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How agriculture can succeed as the climate changes

October 25, 2016
By: 
Stephen Yarrow
Vice-President of Plant Biotechnology
CropLife Canada

Climate change stands to affect almost every industry but there are few that will be impacted as much as agriculture. With temperatures expected to rise several degrees over the next 50 years, agriculture will need to adapt and find ways to continue to produce more food on limited amounts of land under changing climate conditions.

With climate change comes both challenges and opportunities for crop production. Rising temperatures may mean longer growing seasons in parts of Canada, which could lead to increased productivity and open the door for growing new varieties of crops. However, there’s also the possibility of more extreme weather events like droughts and flooding, which can be devastating for agricultural production.

Fortunately, the Canadian agriculture industry is poised to play an important role in helping to slow the speed of climate change and mitigate its impacts while continuing to produce food, feed and fibre to meet the demands of Canadians and those around the world.

Innovations in plant breeding, such as herbicide tolerant crops, are already helping lessen the impact of agriculture on the environment and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Thanks in part to farmers’ use of tools like pesticides and biotech crops, farmers produce more per acre than at any other time in history. This is not only good for the farmer, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for Canadians.

A study conducted by RIAS Inc. on the contributions of plant science technologies to Canada found that without pesticides and insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant crops developed through modern plant breeding techniques such as genetic engineering and mutagenesis, we’d need to turn 35 million more acres into farmland to produce what we do today in Canada. That’s a significant amount of forest, native grasslands and wetlands that are safeguarded, which sequester carbon and protect biodiversity.

Herbicide tolerant crops have been one of the key innovations that have helped farmers adopt conservation tillage practices, providing a new era of weed control, allowing farmers to eliminate weeds with less crop inputs rather than relying on the old practice of plowing the soil, known as tillage, which is extremely hard on the soil. By reducing tillage, farmers have been able to improve the health of their soil all while limiting the number of times they pass over their fields with tractors, which saves huge amounts of diesel fuel from being burned and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by almost 30 million tonnes a year.

It’s clear that plant breeding innovation has a critical role to play in helping farmers ramp up production while at the same time lessening their impact on the environment. But it is also driving solutions to help farmers continue to produce a stable food supply in the face of extreme weather conditions.

According to the United Nations, over the last 30 years there have been about 470 drought-related disasters around the world. Scientists have been developing new varieties of crops that are more tolerant to drought. Drought-tolerant corn developed through biotechnology has already had a positive impact in North America and researchers around the world are working on drought-tolerant varieties of other staple crops.

Research is well underway on salt-tolerant crops and crops with improved nitrogen use efficiency, which stand to help farmers adapt and thrive in the face of new and challenging weather conditions.

But of course none of this matters if these crops aren’t safe. Fortunately, over the last 20 years Canada has benefited from a world-class regulatory system, which ensures all new biotech crops are just as safe as the conventional varieties. And there are probably few other foods in the history of humankind that have a track record of safety that is as biotech crops. There have been trillions of meals consumed containing ingredients from biotech crops over the last two decades without a single credible case of harm.

In order for Canadian farmers to be able to access the latest advances in plant breeding that will be so critical to helping agriculture combat climate change and navigate its impacts, it is imperative that the Canadian regulatory system remains founded in a science-based approach and modernizes to support and enable this kind of innovation.

On average, it takes more than a decade and a significant financial investment to get a new biotech crop to market and into the hands of farmers. The time it takes to get a new product to market is increasing and the regulatory system will be put under even greater pressure as the pace of innovation increases exponentially bringing more new products than ever forward.

New kinds of plant breeding innovations above and beyond today’s biotech crops are opening up a whole new world of possibilities but also questions about if and how they should and will be regulated. The Canadian regulatory system needs to adapt to the pace of innovation and ensure a more timely, predictable and transparent regulatory process for plant breeding innovations to support innovation in Canada that will drive investment and secure the success of agriculture into the future.