Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

AgBiotech and combating climate change

By David Zilberman

There is a growing concern about climate change and much of the worry pertains to the implications of climate change for food and agriculture. There is emerging evidence that increased heat beyond a certain threshold is likely to reduce yields and that climate change will require adaptation and change in land use patterns across locations. For example, farmers will need to switch to crop varieties that are more drought and heat tolerant and farming systems may need to adjust to new pests that arise from changing climates. Technologies that will enable agriculture to adapt to changing weather patterns should be a very valuable component in responding to climate change. Such technologies will have extra appeal if they can also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.

We will argue that agricultural biotechnology and GMO (genetically modified organisms) can contribute to adaption of climate change and has already contributed to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. It suggests that changes in the regulatory environment that will enable faster adoption and further development of biotechnology will be major social and environmental benefits.

Agricultural biotechnology applies the new knowledge of molecular biology and genetics that followed the discovery of DNA in the 1950s to improve crops and livestock. Tools of biotechnology have revolutionized medicine and similar tools have been developed to increase agricultural productivity. With genetic modification, scientists can modify a small number of genes in plants and provide it with the capacity to resist disease, improve product quality, have a longer shelf life, etc. Thus far, the main application of GMOs in agriculture has been pest resistance and enabling the yearlong use of herbicides. This technology has been used mostly with four crops: corn, soybean, cotton and canola. Countries in North and South America adopted GM varieties for all of these crops and China and India and other countries have adopted it with cotton. Europe has practically banned the use of GM varieties and it has been hardly adopted in most African countries, except for South Africa. But even with limited use, biotechnology has made significant positive impacts.

A recent National Research Council report documented the major environmental benefits to GMOs relative to traditional farming. GMOs in the US and in other countries, reduce significantly the use of rather toxic pesticide chemicals and there is evidence that they actually save significant amount of lives in India and China. While in the US and China, GM varieties mostly replaced pesticide chemicals, in countries with lower use of pesticides, GMOs were able to reduce pest damage that can be very high. Adoption of Bt cotton was estimated to double yields in developing countries while the yield effect in developed countries was about 25%. In developing countries, GMO was estimated to increase yield by 60% while in developed countries, the yield effect was estimated to be 20%. These GM varieties increase yield both by reducing pest damage but also by making production more profitable so that farmers apply more intensive fertilizer, which also contributed to increase yields. Adoption of GMOs enabled to increase the output of soybean in Argentina by controlling weeds that allow double cropping of soybean and wheat. The increased supply because of GMOs contributed to reduce commodity food prices. We estimated that the commodity food price reduction effect, because of GMOs, is at least as big as price increases due to diversion of crops to produce biofuel. The very poor in developing countries are the main beneficiaries for increased agricultural supply and reduced commodity food prices and by increasing supply, GMOs help the poor and literally saves lives.

It is easy to show that if restrictions on the adoption of GMOs would have been removed and adoption rates of GM varieties in Europe would have been similar to the observed patterns of adoption, then much of the recent increase in commodity food prices would have been diminished. Introduction of GM varieties to wheat and rice would have further reduced commodity prices whereby helping the poor and would have released resources for other uses.

But these impacts of GM varieties have significant impact on climate change. Increases in yields suggest fewer amounts of land, as well as fertilizer and other chemicals are required for agricultural production. Reduction of land requirements for agriculture slows the process of deforestation and the immense emission of greenhouse gases associated with it. Agricultural fertilizers, as well as irrigation and other chemicals, are very energy intensive and reduction of its use due to GMOs also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The land use saving effect of GM varieties is estimated to have the equivalent effect of taking between 800,000-9 million passenger cars off of the road. We figure that the adoption of Bt cotton in the US saves the equivalent of carbon emissions from 25,000 cars per year, achieved by reducing agro-chemical use. The use of herbicide-tolerant varieties enable large scale adoption of low-tillage practices that sequester carbon and greenhouse gas sequestering effect is estimated to be equal to that of taking 6.4 million cars off the road.

These are preliminary estimates and depend on assumptions, but they demonstrate a significant contribution of GM to the mitigation of climate change. Greenhouse gas emission reduction would have been much larger if GM varieties would have been used in other crops, for example wheat and rice, by reducing their acreage. Another source of impact of GMOs on greenhouse gases is through their effect on commodity prices. There is a growing concern that increases in commodity food prices population and economic growth as well as biofuel, is leading to deforestation and extra greenhouse gas emissions. The reduction of food prices associated with the adoption of GMOs will reduce this effect.

Unfortunately, the countries and groups that are most concerned about climate change are frequently strongly opposed to expansion of GMOs. As with any new technology, GMOs may pose some risk but the experience thus far suggests that these risks are minimal. Obviously policies to monitor and control risks are important but regulations need to enable the technology to reach its potential to help people. It seems that the decisions to ban GMOs entirely or heavily regulate it, are based on desire to control uncertain low probability risks without realizing certain large gains are being lost.

The heavy regulation of GMOs are unsound not only because of the loss of benefits from existing varieties, but because of the loss of potential benefits from newer applications of GMOs. The rate of innovation and patenting was growing very fast until 1999 but after the European ban on GM varieties, the innovation rate has declined. Many scientists have tens of new traits on the shelf and are unable to find investors, either private or public, that will commercialize these innovations and move them further. Among these innovations are traits that increase the digestibility of feed crops like soybean, which reduce the amount of land required per ton of meat (thus reducing deforestation and agricultural chemical use) and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that is released by cattle during digestion. Other unutilized traits can optimize water use and increase resistance to a wide variety of pests and expand shelf life. All of these unutilized traits have the potential increase significantly the productivity of resource use in agriculture and thus reduce energy required as well as the greenhouse gases it emits.

While GM varieties have already made a contribution, their ability to develop them quickly and effectively will be crucial as the pace and severity of climate change intensifies the need for fast adaptation is more acute. The concern about the risk of GMOs is understandable but you have to take small risks to avoid big ones. We should strive for policy reforms where Europe will become friendlier to GMOs and the US will join, and even lead the global effort to contain climate change. Climate change is a major challenge and we need the best tools we have to fight it. We need to fight fire with fire.