Knowledge Hub

Biotech for sustainability

With the global population rising to 9 billion by 2050, we need to find ways to grow more food on a limited amount of agricultural land without increasing the carbon emissions of farming.  We also need to make more efficient use of agricultural inputs like water, fertiliser and pesticides. Scientists from the public and private sectors have developed a range of technologies that farmers can use to meet food and farming challenges. This includes traditional crop protection products and increasingly the use of advanced breeding techniques, including GM, to produce seed that helps increase yields, adapt to changing climatic conditions and reduce inputs.

This process of growing more food, with lower inputs, and without more land is known as sustainable intensification. Agricultural technologies, such as GM, are among the tools which can help to deliver sustainable intensification by:

 

  • Producing more food on the same amount of land. GM crops offer the potential for increased yields of between 6% and 30% . In the developing world, this also reduces the pressure on uncultivated land such as the rainforests. Find out more…
  • Reducing CO2 emissions from farming. Fuel use and carbon emissions can be decreased thanks to less tillage. In 2010, GM cultivation led to global emission reductions of 19 billion kg of CO2, equivalent to 9 million fewer cars on the road for one year .
  • Improving water management. Current GM crops can protect soil from erosion and compaction through less ploughing, conserving soil moisture. New drought-tolerant and salt-water tolerant GM products are now nearing commercialization which could produce 2 million more tonnes of food under moderate drought conditions.
  • More efficient use of pesticide and herbicide. By reducing the frequency of spraying required to remove weeds, pests and diseases, GM crops can reduce the use of chemical inputs, soil tillage and fossil fuel use.

The UK has traditionally been at the forefront in developing technologies that are used around the globe to grow food sustainably. However, whilst other countries push ahead with agricultural technologies the UK is held back by restrictive European level regulations.

Due to political interference in the scientific approvals process, European farmers are currently unable to cultivate the majority of GM crops. Europe’s position is preventing European farmers from reducing their carbon emissions, and is also harming environmental protection in developing countries. The EU is not growing as much food as it could, which puts increased pressure on land, forest and water resources in the developing world.

A 2011 study showed that GM crops can also conserve arable land: if GM crops had not been available to farmers in 2009, maintaining global production at 2009 levels would have required additional plantings of 3.8 million hectares of soybeans, 5.6 million hectares of corn, 2.6 million hectares of cotton and 0.3 million hectares of canola.  This is particularly important because in developing countries there is limited potential for an expansion of arable land. Research from the UN estimates that where land is available in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, more than 70 per cent suffers from severe soil and terrain constraints. The UN estimate shows that between 2015 and 2030 80 per cent of the required food production increases will have to come from intensification in the form of yield increases and higher cropping intensities.

It is also important to note that such expansion of arable land may not respect the rights of existing occupiers, or maintain the land rights of smallholding farmers; as the legal frameworks for this may not exist in some developing countries.

18 million farmers in more than 30 countries are now growing 180 million hectares of GM crops around the world . Two European Commission reports on the effects of GM crops on health and the environment, representing more than €300 million of investment in research over 25 years, have shown no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks than conventional plants and organisms. There is no silver bullet to tackle food security or climate change. However what we do know is that we need a wide range of tools available to respond to a soaring population and land, water and energy becoming scarcer. Agricultural technologies, including GM, need to be part of the toolkit if we are serious about growing more food in a sustainable way.


Work is underway at research institutes around the globe into GM traits that will work with specific challenges, such as:

  • Bio-fortifying key crops including cassava in sub-Saharan Africa
  • The development of heat and drought-tolerant wheat in Australia
  • Trialling of aphid-repellent wheat at Rothamsted Research, UK
  • Trialling of blight-resistant potatoes at The Sainsbury Laboratory, UK
  • Trialling of nematode-resistant potatoes and bananas at the University of Leeds
  • The development of Virus-resistant rice in China
  • Frost-resistant eucalyptus in California