Plant Science Helps Mitigate Climate Change

Plant Science Helps Mitigate Climate Change

April 23, 2014
Climate Change 

As climate change continues to cause unusual and unpredictable weather around the world, it is creating new challenges for farmers.

Drought, flooding and temperature extremes will increase as the earth’s temperatures rise 2-3 °C (4-6 °F) in the next 50 years, threatening farm productivity, decreasing harvests and augmenting pest pressures.

At the same time, farmers are being tasked with producing more food for an increasing global population and to minimize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agriculture accounts for about 14-24 per cent of these emissions.

The plant science industry plays a key role in helping farmers deal with these challenges. Scientists are developing crops tolerant to drought, salinity and other environmental stresses to adapt to changing climates. Existing herbicide-tolerant biotech crops allow for reduced or no tillage, sparing the use of farm equipment and fuel, and thereby reducing GHG emissions. The use of no-till practices and modern, targeted herbicides captures millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Existing biotech-derived plant traits for insect and disease resistance as well as crop protection products indirectly reduce emissions by increasing crop yields, preventing expansion of farmland into rainforests and other wildlife areas that are critical carbon sinks. In fact, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications noted in a February 2013 report that there were:

  • 1.9 billion kilograms of reduced carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 due to biotech crops that didn’t require fossil fuel-based insecticides and herbicides
  • 21.1 billion kilograms of carbon sequestered in the soil because of herbicide-tolerant biotech crops, which enable little to no tilling (plowing) of fields
  • 473 million kilogram reduction in pesticides applied from 1996 to 2011 because of insect-resistant biotech crops

The use of herbicides with or without biotech seed allows for reduced or no tillage to control weeds. Not using tilling machinery means spares fuel and carbon released into the atmosphere (each time land is tilled, soil releases carbon). A single herbicide application substitutes for two cultivation trips, which would require four times the fuel of an herbicide application, according to CropLife America. Reduced tillage also helps prevent soil erosion, which is important for carbon sequestration. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that the soil of a tilled crop acre erodes at an average rate of 3 tons higher than an untilled acre.

Moreover, novel crop protection products are being created to protect staples like corn, soybean, rice, wheat and cotton against drought, high heat and other conditions likely to emerge from climate change. Such products can help prevent yield loss from environmental stress.

The sum? Crop protection products and biotech crops are critical to mitigating problems associated with climate change and global warming. These plant science tools are significantly reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment and of climate change on agriculture.