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Vol. 6 No. 1 - Millennium Issue - January 2000

Biodiversity Conservation and Agrobiotechnology

By: Anton G. Endress

People have exploited the Earth’s natural resources and modified the environment for thousands of years, but in the last two centuries human impact has increased dramatically, in part because of rapid population growth, in part because of technological changes, and partly as a consequence of the way that development has been permitted to proceed. Summarized by Vitousek et al. (1997), the earth’s land surface has been transformed via agriculture, industry, international commerce, and urbanization, resulting in the alteration of major biogeochemical cycles and the addition or removal of species and genetically distinct populations in most of Earth’s ecosystems. In turn these changes have further altered ecosystem functioning by driving global climate change and causing irreversible loss of biological diversity. Since the human domination of Earth’s ecosystems in substantial and growing, the already heavy demands placed on the world’s natural resources and environment are likely to be increasingly severe.

The resulting circumstances have led to the promotion of diverse approaches to curtail the growing burden of human activities; some of the most frequently mentioned are curbing biodiversity losses, reducing habitat fragmentation, decreasing population growth, increasing the efficiency of food production, altering the distribution of food, and improving assess to nutritious foods. For many, the elaboration of sustainable development programms offers a promising solution.

Sustainable development is concerned with stewardship of both natural and human resources. Its main goals are environmental health, economic profitability, environmental justice, and social, economic, and intergenerational equity. Sustainability seeks optimum use of the environment in satisfying basic human needs at the minimum, and more if possible, for an indefinite future. How realistic is it to sustain, and where possible, improve the ‘quality of life’ for all the world’s people, now numbering more than 6 billion? Economic development and environmental protection seem to be incompatible after all. Sustainable development’s promoters frequently advocate for centralization, internationalization, and rapid economic development. And many implicitly support maintenance of a much higher standard of living than the "basic human needs" level. Its detractors argue that biodiversity has intrinsic value and giving dollar values to all natural resources is useless, if not harmful. Given the lack of a clearly defined endpoint or goal and the number and complexity of social, energy, resource, economic, and demographic transitions that are required, it is not surprising that sustainability has yet to be achieved.

Values in conflict?

Humans have an ethical responsibility to assist in the recovery of species we have driven to the brink of extinction and a moral responsibility to provide food to those with whom we share this world. Is it possible to satisfy both responsibilities and achieve sustainability? Is there as alternative to pitting the demands of hunger and food security against the need for habitat preservation and biodiversity conversation? Agrobiotechnology, the cultivation of genetically modified plants and animals, is increasingly championed as a breakthrough in efforts to achieve sustainability.

Agrobiotechnology offers a faster, more precise version of age-old human efforts at hybridization and selective breeding of plants and animals. Proponents of agrobiotechnology point to the opportunities for reducing hunger and improving food security while simultaneously promoting ecological sustainability. At a recent appearance in Illinois, World Food Prize recipient Badrinarayan Barwale stated that "genetically modified crops are the foundation for the next huge advance in food production". Significant resources are being invested by the public and private sectors to map the genetics of agriculturally important crops. Numerous genetically modified organisms are already in the marketplace, and the pipeline of new GMO products is enormous. The potential for creating ‘plant factories’ that produce everything from pharmaceuticals to petroleum products through genetic manipulation is clearly on the horizon.

Crops may be genetically modified for increased productivity, expanded land use, cropping intensification, or a combination of these. Examples include crops that are new or contain one or a combination of several improved characteristics that ultimately result in larger yields, lower production costs, or value-added benefits: enhanced photosynthesis, reduced fertilizer use, greater resistance to pests and diseases, improved water use efficiency, drought tolerance, or temperature hardiness, longer post-harvest storage, improved processing quality, enhanced content of nutraceuticals and other biologically-active substances, and suitability for shorter rotation, high density, or multiple cropping systems. One focus of current agrobiotechnology research is the effort to enhance production of anti-carcinogens in food crops. Plant scientists are scouring ancient wisdom and tropical cultures seeking insights into the medicinal properties of plants. As the medical community verifies medicinal properties, plant scientists will develop production practices to insure a supply of important new crops to the marketplace, and promising plants will be genetically modified to enhance traits creating specific health-promoting attributes. These designer foods will be targeted to individuals with specific dietary needs or those at risk for certain types of disease.

