How GMO’s Can Help Farmers Tackle Climate Change – Agweb Powered by Farm Journal


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Long-time conservation-minded farmers such as Annie Dee of Alabama view the introduction of Round-up Ready soybeans in 1996 as a landmark date, which allowed them to more easily adopt no-till practices on their soybean fields because it allowed them to utilize the broad spectrum pesticide Round-up (glyphosate) to combat harmful weeds without risking their cash crop.  This new technology alleviated the need to till their soybean fields to reduce weed pressure and made it easier to adopt reduced tillage or no-till cultivation practices.  Round-up Ready cotton was commercialized in 1997, and Round-up Ready corn was commercialized in 1998.  As of 2020, more than 90 percent of corn, cotton, and soybeans grown in the United States were GMO varieties, most of which included herbicide tolerance traits.

Nationally, the adoption rate of no-till practices was estimated to be 9.9 percent as of 1992, according to a report by USDA’s Economic Research Service.  According to data collected in the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the national adoption rate of no-till was 32 percent in 2017, and another 30 percent of cropland was cultivated with reduced tillage practices.

Increased use of no-till or reduced tillage practices can create several benefits related to climate change mitigation.  These include:

•    Reduced number of tillage passes on a given field cuts consumption of fossil fuels (diesel) to power equipment,
•    Increased organic carbon content in soil, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and 
•    Reduction of emissions of nitrous oxide and methane from the soil to the atmosphere.

Going forward into the future, agricultural scientists using techniques such as gene editing can help make crop and livestock species more resistant to the impacts of climate change, and also potentially increase certain crops’ ability to mitigate climate change.

As a result of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project  undertaken during the first decade of this century by CIMMYT and IATA, both centers of the CGIAR system, millions of African farmers now have access to seed to grow drought-tolerant maize (corn), helping them improve their yields by as much as 30 percent.  Much of this work was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Even though this initial DTMA research was conducted using conventional breeding practices, the drought-tolerant trait they created has now been incorporated into corn seed available to U.S. farmers using genetic engineering techniques.  By 2016, 22 percent of acres planted to corn in the United States had drought-tolerant protection.

The success of the DTMA project has spurred similar research regarding drought tolerance on other major cash crops, including coffee in Uganda, soybeans and wheat in Argentina, rice grown in India, the Philippines, and Nepal, and canola in Canada.  The drought resistant soybean and wheat varieties in Argentina and the drought resistant rice varieties, developed by scientists in the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), have all been released to farmers in the named countries for production, while the others have not yet reached that stage.

In response to expected changes in growing conditions as a result of climate change, IRRI scientists have also developed rice varieties that can survive extended periods of submergence during the growing season due to flooding.  The initial research was conducted using marker assisted breeding, a technique adapted by conventional breeding but originally developed by scientists engaged in genetic engineering.  The “Sub1” trait was incorporated into varieties that were called “scuba rice” by scientists, and have bred into local varieties and released for use across Asia. It is now being grown on several million acres of farmland, much of it in India and Bangladesh.

Rising sea levels from climate change have already made millions of acres of farmland within coastal areas such as in Bangladesh less productive or even unusable for agriculture, due to the more pronounced intrusion of salt into the groundwater and soils in those regions. Soil salinization is also an increasing issue for crops grown under irrigation, which could become a more widespread practice in some regions of the world due to reduced or irregular precipitation patterns from climate change.  After years or decades of continuous irrigation, toxic ions dissolved in irrigation water (even if fresh, good-quality water is used) progressively accumulate in the soil, leading to this ‘secondary salinization’ –caused directly by human intervention.

 IRRI scientists have been working for several years to incorporate salt tolerance into rice varieties for farmers in Asia and West Africa, releasing varieties in both regions in recent years.  This work on rice varieties has been undertaken using conventional breeding practices, but other work on crops such as tomatoes, tobacco, celery, and barley has been pursued through genetic engineering and/or gene editing.

More fundamental changes to the physiology of plants are being researched as well, such as the work under the Realizing Increases in Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project headquartered at the University of Illinois, where scientists are seeking to improve the capacity of plants to convert sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide into plant matter.  At this time, their work is focused on improving five food crops--corn, rice, soybeans, cassava, and cowpeas.  As with the DTMA project described above, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funder of this project.  With higher levels of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, this work could help stave off the expected decline in crop yields due to higher temperatures and more variable precipitation.

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