On May 22 of every year, the world observes The International Day for Biodiversity (IDB), commemorating adoption of the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of 22 May 1992. The universal observance also demonstrates commitment and support for the Convention, its Protocols, and related action frameworks. This year, IDB 2024, themed “Be part of the plan”, is a deliberate call to action for all stakeholders to halt and reverse loss of biodiversity by supporting implementation of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF).

Biodiversity, as defined by the CBD, refers to the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part. The intricate interconnections between species and their environments underpin the stability and resilience of ecosystems, providing critical services upon which our societies depend. From the purification of air and water, nutrient cycling, and climate regulation, to the pollination of crops that feed the growing global population, biodiversity plays a fundamental role in maintaining a balance that sustains all life on Earth.

Agricultural activities are a major contributor to habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. This is majorly through deforestation, conversion of natural landscapes into croplands, and monoculture practices. These activities result in the destruction of native vegetation and displacement of wildlife, reducing biodiversity and ultimately increasing human-wildlife interactions that cause one health-related issues. Fragmentation occurs as large continuous habitats are divided into smaller patches for use in farming, impeding species movement and reducing genetic exchange. Additionally, agricultural intensification often involves usage of large amounts of chemicals, which degrade soil, air and water quality, further disrupting ecosystems. This cumulative impact undermines the resilience and functionality of natural habitats, exacerbating biodiversity loss.

The consequences of this unprecedented biodiversity loss are far-reaching, a global crisis that goes beyond ecological predicament. This calls for urgent concerted efforts to protect what remains and restore lost ecosystems. Today, there is a consensus that for biodiversity to have any chance of recovery, the global community must adopt sustainable practices that align human activities with nature. This recognition has triggered deployment of various efforts, comprising targeted actions and strategies to protect species and restore habitats.

Since 1996, the utilization of modern biotechnological tools in agriculture has increased food production efficiency, allowing for sustainable production of food using less land, water, pesticides, and fuel. This has a positive implication in reducing the impact of agricultural activities on the environment, climate change, and biodiversity. As we celebrate IDB 2024, it’s important to highlight how these technologies are not just about increasing yields and farmer profits, but also about preserving the earth’s biodiversity.

Reducing chemical usage

One of the most significant ways biotechnology helps conserve biodiversity is by reducing the reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides. Conventional farming methods often involve extensive use of these chemicals, which can harm non-target species and disrupt ecosystems. Biotech crops engineered for insect resistance (IR) and herbicide tolerance (HT) allow farmers to use fewer pesticides and more targeted herbicides. This reduction minimizes the impact on beneficial insects like bees, birds, and other wildlife, helping to maintain a healthier and more diverse ecosystem.

Between 1996 and 2020, the adoption of biotech IR cotton globally resulted in an estimated reduction of 339 million hectares of insecticide spray area. Similarly, during the same period, the use of biotech HT canola resulted in an 18.1% reduction in herbicide volumes applied compared to conventional varieties. Overall, the cultivation of biotech crops has led to a 17.3% reduction in the environmental impact associated with insecticide and herbicide use, primarily driven by reductions in the active ingredients applied and lower toxicity levels (Brookes, 2022).

Promoting soil health

Healthy soil is the foundation of a vibrant ecosystem. Biotech crops can enhance soil health by reducing the need for tillage. No-till farming, which is facilitated by herbicide-tolerant crops, helps prevent soil erosion, retains soil moisture, and promotes the growth of beneficial soil microorganisms. These practices contribute to a richer biodiversity both above and below the ground.

Conserving land and water

Biotech crops with inbuilt resistance to pests’ infestation protects farmers yields hence more produce on less land. This efficiency means that fewer natural habitats need to be converted into agricultural land, leaving more space for wildlife. Additionally, biotech crops engineered with drought resistance reduce the need for irrigation. Less water usage helps preserve aquatic ecosystems and ensures that rivers, lakes, and wetlands continue to thrive with diverse life forms.

Preserving genetic diversity

Modern biotechnological tools allow for precise modifications that can enhance the resilience of crops to diseases and changing climate conditions without the need for broad-spectrum chemical treatments. This precision helps maintain the genetic diversity of both crops and their wild relatives. By enhancing the resilience of crops, biotechnology ensures that a broader range of plant species can be cultivated, which in turn supports a variety of wildlife that depends on diverse plant life for survival.

Reducing agricultural expansion

By increasing the efficiency and productivity of existing farmland, biotechnology reduces the pressure to clear additional forests and grasslands for agriculture. This conservation of natural habitats is crucial for protecting the myriad of species that live in these environments. Forests and grasslands are home to an incredible array of biodiversity, from large mammals to tiny insects, all of which play essential roles in their ecosystems.

Reduced greenhouse gas emissions

Biotechnology application in agricultural production reduces greenhouse gas emissions by promoting reduced-tillage (RT) or no-tillage (NT) farming, which preserves soil carbon, and by lowering fuel consumption through fewer field passes. The technology has been used to improve nitrogen use efficiency, reducing the need for fertilizers, and enhancing overall crop yields, thereby minimizing land use changes like deforestation. Drought-resistant biotech crops reduce irrigation needs, while IR varieties decrease pesticide use, cutting emissions from their production and application.

Fuel savings arising from making fewer insecticide applications with the use of biotech IR crop technology in maize, cotton, and soybeans and the switch from conventional tillage to RT/NT systems facilitated by biotech HT crops, have delivered permanent savings in carbon dioxide emissions. Over the period 1996 to 2020 for instance, the cumulative permanent reduction in fuel use has been about 39 million kg of carbon dioxide, arising from reduced fuel use of approx. 14 million liters. In terms of car equivalents, this is equal to taking close to 30 million cars off the road for a year (Brookes, 2022). These combined effects make biotechnology a crucial tool for mitigating climate change, advancing sustainable agriculture, and conserving biodiversity.

The role of biotechnology in biodiversity conservation is multifaceted and profound. By reducing chemical usage, promoting soil health, conserving land and water, preserving genetic diversity, and reducing agricultural expansion, and greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities, biotechnology is a powerful ally in the fight to preserve our planet’s biodiversity. As we observe IDB 2024, it’s clear that among other approaches, embracing biotechnological innovations is a key contributor to ensuring a sustainable and biodiverse future. Let us all be part of the plan in advocating for favourable policies that support proven science-based solutions for biodiversity conservation.

Margaret Karembu, Ph.D. MBS, Director, ISAAA AfriCenter | mkarembu@isaaa.org

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