But compare the potential opportunities against the historic record. According to a recent World-­Watch Institute report "Nature’s Cornucopia: Our Stake in Plant Diversity," landscape fragmentation, pressure from non-native species, and adoption of industrial agriculture have caused the loss of traditional crop varieties (examples include an estimated loss of 90% of traditional wheat varieties in China since World War II; Mexican farmers are raising an estimated 20% of the corn varieties cultivated in the 1930s; and an estimated loss of 80% of the seed varieties sold a century ago in the U.S.). The erosion of genetic diversity of cultivated plants reduces the capacity to breed more productive and disease-resistant crop varieties. Similarly historic plant collecting and exploitation were so severe that international treaties were needed to protect the ecologic and economic interests of countries harboring important species.

Opponents of agrobiotechnology argue that cultivation of genetically modified organisms will accelerate the already substantial loss of genetic diversity and is unnecessary, at least with respect to increased food production. Rather, food impoverishment and human hunger are seen as the result of inequities involving access to education, capital, and inadequate food distribution systems. Opponents also contend that adoption of agrobiotechnology is likely to cause substantial ecological disruption because it facilitates the use of marginal and presently unusable lands and impacts natural ecosystems in unknown ways. There also are concerns about gene escape and the development of highly resistant plant and animal pests. Recent research showing the mortality of monarch butterfly larvae that had consumed Bt corn pollen placed on milkweed leaves indicates a cautious approach is certainly warranted, especially when the genetic modification involves the transfer of genes between unrelated organisms.

Whither agrobiotechnology and biodiversity conservation?

Because of the large costs and biological risks of rescuing endangered species, conservationists typically seek ecosystem approaches for saving biological diversity. For them, reversing the accelerating curve of species extinction through in situ habitat protection solves the biodiversity crisis. Habitat protection, in turn, requires there be no additional land or resource exploitation for agricultural, industrial, mining, or development purposes. Is habitat protection feasible while simultaneously responding to the need for food self­-sufficiency, within the growing global community?

Part of the answer seems clear: increased human involvement will be required for there to be any chance of conserving biodiversity and maintaining the normal functioning of ecosystems. Without thoughtful, deliberate, and cautious human participation, how else can populations, species, and ecosystems be maintained along with the flow of goods and services they provide? The unwanted impacts of agriculture must be weighed against the world demand for food, commodities, and livelihoods. Agrobiotechnology seems to be one of the tools that advance us towards sustainability. The dilemma is whether enough is known to fully embrace it.

Agrobiotechnology offers promise for biodiversity conservation, food security, human health, and global sustainability provided:

·         its use is deliberate, selective, cautious, and alert to unknown dangers,

·         accessibility is open to everyone regardless of the economic status of the country or culture,

·         newly generated products and services are optimized with respect to differing production practices and systems and utilization of natural resources, and

·         its collective impacts on ecological resources are negative.

Rampant, unthinking adoption of agrobiotechnology is more likely a harbinger of an accelerated global loss of biodiversity than a leap toward sustainability. There are significant environmental risks from agrobiotechnology products that extend production to marginal lands or fail to lessen the need for specialized chemical and equipment inputs. Similarly, countries and/or cultures denied access to genetically modified organisms will have no choice but to continue the current ecological-destructive agricultural practices. Agrobiotechnology products that benefit the environment and move societies closer to sustainability are those that achieve crop yields on the same or less area currently cultivated, require less fertilizers and/or pesticides, use water more efficiently, are compatible with traditional production systems, and possess known impacts on natural ecosystems. Under these circumstances, agrobiotechnology can be a blessing for feeding humankind as well as for the environment.

Dr. Anton G. Endress is associated with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, 1101 West Peabody Drive, Urbana, Illinois, USA 61801).

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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