Climate change, agriculture and biotechnology part 1

Climate change

Climate change

Every year, nations come together to work out solutions to mitigating/adapting to the devastating effects of our changing climate. The issues of renewables are now at their loudest, no thanks to the devastating effects of climate change.

Most obvious manifestation would be the change in weather conditions; many countries are now experiencing more heat waves, storms and floods. We will not in a hurry forget the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina in the USA or the typhoon Haiyan of the Philippines. All have their increased devastation attributed to change in climate. Coming back to Nigeria, We are losing about 350,000m2 of land mass to desert condition yearly, which is advancing southwardly at an estimated rate of 0.6 kilometre a year, all thanks to change in our climate.

Agriculture a key contributor to climate change
Thirty per cent of the world’s agricultural land is affected by the drastic effects of climate change. If nothing is done, climate change could cost the world at least loss of 5% of GDP each year; if more dramatic predictions come to pass, the cost could rise to more than 20% of GDP. Iloh et al. in a 2014 publication reported that an increase in just 2 degrees of temperature could drastically affect seed germination and seedling growth of maize, rice and sorghum; three important cereal crops in Nigeria. Indeed, according to Lybbert and Summer, 2015, the implications of change in our climate on agriculture is very direct, clear and with great impacts.

Studies have shown that the agriculture sector contributes greatly to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Fossil fuel for farm inputs and equipment, animal agriculture, land clearing and preparation are significant contributors to GHG emissions. No wonder the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that farming is responsible for over a quarter of total global greenhouse gas emissions. There is therefore an important need for interlinkages between agriculture and climate.

There are model reports which combined agronomic and economic variables to show that global agriculture will drop in production by 6% in 2080 when compared with models that do not take climate change into consideration. As temperatures become hotter and precipitations change, access to water supply for agriculture becomes a problem; we might just be having a drastic shortage of water for irrigated lands and quite disturbing will be totally lack of water to farms where there are no access to water supply…

Biotechnology can contribute positively by mitigating the impact of climate change in agriculture through greenhouse gas reduction, crops adaptation and increase in yield using less land (Treasury, 2009). As a matter of fact, agricultural biotechnology can provide solutions which include tissue culture, conventional breeding, molecular marker-assisted breeding and genetic engineering. Advances in breeding help agriculture achieve higher yields and meet the needs of expanding population with limited land and water resources. As a result of improved plant breeding techniques, the productivity gains in worldwide production of primary crops, including maize, wheat, rice and oilseed has increased by 21% per cent since 1995, while total land devoted to these crops has increased by only 2% (Treasury, 2009).

Scientists have used marker assisted selections to accurately identified plants carrying desirable characteristics, hence conventional breeding can be conducted with greater precision. The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) varieties, project of the Kenyan-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and Howard G. Buffet Foundations was developed through marker assisted breeding. As climate change could as well increase plant disease infestation, Biotechnology enables development of disease diagnostic kits for use in laboratory and field which would be used to detect plant diseases early, by testing for the presence of pathogen’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or proteins which are produced by pathogens or plants during infection (Kumar and Naidu, 2006).

Crops are now produced to be herbicide tolerant, which means that farmers now have the opportunity to reduce the level and efforts in ploughing. Thus a resultant reduction in tractor use also helps to protect the structure of the soil which reduces erosion. Even as new pest and diseases emerge due to climate change, farmers are still able to mitigate this with insect resistant crops. Theses crops require fewer insecticide treatments, in turn, meaning, a reduction in fuel use and lower CO2 emissions. In Europe, insect-resistant biotech maize is grown since 1998. In 2008, 107,719 ha of land were dedicated to insect resistant maize in seven EU countries with Spain having the largest cultivation area of GM maize (approximately 20% of its total maize area), followed by Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

So it will be wrong to say that European countries are rejecting GM crops while applications for GM field trials in the EU in 2013 alone (European Commission Joint Research Centre 2013) have come from Spain, Poland, UK, Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Slovakia, Romania, France. These applications have come for trials in maize, wheat, poplar, sugar beet, cotton, and cucumber. The EU obviously knows the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, if not, why will they have committed over 300 million euros funding for research into safety of GMOs over 25 years? As a matter of scientific fact, no identified risk to human health or the environment according to the EU assessment.

Carbon Up tak…
Good management practices when adopted in agriculture can play a large part in ensuring global carbon sequestration. Crops developed with modern agricultural biotechnology reduce the need for tillage or ploughing, allowing farmers to adopt conservation or “no-till” farming practices. As a result, over time soil quality is enhanced and becomes carbon-enriched. In addition, less carbon in the soil becomes oxidised through exposure to the air since the soil is not inverted by ploughing, and therefore less CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

Those soil carbon savings have arisen from the rapid adoption of new farming systems for which the availability of GM HT technology has been cited by many farmers as an important facilitator.

Reports also in 2012 have shown GM crops grown on roughly 12 per cent of the world’s arable land with a total reduction due to both the direct and indirect emission effects of GM crops of over 26.7 billion kg of carbon dioxide (CO2), this according to Barfoot and Brookes (2014) to equivalent of removal of nearly 12 million cars from circulation.

Reduced fertilizer use
It is a fact that Nitrous oxide or N2O has a global warming potential (GWP) of 296, which is said to be about 300 times greater than carbon dioxide. What this means is that one kilo of nitrous oxide is equivalent to 296 kilos of CO2. In addition, nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere for more than 100 years.
• To be continued tomorrow.
• ILOH, Andrew Chibuzor PhD is Climate Protection and Bioresourse Conservation Fellow Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung/Foundation Germany.
• Gidado, Rose Suniso Maxwell (PhD) is Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, Nigeria Chapter, Abuja.

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