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by Stuart J. Smyth, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
The use of modern seed genetics, which includes genetically modified (GM) crops, chemical, and fertilizer use, greatly contributes to improved agricultural sustainability and mitigating climate change. The integration of these inputs and technologies highlights how food production is a highly technical system, requiring all three to be efficient and cost-effective. Potential bans or reductions to one or more of these technologies threaten to undermine the climate mitigation successes achieved to date.
Since 1960, food production has increased by 390 percent, while land use has increased by a mere 10 percent. One estimate of the impact that GM crops have had on land use undertaken in 2010, found that without GM crops, an additional 13 million hectares of land would have been globally required to produce the amount of food that was available.
One of the most valuable assets farmers transfer to the next generation is the health of the soil that is farmed. Innovations greatly contribute to improving soil health. The efficient weed control resulting from GM crop production facilitates continuous zero-tillage crop production, which has significant soil benefits, with one study finding carbon storage increased from 0.3 Mt/yr to 6.4 Mt/yr. With GM crops and reduced tillage being positively correlated, both technologies reduce agricultural impacts on the environment and often improve soil and water quality through reduced erosion. Reduced chemical applications have prevented millions of kilograms of chemical active ingredients from being applied to crops, further benefiting soil health.
In many GM crop-producing regions, the adoption of GM varieties of canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans exceeds 90 percent, indicating that farmers have opted to produce these varieties as part of their adaption to changing climates. The efficient use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers contributes to mitigating climate change by ensuring yields are as high as they can be while having reduced impacts on the environment, resulting in more sustainably produced food. The continued use of these technologies provides ongoing benefits to mitigating climate change as farmers have lowered their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The on-farm benefits are substantial. Reductions in tillage and chemical use, lower the input costs of producing a crop. Improved disease, insect, and weed controls increase crop yields. The result of reduced input costs and higher yields is that farmers are more profitable. A further human health benefit is that reduced chemical use by small landholders results in fewer incidences of accidental pesticide poisoning. The potential loss of access to innovative crop genetics, chemicals, and fertilizers would negatively impact farmers by reducing their profits and increasing chemical exposures.
Innovative agricultural technologies provide economic benefits to farmers, but the benefits also spill over to broader societies. Reduced chemical use coupled with decreased tillage, results in less chemical run-off into watersheds, which lowers the potential for exposure for society as a whole. Genetic innovations contribute to ensuring food product availability, such as with papaya in Hawaii or vitamin-enhanced rice in the Philippines. Finally, the increased yields from GM crops and efficient chemical and fertilizer use contribute to providing food to consumers that have a reduced impact on the environment and results in fewer GHG emissions, thereby contributing to mitigating climate change.