Biotech can aid environmental conservation, scientists say

By Nkechi Isaac

March 18, 2019

Over the years, many plant and animal species have disappeared from Earth, in part due to human degradation of the environment.

“We may have no story to tell our grandchildren when they read about these plants and animals in books and we cannot show them [these species] because of the way we mismanaged our environment,” Prof. Ibrahim Abubakar, executive director of the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Zaria, said.

But with biotechnology, Nigeria and other countries have a golden opportunity to maintain the health of plant and animal species in the natural environment and also keep them safe for future generations, Abubakar said.

Apart from the negative effects of global warming and climate change, he said, some agricultural practices, such as misusing hazardous chemicals, are also playing a role in the disappearance of animal and plant species. He noted that some of these chemical pesticides are so potent, they can kill both insect pests and human beings if ingested in large quantities.

“When you apply so many hazardous chemicals, the animals either breathe them in or drink them in the natural waters and they die and gradually, before you know it, many of them will disappear,” he said.

“And there are many beneficial insects that can be used in pollinating our plants,” Abubakar continued. “We call them natural pollinators, apart from bees, and many of them have disappeared. If we keep spraying these insecticides against some of the insects that affect our crop, it could have an effect on beneficial insects also.”

Prof. Emma Kwon-ndung, national president of the Genetics Society of Nigeria (GSN), said the major advantage of biotechnology is in reducing the deterioration of the environment through the excessive use of chemicals and other inputs, such as fertilizers.

“When we use the tools of modern biotechnology to improve the genetic makeup of our crops to increase yield, rather than depending on pesticides and fertilizers, which evidently are causing negative effects on the environment, then biotechnology has succeeded in preserving the environment,” she said. “So in layman’s terms, biotechnology as a science gives us an opportunity to abstain from abusing the environment through the use of biopesticides.”

Some of these products are also depleting the ozone layer and creating climate change impacts, such as interrupting rainfall cycles, because they contribute carbon emissions, she said. Biotechnology provides a healthier option to environmental conservation, she added.

Abubakar contended that the deployment of scientific technological tools like modern biotechnology could be a panacea for tackling the negative effects of global warming and climate change. It could also help prevent plant and even animal species from going extinct.

For example, a technology called cryogenic preservation allows the genetic makeup of a species to be encrypted and preserved, so that it doesn’t go extinct, he said.

“There are certain characteristics that you can easily confer or breed into plants using biotechnology,” Abubakar added. “You know, with global warming and climate change, drought is becoming very imminent, pests and diseases are becoming very numerous and rampant and in fact we are even having emerging pests and diseases. Through biotechnology that you can breed drought-resistant varieties of crops. You can also breed insect-resistant varieties of crops, just like Bt cowpea, maize and so on.  Secondly, these varieties would be able to, as a result of their resistance to these pests and diseases, reduce the amount of spraying of hazardous chemicals that are released to the environment.”

Abubakar also pointed out that biotechnology allows plant researchers to develop crops that are resistant to specific insects. For example, crops like the pod borer-resistant cowpea, which successfully resists Maruca insects, or bollworm-resistant cotton, have no effect on bees or other beneficial insects.

Dr. Rose Gidado, national coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigeria Chapter, agreed that biotechnology aids in environmental conservation as it reduces the use of pesticides that can be detrimental to the health of both those applying them and the environment.

She noted that biotechnology also enables farmers to grow more crops with less land and water. “As the world develops, you find out that arable land is becoming smaller and smaller, both as a result of development and climate change. The land available to farm becomes smaller, but biotechnology gives farmers leeway because they can still farm, using less land and water, and produce more,” she stated.