Biotechnology boosts biodiversity conservation, experts say

By Nkechi Isaac

November 23, 2018

Experts attending the ongoing United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Egypt say that adopting smart agronomic practices can play a significant role in conserving the environment.

Those practices include agricultural biotechnology, which can protect diversity by making crops more efficient, reducing pesticide use and helping to prevent species extinction, they said in exclusive sideline interviews with the Alliance for Science.

Dr. Margaret Karembu, director of ISAAA AfriCenter Kenya, identified three ways that biotechnology can help conserve biodiversity: “By increasing productivity per unit of land. This means reducing the amount of land you open up for crops and so you’re able to sustain biodiversity in these regions. Secondly, when you use very selective techniques that only kill the harmful pests for your crops it means this reduces the amount of harmful chemicals you pump into the environment —especially those that are broad spectrum, killing many of the other non-target pests that help in pollination. Thirdly, when you select tools that help you grow crops in the areas that will give you the highest yield. For example, in drought then you don’t open up semi-arid land, and that also conserves very unique biodiversity.”

Biological diversity is the foundation for livelihoods and sustainable development, supplying basic needs such as food, energy, medicine, recreational and cultural benefits. However, population growth, industrialization and urbanization have accelerated the decline and extinction of species as well as the degradation of ecosystems. The losses are due to a range of pressures driven by socio-economic factors, including climate change, ecosystem degradation, illegal trade and unsustainable use.

To halt biodiversity loss, the international community developed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) prior to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The CBD has become one of the world’s most important multilateral environmental agreements and a key tool for sustainable development. More than 196 member-states and over 6,000 participants have been meeting for more than 25 years to deliberate and come up with policies to protect biodiversity.

Dr. Manuela Campa, a biotechnologist in the genetics department at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, opined that agricultural biotechnology portends no danger to the environment and instead helps to improve crops and conserve the environment.

He noted that biotechnology can help prevent crop deterioration during storage, thus reducing food waste.  “So that means that you can use less land because you don’t have a loss. This is even true for crops that can be implemented for better yield or resistance to pathogens or abiotic stresses. This means less loss during agriculture. So you can use less land and that piece of land can be more efficient and you can leave the other land for the natural environment.”

Both Karembu and Campa pointed out that biotechnology depends on biodiversity, which provides the genes and traits that support human innovation.

“Obviously, there are a lot of different [plant] varieties and it is very important to preserve these because they are actually the source of information for improvement,” Campa added. “Because if you go back there might be a cultivar that’s very resistant to a particular pathogen or that is adapted to a particular soil and you can use that information for a cultivar that is good for production.”

Prof. Mahammad Ishiyaku, a plant breeder at the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Nigeria, said that biotechnology can help protect some species from going extinct. Harmful chemicals are often used to clear lands for agriculture, unintentionally killing other plants and animals. Biotechnology could help ensure that only targeted species are controlled.

“So in short, there is very close relationship between biodiversity and biotechnology,” he said. “The essence of having a convention on biodiversity and then a whole protocol popularly known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was developed because of this very germane reason that the world community appreciated the potential positive impact of biotechnology in the conservation of biodiversity. But to do that, any perceived risk should be mitigated using scientifically designed means. In other words, if the relationship does not exist the protocol would have not been developed.”

The plant breeder urged parties to the convention in Sharm El-Sheikh to look at science in a natural way, contending that scientific breakthroughs should not be impeded out of fear of non-existent risks.

“Science is based on things you can see and measure,” he said. “It is not based on emotions or some imagined non-existent things. The laws that should be agreed upon by the world community should be such that would facilitate the evaluation and monitoring of products of this science from time to time on its own merits. Then products of any of the technologies should be made available to those societies that require them to solve their developmental problems.

“I am completely opposed to some of those people who think that we shouldn’t try anything. If we had lived like that there wouldn’t have been aeroplanes for us to fly around, there wouldn’t have been tractors where 200, 300 hectares of land can be cultivated in a day and so on. So, science should be exploited in a responsible and safe manner to develop technologies that would save our individual countries,” he emphasized.