Climate change mitigation policy is increasingly favouring sustainable intensive agriculture, including the use of GM crops. In this case, climate policy and food security needs are perfectly aligned.
Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons
Arguably the two biggest issues facing the world's population today are the threat of food insecurity and the possible negative implications of climate change.
The first is an undeniable reality. Today's population of 6.8bn is estimated to plateau at around 9bn by mid-century. Just keeping pace means increasing harvests by about one-third. But as people in emerging economies become more prosperous they eat more meat and, as animal protein is less efficient to produce than plant protein, the general view is that total food production must increase by 70% or more. Since there is little good quality new farmland available and a proportion of existing arable land is degraded year by year, this much higher productivity must come from essentially the same land area. This is a very real challenge.
The impacts of climate change, on the other hand, are for now just projections from computer models. They may be right, they may be wrong, but the fact is they are based on the supposed dominance of a single factor: the known warming effect of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, amplified by positive feedback effects. Deep cuts in CO2 emissions worldwide are prescribed as the only way to avoid a future catastrophe.
We have one quite clear and imminent problem (food security) and one credible but unproven hypothesis which could conceivably wreak havoc later in the century (anthropogenic global warming), both vying for attention and resources. Those worried about the second issue have almost inevitably oversold their case to bring the threat to the highest priority level, to pressure politicians to take action on something far beyond their normal time horizons.
[As an aside, many readers will have seen that the Royal Society this week published a new guide to the science of climate change following internal criticism of their rather strident effort of 2007 to rebut claims made in 'The Great Global Warming Swindle'. Although the change of tone and the acceptance of uncertainties has been welcomed by many sceptics and agnostics, the Royal Society did itself no favours by putting Sir John Pethica, chair of the sub-group which produced the report, up for interview on the BBC Today programme. By refusing to acknowledge that 'the science' could be at all uncertain, he reinforced the impression that mainstream science is led by people with closed minds.]
If you want to promote a cause, then of course any opportunity which presents itself will be welcomed. One such is the role of new agricultural technologies, particularly genetic modification and in this case the objectives of increasing food security and mitigating climate change come together. Until recently, GM crops have been broadly supported by scientists and the scientific establishment but actively opposed by the majority of environmentalists. Now things may be less clear-cut.
Agriculture, is by most reckoning a larger net contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than transport (14 vs 13%) and not far behind industry (19%). If forestry and land use changes are included, the total contribution of agriculture reaches 31%, the biggest single part of the total, exceeding even the 26% of the power generation sector.
Hardly surprising, then, that people interested in reducing emissions are looking more and more at agriculture. Essentially, the need to produce more on the same land area together with the recent drop-off in the rate of yield increase from conventional breeding make it imperative to use tools such as GM to increase overall harvests.
Producing more means leaving more forest intact, which is a major objective of climate change policy. Use of herbicide-tolerant plants encourages the adoption of no-till farming, which reduces the loss of soil carbon. No-till agriculture and pest-resistant crops reduces the number of tractor passes needed and hence fuel consumption and so saves yet more carbon dioxide emissions. Reduced ploughing also helps to retain soil moisture and build up organic matter. Drought-resistant and stress-tolerant plants are beginning to emerge from the R&D pipeline. These will increase overall yields and enable adaptation of crops to the more extreme climate predicted for some regions.
The list could continue. As far as agriculture is concerned, if the question is 'how do we reduce greenhouse gas emissions?' one of the key answers is 'use crop biotechnology'. While climate change mitigation remains top of the agenda for many environmentalists, they will be willing to look again at technologies they previously rejected. True, the organic movement is currently still wedded to the concept of extensive farming, but there is a consensus building in the mainstream for sustainable intensive farming.
Since climate change is the defining issue of the early 21st Century, it seems likely that the additional push from this lobby will promote the use of crop biotechnology on a global level, albeit with the EU perhaps only being dragged reluctantly into the consensus at a later stage.
Experience suggests that the great majority of climate sceptics are perfectly happy to see GM crops being adopted. In many cases, enthusiasts for the technology may be very happy to keep their own counsel if they are critical of climate change policy, simply because they see the benefits which might arise in terms of food security: a classic case of the end justifying the means.
For the truth is that, if we take away all the assumptions about emissions reduction from the use of GM crops, their use still makes absolute sense. Leaving forests intact is good for ecosystem stability and biodiversity. No-till farming helps build healthier soils with higher levels of organic matter, less erosion and better moisture retention. Reduced ploughing and spraying save the farmer time and fuel. Stress-tolerance and longer-term objectives such as improved nitrogen take up and improved photosynthesis will all boost food security and make better use of resources.
For those who are sceptical of the apparent certainties of mainstream climate science and policy, the inevitable conclusion is that the right things are being done in the farming sector, but for the wrong reasons. It is then a matter of individual choice whether you take the intellectually honest approach and criticise the basis of the policy, or grit your teeth and accept that the benefits are worth more than the argument. Some might see this as a slippery slope, others simply as pragmatism. Everyone must by guided by their own principles and standards.
The Scientific Alliance
St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
Tel: +44 1223 421242