for other, non-agricultural purposes to farmland. If biotech-derived crops had not been used to produce the 229 million tons of food, feed and fiber that farmers produced globally from 1996-2009, farmers would have had to convert an estimated 185 million additional acres to farmland (Brookes and Barfoot, 2011).
New developments will help American farmers produce crops that use water more efficiently, thus reducing the negative consequences of drought such as yield or total crop loss. Drought-tolerant corn is expected to be available in the United States in 2012 (James, 2010). Field trials of drought-tolerant wheat in Australia have shown up to a 20 percent yield increase compared with conventional varieties (James, 2010).
Reducing Carbon Emissions
With the adoption of biotech crops, farmers have reduced the tilling needed to control weeds, resulting in better containment of carbon in the soil (sequestration) and less tractor fuel needed to plow the land. In 2009, the combined savings of carbon emissions attributable to biotech crops was equivalent to removing almost eight million cars from the road (James, 2010).
Biotech crops enhanced farm income in the United States by $29.8 billion from 1996 to 2009 (Brookes and Barfoot, 2011).
Of the 15.4 million farmers who grew biotech crops in 2009, 93 percent were small-holder or resource-poor farmers from developing countries (James, 2010).
The economic benefits to farmers are a result of increased yields and lower production costs, such as fewer pesticides needed and increased income from more crops sold to meet demand (Brookes and Barfoot, 2009).
Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. GM crops: Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2007, PG Economics Ltd, Dorchester, UK, 2009. http://www.pgeconomics.co.uk/index.htm
Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. GM crops: Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2009, PG Economics Ltd, Dorchester, UK., 2011.
James, Clive. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech /GM Crops, 2010.
Keystone Center. Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture – Environmental Resource Indicators for Measuring Outcomes of On-Farm Agricultural Production in the U.S., First Report, 2009. http://keystone.org/spp/env-sustain_ag.html