Achieving sustainable agriculture through biotechnology

I remember a teacher once said that man in an attempt to make life comfortable for himself has caused more harm to the environment and other organisms it shares the environment with. This is why sustainable agriculture becomes more important in our time, particularly now that climate change is having a devastating impact on our environment.

For instance, Goal Two of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” 

Sustainable agriculture basically is a type of agriculture that focuses on producing long-term crops and livestock while having minimal effects on the environment. This type of agriculture tries to find a good balance between the need for food production and the preservation of the ecological system within the environment.

Researchers have considered agricultural biotechnology as one possible tool for increasing food production and making agriculture more sustainable.

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The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as “any technology application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” 

Biotechnology is already underpinning the sustainable development of agriculture and its related activities. In his 1999 publication titled: “Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century”, Ismail Serageldin, notes that “Biotechnology can contribute to future food security if it benefits sustainable small-farm agriculture in developing countries.”

One area where biotechnology plays an important role in conservation or sustainable agriculture is its non-dependence on agro-chemicals, particularly pesticides and fertilizers. This is because biotech crops have been enhanced to resist pest and diseases as well as to make up for the adverse effect on soil fertility caused by the impact of climate change.

Many people in the world today are hungry and food insecure. It therefore means that we need to adopt sustainable agriculture in order to produce to feed the current generation while at same time preserving the environment to be able to produce enough to feed the unborn generations.

Current estimates are that nearly 690 million people are hungry or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.

In 2019, close to 750 million – or nearly one in ten people in the world – were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity.

An estimated 2 billion people in the world did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food in 2019.

Over the years, scientists have warned against the excessive use of pesticides and weedicides. The application, of these agro-chemicals kill other organisms in the environment aside the weeds or the pests which are the main target for their application.

The reason why many farmers apply fertilizers, pesticides, and weedicides is that many non-GMO crops are susceptible to diseases and pests as well as they are unable to grow well due to the adverse effects of climate change. 

However, biotech crops are able to survive environments where non-biotech crops are unable to survive. This is because some biotech crops have been engineered to withstand such hostile environment. For instance, scientists agree that when biotech crops are used, they reduce chemical use by about 70 per cent thereby reducing the effects of agrochemicals on the environment and other organisms.

The Ghana Coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB-Ghana), Dr Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw, supports this assertion by saying that since biotech crops reduce agrochemical use, they protect the soil from harmful chemicals and substances.

According to him, farmers who adopt biotech crops will be better off in terms of pest and disease management as well as in terms of crop yields.

He explains that biotech crops have built-in insect protection gene, noting that reduction in agrochemicals also protect farmers and their families from accidental poisoning when spraying crops with synthetic chemicals.

Dr Ampadu-Ameyaw adds that because farmers tend to reduce agro-chemical use on biotech crops, the incidence of running water carrying residues from pesticides, fertilizers and weedicides from farmlands to water bodies are also reduced, when biotech crops are cultivated. 

Science Codex reveals that “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.”

A Daily Graphic’s publication of July 30, 2016 headlined: “Embrace biotech to boost agric production — Prof. Alhassan” quoted the now Senior Advisor to the Public Biosafety System (PBS), Professor Walter Sandow Alhassan, of having noted that the introduction of biotechnology would automatically help reduce the use of agro inputs such as residuals and fertilisers which research had shown were key cancer-causing agents in humans

As the world population continues to grow, much more effort and innovation will be urgently needed in order to sustainably increase agricultural production, improve the global supply chain, decrease food losses and waste, and ensure that all who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition have access to nutritious food. 

However, as we try to grow more to feed ourselves, we should not also forget about other generations yet to be born and the other organisms we share the environment with. We should therefore adopt technologies such as that of biotech crops in order to encourage sustainable agriculture because food and agriculture are at the heart of civilization and prosperity.

By Benedicta Gyimaah Folley  

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