Agricultural technology key to protecting nature and preventing pandemics 

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

July 24, 2020

Scientists are urging governments across the globe to adopt technology to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment and slow the emergence of new diseases like COVID-19.

The call comes as a new report  by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) warns that more zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 will hit the world in the years ahead if people continue to destroy natural environments through agriculture, urbanization and mining.

Nigerian scientist Dr. Rose Gidado of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) said that increased acceptance of biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food production will have a profound impact in reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint and protecting wildlife habitat.

Already, about 60 percent of known infectious diseases in humans and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, which means they normally exist in animals but can infect humans. Ebola, SARS, the Zika virus and bird flu are all animal diseases that got transmitted to humans. Deforestation, particularly in tropical regions, has also been associated with an increase in such infectious diseases as dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever.

Drivers of zoonotic diseases

The report identifies deforestation, which is happening at a rate of 10 million hectares a year, unsustainable agricultural intensification, increased use and exploitation of wildlife, unsustainable utilization of natural resources and climate change as the main drivers in the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Increased demand for animal protein — over the past 50 years, the demand for meat has risen 260 percent and 90 percent for both milk and eggs — is another major factor as about one-third of cropland is used to produce animal feed.

Agriculture has been identified as a major force in habitat destruction the world over, thus increasing spread of zoonotic diseases. “Dams, irrigation and factory farms are linked to 25 percent of infectious diseases in humans,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, told the BBC in an interview.

The UN report observed that “since 1940, agricultural intensification measures such as dams, irrigation projects and factory farms have been associated with … more than 50 percent of zoonotic infectious diseases that have emerged in humans.”  The original study  that the report quotes, however, blames agriculture generally for the problem and not agricultural intensification specifically.

More human encroachment into natural habitats means people are being brought into ever-closer contact with wildlife, which has also increased the risk of animal-to-human disease transmission.

Growing food sustainably

Scientists say that increased application of technology is crucial in order to grow more food sustainably, without further environmental destruction.

Scientist Daniel Norero, founder of the Yo Quiero Transgenicos (I Do Want GMOs) campaign group in Chile, said that widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops will profoundly protect forests in Latin America and other parts of the world.

“Do we give farmers access to new technologies such as GMOs or CRISPR to plant more productive crops on less land? Or as many uninformed NGOs and politicians want, do we encourage them to adopt old and unproductive practices, such as organic agriculture or agroecology?” Norero said. “Many studies affirm that these kinds of low productivity practices require double or even triple land areas.”

Biotechnology offers tools for introducing traits that allow crops to resist diseases and pests and adapt to harsh environmental conditions, thus increasing productivity and reducing the pressure to turn natural environments into farms, Gidado said.

“Genetically engineered crops have been shown to greatly improve agricultural productivity with the use of less farm inputs while preserving the environment,” Gidado told the Alliance for Science.

GM crops increase production

Her assertions are backed by a report on the impact of GMOs in crop production between 1996 and 2018, which was published this month by United Kingdom-based economist Graham Brookes. Over that period, the report observed, “GM crop technology has improved yields through improved control of pests and weeds.” For example, insect- resistant GM corn has increased corn production by an average of 16.5 percent, while insect-resistant GM cotton has increased yields by 13.7 percent relative to conventional production systems. Farmers who grow insect-resistant GM soybeans commercially in South America have seen also an average of 9.4 percent increase in yields since 2013.

“Over 23 years of widespread use, crop biotechnology has been responsible for the additional global production of 278 million tonnes of soybeans, 498 million tonnes of corn, 32.6 million tonnes of cotton lint and 14 million tonnes of canola,” the report noted.

GM crops allow farmers to grow more without needing to use additional land, according to the report. For example, if crop biotechnology had not been available to farmers in 2018, maintaining global production levels that year would have required the cultivation of an additional 12.3 million hectares of soybeans, 8.1 million ha of corn, 3.1 million ha of cotton and 0.7 million ha of canola.  This is equivalent to needing an additional 14 percentof the arable land in the United States, or roughly 38 percent of the arable land in Brazil or 16 percent of the cropping area in China.

In the year 2015 alone, GM crops prevented almost 20 million ha of land from being used for farming activities, thus protecting vast forest areas.

“Modern agricultural technologies such as conventional breeding, fertilization, irrigation, plant protection products and others generated a huge take-off in crop production per hectare during the 20th century,” Norero told the Alliance for Science. “This implies that by producing more food on less land, you can avoid the agricultural use of virgin land and preserve biodiversity. GM crops are just a new phase, and offer a more sustainable way to move forward.”

Gidado is urging global acceptance of GM crops, particularly in developing nations. “Countries should embrace modern biotechnology for the enhancement of food and nutrition security and mitigation of climate change,” she said. “All developed nations that are food secure countries have adopted this technology — US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, China, Japan, India, etc.” Though most European nations do not grow GM crops, they do import GM food products and animal feed.

Preventing habitat loss

Norero concurs. “The only way to feed a planet with a growing population and facing climate change is to use all possible tools for a more productive and sustainable agriculture,” he insisted. “GM crops, as well as the new genome editing, are tools that we can’t leave out. This will help prevent habitat loss and reduce the risk of new pandemics due to human-wild animal interactions,” he asserted.

Mark Lynas, a UK-based science author and Alliance for Science climate change expert, agrees that the environment needs to be protected, but challenges the position that agricultural intensification is the primary culprit in its destruction or the transmission of diseases.

“We need to protect the environment and biodiversity as part of the effort to control the trasmission of zoonotic diseases. But it is wrong to place the blame squarely on industrial agriculture,” he said.

“HIV and Ebola emerged in Central Africa probably because of the bushmeat trade, where humans are in direct contact with endangered wildlife like apes,” Lynas noted. “It would be much better to produce meat and protein in more efficient farms which enable us to move away from direct exploitation of wildlife. The same goes for ‘wet markets’ like the one in Wuhan that seems to have been the epicenter of COVID-19. Where you have wild animals in close proximity in unsanitary conditions, this is not just an animal welfare issue, it is a disease control issue.”

Image: Bonobo in forest in Democratic Republic of Congo. Shutterstock/Sergey Uryadnikov