Genetically modified crops can have a positive effect on the climate

Researchers at the University of Bonn and the Breakthrough Institute have deduced that genetically modified crops in Europe could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The use of genetically modified (GM) crops in agriculture remains contentious, especially in Europe. According to surveys, many people fear that these could have negative effects on human health and the environment. However, a new study indicates that GM crops could be good for the environment, and for the climate in particular.

Results suggest that the adoption of GM crops in the European Union (EU) could reduce greenhouse gas emissions considerably. The study by scientists from the Breakthrough Institute in the USA and the University of Bonn in Germany was recently published in Trends in Plant Science.

Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions

Agriculture accounts for around 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. A large share of these emissions is due to livestock production and fertiliser use. However, more than one-third of agricultural emissions are caused by land-use change, especially the conversion of forests and other nature reserves to agricultural land to satisfy the rising global demand for food and feed.

“Using better technologies to increase crop yields on the land already cultivated could reduce this land-use change and the associated emissions,” explained study author, professor Dr Matin Qaim, Director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn.

Certain types of genetically modified crops – such as GM maize and soybean – are widely grown in other parts of the world, but hardly in Europe. “The main reasons are public acceptance issues and political hurdles,” added Qaim.

Higher GM crop yields in the EU would have a global effect

In the new study, Qaim and his colleagues from the Breakthrough Institute utilised global agricultural data and estimated the yield effects of GM crops to model how increased technology adoption in the EU would affect production, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions. The estimates suggest that a more widespread use of genetically modified crops in the EU could prevent the release of 33 million tons of CO2 equivalents, which corresponds to 7.5% of the EU’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

“Most of these positive climate effects are attributable to reduced land-use change,” commented Dr Emma Kovak, from the Breakthrough Institute and the study’s first author.

The research team noted: “The EU imports a lot of maize and soybean from Brazil, where the expansion of agricultural land contributes to tropical deforestation. Higher yields in the EU could reduce some of these imports and thus help preserve the Amazon rainforest.”

The authors stress that in their analysis they only look at already-existing genetically modified crops. “New genomic breeding technologies are currently being used to develop a wide range of new crop applications that could lead to additional climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits in the future,” concluded Qaim.

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