Agricultural technology can help curtail climate change

By Joshua Raymond Muhumuza

April 25, 2018

Photo Lachetas/Freepix

An incessant demand for resources by a burgeoning population is putting tremendous pressure on our planet’s biodiversity, threatening our future welfare and ultimately raising global temperatures. Climate change lingers on as one of the biggest challenges faced by the world today.

Ironically, agriculture — our primary source of food and by extension, life — is one of the biggest offenders, pumping out up to a quarter of the world’s annual Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. In contrast, farming contributes a paltry three percent to global gross domestic product (GDP), indicating that agriculture is highly GHG intensive.

Climate implications for agriculture are noteworthy and clear.  Similarly, agriculture has important consequences for global climate. Significant contributors to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions include land clearing and tilling, livestock farming, and fossil fuel use for farm equipment and inputs, such as fertilizers.

With such staggering statistics and a global population set to hit 9 billion by 2050, we are unlikely to witness a shift in dynamics as we continue to eke more resources from the environment — unless deliberate effort is made to redeem what is left of our planet and the damage already inflicted upon it.

The ultimate hurdle for climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture is producing more food more efficiently under more capricious cultivation conditions, while simultaneously achieving net reductions in GHG emissions from food production and marketing.

Agricultural technologies can play a central role in addressing these fundamental challenges. While most technologies have climate implications, some are of particular relevance to agriculture and climate change, especially in developing countries. The tremendous rate at which climate is changing also necessitates a swift and radical shift in coping strategies for agriculture.

Several new agricultural technologies offer farmers a host of advantages, such as increased productivity and crops that offer greater flexibility in adapting to climate change. These improved seeds have been bred to include traits that confer tolerance to stresses like drought, salinity, pests and diseases.

Other new traits reduce carbon emissions by minimizing the need for tillage and its associated fuel use, decrease or eliminate the need for pesticide applications, and allow crops to mature early, so as to reduce farmers’ exposure to risk of extreme weather events.

These promising technologies can emerge from traditional breeding techniques that leverage existing varieties well-suited to the vagaries of local production environments, as well as from more advanced biotechnology techniques, such as genetic modification.

Agricultural biotechnology provides a particularly promising set of tools for environmental sustainability. Biotech crops, such as those genetically modified to confer  pest resistance and herbicide tolerance, are already helping to reduce emissions. Aggregated carbon sequestration benefits from reduced fuel use and additional soil carbon storage from biotech crop adoption between 1996 and 2015 were equal to about 26.7 billion kg — equivalent to taking nearly 12 million cars off the road for a year.

Developing countries like Uganda have made noteworthy progress in biotech research to address a diversity of environmental challenges. These crops have the potential to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, enhance productivity, and support food and nutritional security. Biotech crops currently under development in Uganda include banana, cassava, Irish potato, maize, rice and sweet potato.

In a country where erratic climatic conditions pose a serious food security threat, such technologies cannot be ignored. Sadly, Ugandan farmers — like many of their African counterparts — continue to lag behind the rest of the world in GM crop adoption, mainly due to regulatory bottlenecks.

Reversing climate change may be technically achievable, but the political will to make the hard and necessary decisions in Uganda and most of the developing world remains tenuous.

Sustainably answering the “9 billion people question” will require fundamental changes in our farming practices. Adopting innovative agricultural technologies with the potential to increase productivity while curtailing climate change is a critical step. Otherwise, we are literally farming ourselves out of food — and obliterating our planet in the process!

Joshua Raymond Muhumuza is a research assistant with Uganda Biosciences Information Center.