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A Nigerian perspective: GMO crops can reduce climate change impacts

By Dr. Andrew Iloh and Dr. Rose Gidado

Every year, nations come together to work out solutions to mitigating/adapting to the devastating effects of our changing climate. Biotechnology has an important role to play in this debate.

The most obvious manifestation of climate change is found in weather conditions; many countries are now experiencing more heat waves, storms and floods. In Nigeria, we are losing about 350,000m2 of land mass yearly to desert condition, which is advancing southwardly at an estimated rate of 0.6 kilometers a year,  thanks to a change in our climate.

Agriculture is a key contributor to climate change, and 30 percent 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 the loss of at least 5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) each year; if more dramatic predictions come to pass, the cost could rise to more than 20 percent of GDP.

Our own research has found that a temperature increase of just 2 degrees could drastically affect seed germination and seedling growth of maize, rice and sorghum — three important cereal crops in Nigeria.

Other 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 that 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 precipitation rates change, access to water supply for agriculture becomes a problem. We might just have a drastic shortage of water for irrigated lands, while farms with no access to water supplies may have no water at all.

Biotech solutions

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. 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 percent since 1995, while total land devoted to these crops has increased by only 2 percent.

Crops are now bred to be herbicide tolerant, which means that farmers 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. 

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, a project of the Kenyan-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and Howard G. Buffet Foundations, was developed through marker assisted breeding.

Since climate change could also increase plant disease infestation, biotechnology enables development of disease diagnostic kits for use in the laboratory and field that could be used to detect plant diseases early, by testing for the presence of pathogen’s DNA or proteins produced by pathogens or plants during infection. 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, resulting in a reduction in fuel use and lower CO2 emissions.

In Europe, insect-resistant biotech maize has been 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 percent of its total maize area), followed by the  Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

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

Carbon uptake

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 oxidized 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 herbicide-resistant technology has been cited by many farmers as an important facilitator.

Research shows GM crops were being grown on roughly 12 percent of the world’s arable land in 2012, with a total reduction due to both the direct and indirect emission effects of GM crops of over 26.7 billion kg of CO2. This is equivalent to removing 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.

Nitrous oxide forms when nitrogen fertilizers applied to crops interact with common soil bacteria. It is estimated that nitrogen fertilizer accounts for one-third of the GHGs produced by agriculture. Reduced fertilizer use will also mean less nitrogen pollution of ground and surface waters. If the addition of fertilizers can cause these problems, why not go organic?

This prospect informed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement during his recent address to the Russian Parliament. Putin proudly outlined his plan to make Russia the world’s ‘leading exporter’ of non-GMO foods that are based on ‘ecologically clean’ production. He went further to say…“Now more than ever organic produce is in high demand with consumers willing to pay far more for such products. Countries such as Uganda are benefiting from the global high demand of organic products. Organic products can go into all markets…”

Unfortunately, the speech writers have forgotten that even if we have the best of organic farming, if crops don’t respond to change in climatic conditions, they will totally fail. We can still have genetically modified crops which can be grown in the most organic manner, contributing less to greenhouse effects.

Researchers have already developed genetically engineered rice and canola varieties that they use nitrogen more efficiently with less fertilizer applications. This “Nitrogen Use Efficiency” (NUE) technology produces plants with yields equivalent to conventional varieties, with significantly less nitrogen fertilizer. It's very  unscientific for activists to say that these NUE crops are nothing more than patented pesticide delivery systems designed to increase the sales of poisonous agrochemicals. Suc claims ignore the potential of this technology to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer lost by farmers every year due to leaching into the air, soil and waterways. In addition to environmental impacts, nitrogen costs can represent a significant portion of a farmer’s input costs and can have a major impact on farmer profitability in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Nigeria needs technology

Nigeria must catch a fast moving train to achieve true economic diversification, and science and technology have active roles to play. Biotechnology, a science-based solution, will not only help mitigate agricultural based climate problems but will also provide solutions for improved and increased productivity. It’s time we took a critical look at developing our human capacity in biotechnology. Indeed, the benefits of biotechnology are enormous, but we can only maximize these benefits if research and development in agricultural biotechnology throughout world is enhanced.

While new traits, varieties and crops will play an important role in climate change mitigation and adaptation, the range of relevant practice and technologies is much broader than this, including water management, production practices, post-harvest technologies, information and forecasting, and insurance. Therefore understanding the policy and innovation issues raised by this broader set of agricultural practices and related technologies is important since responding to climate change genuinely demands an “all hands on deck” approach.

Nigeria's biotech safety

Every ideal society needs checks and balances in order to perform at its best, and GM issues should not be an exception. It would be very unfair for us as environmentalists to deny the existence of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which Nigeria signed in 2000 and ratified 2003. Are we also going to disagree that the convention on Biological Diversity is not in existence? If we are all in the affirmative that these protocols exist, then Nigeria is on the right path in having a biosafety management agency.

As readers are undoubtedly aware, the PDP-led government on April 20, 2015, one week before the handover, signed the National Biosafety Agency Bill into law. The bill empowers the National Biosafety Management Agency, NABDA, to regulate and open the country to the commercialization of genetically modified crops.

This agency is managed by a seasoned scientist in the current Director-General ,Mr. Rufus Ebegba. He is a professionally qualified agriculturist and environmental biologist/biosafety specialist with over 25 years' working experience in various areas of biosafety management, biodiversity conservation and sustainable utilization of renewable natural recourses. With vast experience in strategic planning in biosafety and biodiversity, it is very obvious that he knows what is at stake in handling an agency saddled to regulate the practice of modern biotechnology in Nigeria. He is indeed a square peg in a square hole, having in the past chaired the development of Nigeria National Biosafety Framework under the UNEP/GEF.

It is also to his credit that the biosafety level 2 containment facility guidelines, as well as the development of Nigeria National Biosafety Risk Assessment Analysis Framework, were all developed and are now up and running. Therefore, it is very unscientific and unreasonable for Mr. Ebegba's critics to say he wants to do more harm than good to the Nigerian environment by encouraging the use of toxic chemicals, when all his working life he has been in the fore front of protecting the same environment.

The big picture

Agriculture has a crucial and unique relationship with climate and economic development. Agriculture  is our primary source of food and important raw materials, it has significant potential for mitigating global GHG emissions, and it is particularly sensitive to climate change. Biotechnology innovations in agriculture will be more vital in the context of climate change. It is, therefore, very necessary that policies that will boost the development and use of the much needed agricultural biotechnologies should be in place in order to have an enabling effective technological response.

These policy and institutional responses are particularly critical as they can provide a pathway for steady progress towards climate mitigation and adaptation. Whereas short-term climate variability demands, and deservedly gets our attention, adapting to longer-term changes requires vision and discipline. A careful balance of institutional change and wise investment is required to deal with both the demands of climate change and the opportunities for the poor to continue improving their lives.

Dr. Andrew Chibuzor Iloh is a Climate Protection and Bioresourse Conservation Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung/Foundation Germany. Dr., Rose Suniso Maxwell Gidado is the Nigeria Country Coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa. A version of this appeared in The Guardian's Nigeria edition.

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