28 April 2015

Earth Day 2015: How biotech has revolutionized farming and transformed the global Bioeconomy

Farmers in the developing world, just like those in the U.S., adopt GMO seeds

Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, on which events worldwide are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. In 1969 at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco, peace activist John McConnell proposed a day to honor the Earth and the concept of peace, to first be celebrated on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. This day of nature’s equipoise was later sanctioned in a Proclamation written by McConnell and signed by Secretary General U Thant at the United Nations.

A month later a separate Earth Day was founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in first held on April 22, 1970. While this April 22 Earth Day was focused on the United States, an organization launched by Denis Hayes, who was the original national coordinator in 1970, took it international in 1990 and organized events in 141 nations.

Today, Wednesday, April 22, the world is celebrating Earth Day, and the biotech industry is celebrating the many ways that technology has helped to revolutionize farming, create environmentally friendlier products and transform the global economy into a biobased economy.

Agricultural Biotechnology

GMO seeds are overwhelmingly embraced by American farmers. More than 90 percent of corn, cotton, and soybeans and sugarbeets grown in the U.S. are improved using biotechnology to help farmers manage devastating insects, weeds, and weather conditions. Farmers are also choosing biotechnology to grow crops such as alfalfa, papaya, sugarbeets, squash, and canola, potato and apple. Technology allows farmers to produce more food, using less land and few chemicals, while conserving soil, water, and on-farm energy.

Reducing Emissions – “No-till” and reduced-till farming practices improve carbon storage, cut on-farm fuel consumption in the U.S. from five gallons per acre to one gallon per acre, and reduce agriculture’s overall greenhouse gas footprint. In 2012, environmental improvements associated with the global use of GMOs were equivalent to removing 11.9million cars from the road for one year.

Conserving Land and Water – Biotech crops use water more efficiently. Thanks no no-till and low-till practices, more water remains in the soil. There is less soil erosion with biotech crops, so there is less water runoff, which has enhanced water quality. In fact, a National Research Council report concluded: “Improvements in water quality could prove to be the largest single benefit of GE crops.”

Biotech-improved crops also allow for higher productivity on land currently under cultivation, preventing the conversion of tropical forests and land used for other, non-agricultural purposes to farmland. Thanks to drought tolerant technology, crops use less water and survive amid environmental stress, a key challenge brought on by climate change.

Less Chemical Use – Insect-resistant (Bt) crops – especially corn and cotton – target specific insect pests, reducing the need for chemical insecticides. Crop biotechnology has reduced pesticide spraying (1996-2012)by 503million kg (-8.8percent).

New Opportunities for Developing World Farmers – Farmers in the developing world, just like those in the U.S., adopt GMO seeds. In 2013, the crops produced by these seeds are being grown in 27countries (19 of which are developing countries) by more than 18 million farmers. For farmers in developing countries, efficiencies associated with biotechnology increase farm incomes and free up time to pursue education or hold other jobs –a benefit particularly significant for women farmers in Africa.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa remains a persistent and daunting challenge with 230 million Africans –20 percent of the continent’s population –are classified as hungry. CSIS notes that agricultural productivity, including the use of GMOs, is critical to meeting the continent’s food security needs, as farmers grapple with climate variability, degradation of soil and water resources, persistent pests and crop diseases, and land constraints.

Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology

Consumer demand for products that improve the health of the environment – particularly within the home – is increasing. Industrial Biotechnology utilizes life science technologies to improve manufacturing processes, chemical synthesis and production. This means scientists and innovators can manufacture greener household care products, cleaner fuels and more sustainable chemicals.

Reducing Emissions – Industrial biotechnology can lower carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. For instance, in many cases industrial biotech uses renewable feedstocks instead of fossil fuels, thereby slowing the release of new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Next, industrial biotech processes use less energy, generating less carbon dioxide. Further, scientists are developing microorganisms that can consume carbon dioxide and directly convert it to biofuels and renewable chemicals.

Ensuring Energy Security – The solution to America’s energy security challenge lies in applying innovative biotechnology to convert biomass to advanced biofuels. Biofuels are made from everything from corn to soybeans to sugar beets to wood and grasses and even algae. Biobased feedstocks offer environmental and economic advantages over fossil fuels.

Improved Manufacturing Processes – Industrial biotechnology plays a significant role in reducing the environmental impact of product manufacturing on several societal fronts, including lowering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), easing energy use by reducing the number of process steps, and eliminating waste by minimizing byproducts.

Better Biodegradable Plastics – Industrial biotech processes are being used to make a polymer (PLA) from corn starch and from agricultural waste products made of cellulose, i.e. wheat straw, corn stover. PLA can be used to make products such as clothing, carpeting, bedding, upholstery, car parts, candy wrappers, cups and golf tees. PLA is also compostable.

Producing Greener Chemicals – Through industrial biotechnology, we are able to produce household and personal care products with greater renewable content and improved environmental health. Enzymes are used in laundry detergents and household cleaners to break up grease or other food stains and wash them away. Yeast and other microorganisms are engineered to ferment sugar into a myriad of renewable chemicals, which can displace petrochemicals in personal care items such as shampoo, cosmetics and toothpaste.

Source: Biotechnology Industry Organisation, press release, 2015-04-22.

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