Biotechnology: A neglected hero

While I sifted through morning papers last Sunday, I realized that it was World Environment Day and people were discussing the ill effects of agriculture on the environment. I cannot blame them, as it is an established fact that traditional agricultural practices are one of the biggest contributors to environmental pollution (especially that of water, soil, air, etc.).

While it is a fact that some scientific interventions in agriculture have also had some adverse implications on the environment, their benefits though far outnumber the ill-effects. What we have to take cognizance of however, is the fact that agriculture, one of the oldest professions in the world, is now dominated by unsustainable practices which has led to deep agricultural pollution.

According to the World Wide Fund (WWF), there has been an over 26 fold increase in the use of pesticide in the last 50 years. These pesticides along with the fertilizers and other contaminants often get washed down into water bodies and contaminate the water, making it unsafe for consumption. Over 48% of stream and river water worldwide is polluted due to such run offs from the fields (National Water Quality Inventory). Agricultural activities also contribute significantly to the emission of greenhouse gases, like CO2, Methane, and ammonia. These greenhouse gases are one of the major causes for climate change. Globally, Agricultural practices are responsible for almost 10-12% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC World Climate Change Report). Soil depletion and soil erosion is also another issue posed by agriculture. The erosion of soil leads to decline in fertility. I read in one of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that farming has led to a conversion of 50% of the world’s habitable land into agricultural land. WWF reports also state that unsustainable agricultural practices have led to a loss of 12 million hectares of land each year to desertification, and at this rate one can be assured that by 2050, another 120 million hectares of natural habitats will be lost to farmland? These problems not only further strengthen the need for using technologically efficient and sustainable high yielding seeds in Indian agriculture, but also the needs to innovate in the agricultural practices.

Then why do we fail to recognize what happens when seeds meet science? And when science meets agriculture?

By using drip irrigation and various other techniques (my colleague Karishma talks about them in her blogpost- Smart Water through Technology) one can leverage technology to use water efficiently. Globally, scientists are working on innovative technologies in agriculture like- innovating with photosynthesis, weather resistance and improvement in Nutrient Use Efficiency w.r.t. seeds that use Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) and or Phosphorus Use Efficiency (PUE) technology. All this with one aim- to improve agricultural productivity and optimum utilization of fertilizers, which results in reduction of its percolation into soil and water- hence, a cutback in soil and air pollution. Biotechnology also makes plants pest resistant, by making them difficult to be attacked by known and specific pests. Consequently, it leads to lesser use of pesticides and insecticides, which means a reduction in water pollution.

Biotechnology is the new revolution in the realm of healthy agricultural practices. I believe and hope that by encouraging biotechnology, we may have a substantive positive impact on the environment which will be a true celebration of June 5, which we celebrate as World environment Day.