Biotech Improves Sustainability

Corn Field

Biotech Crops Help Reduce Agriculture’s Pesticide Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
PG Economics Research Summary (The UK)
December 7, 2009

In light of ongoing debates on global food security, agricultural sustainability and climate change, it is important to recognize the benefits biotechnology brings to world agricultural production.

According to several research summaries released by PG Economics in the UK, those impacts are significant.

Biotech crops have contributed to significantly reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. In 2007, this was equivalent to removing 14.2 billion kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or removing nearly 6.3 million cars from the road for one year (see Table below).

The greenhouse gas emission reductions are derived from two principle sources: reduced fuel use from less-frequent herbicide or insecticide applications and reduced energy usage in soil cultivation from the use of no-till and reduced-till farming systems.

From 1996 to 2007, pesticide spraying was reduced by 359 million kg, which is equivalent to 125% of the annual volume of pesticide active ingredient applied to arable crops in the European Union.

The fuel savings associated with making fewer spray runs (relative to conventional crops) and the switch to conservation, reduced-till and no-till farming systems have resulted in permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions. In 2007, this amounted to about 1.144 billion kg (attributable to reduced fuel use of 416 million liters).

From 1996 to 2007, the cumulative permanent reduction from fuel use was estimated at 7.09 billion kg of carbon dioxide (arising from reduced fuel use of 2.578 billion liters).

The use of no-till and reduced-till farming systems has increased significantly with the adoption of herbicide-tolerant biotech crops because the technology has improved growers’ ability to control competing weeds, which reduces reliance on soil cultivation and seed-bed preparation as means for getting good levels of weed control.

As a result, tractor fuel use for tillage has dropped, soil quality has been enhanced and levels of soil erosion have been cut. In turn, more carbon remains in the soil, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Based on savings arising from the rapid adoption of no-till and reduced-till farming systems in North and South America, an estimated extra 3.57 billion kg of soil carbon were sequestered in 2007 (equivalent to 13.103 billion kg of carbon dioxide that have not been released into the atmosphere).

Cumulatively, the amount of carbon sequestered is probably higher due to year-over-year benefits to soil quality. However, due to the lack of data on the crop area in continuous no-till systems, PG Economics said it is not possible to confidently estimate cumulative soil sequestration gains.

Herbicide-tolerant biotech soybeans have also facilitated the adoption of no-till production systems, which shorten the production cycle.

This advantage enables many farmers in South America to plant a crop of soybeans immediately after a wheat crop in the same growing season. This second crop, additional to traditional soybean production, added 67.5 million metric tons to soybean production in Argentina and Paraguay between 1996 and 2007.

For more information visit PG Economics.

Impact of biotech crops on carbon emissions, 2007
Carbon dioxide (CO2) savings from reduced fuel use (billion kg CO2) 1.14
Additional soil carbon sequestration savings (billion kg CO2) 13.10
Total CO2 savings (billion kg CO2) 14.24
Car equivalents removed from road (million) 6.3
Source: PG Economics.

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