Biological diversity is the foundation for livelihoods and sustainable development. Biodiversity provides basic needs such as food, energy and medicine, other essential services, recreational and cultural benefits. Since ancient times, humankind, living in harmony with nature, has benefited in a multitude of ways from biological resources.
However, the progress of human civilization followed by the advancement of technology, population growth, industrialization and urbanization has accelerated the decline and extinction of species as well as the degradation of ecosystems. The losses are due to a range of pressures driven by a range of socio-economic drivers, including climate change, ecosystem degradation, illegal trade and unsustainable use.
To halt biodiversity loss, the international community developed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in time for the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The CBD has become one of the world’s most important multilateral environmental agreement and a key tool for sustainable development with over 196 member-states and over 6000 participants meeting over 25 years since its entry into force to deliberate and come up with policies for the protection of biodiversity.
Speaking on the sidelines of the ongoing 2018 United Nations Biodiversity Conference with the theme ‘Investing in biodiversity for people and planet’ in Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, experts say there is a strong correlation between biodiversity and biotechnology, stressing that adopting smart agronomic practices, in fact, play a significant role in conserving the environment.
In an exclusive chat with our correspondent, ISAAA project coordinator, Kenya, Margaret Karemba said adopting innovative biotechnology techniques could help reduce the number of arable lands cultivated by farmers and drastically reduce the amount of dangerous chemical pumped into the environment.
“There are three ways that biotechnology helps in the conservation of biodiversity. By increasing productivity per unit of land, this means reducing the amount of land you open up for crops and so you’re able to sustain that biodiversity in these regions. Secondly, when you use very selective techniques that only kill the harmful pests for your crops it means this reduces the amount of harmful chemicals you pump into the environment and especially those that are broad spectrum, killing many of the other non-target pests that you’re not interested in that help in pollination and crop breeding then you’re able to increase the number of biodiversity in that farm/environment.
“Thirdly, when you select tools that help you grow crops in the areas that they’ll give you the highest yield, for example, in drought then you don’t open up semi-arid land that also conserve very unique biodiversity. So, basically these are the three ways in which biotechnology helps in the conservation of biological diversity,” she said.
According to her, there is a very strong connection between biodiversity and biotechnology, with biodiversity providing the engine to get the genes or the traits required for biological systems to come up with innovations for man.
“Basically, biodiversity is very important that we get innovations that conserve biodiversity. We cannot have biotechnology without biodiversity because it is just the tools that you use to help utilize biodiversity in a more efficient and long-term way,” she added.
Similarly, a biotechnologist in genetics department at the Stellenbosch University, South Africa, Dr. Manuela Campa opined that biotechnology portends no danger to the environment but is actually beneficial, saying biotechnology in agriculture helps to improve the crops on one hand and conserve the environment on the other.
“Biotechnology can assist in improving the storage quality, this means that you won’t throw away eight per cent of the product because they don’t deteriorate during storage. So, that means that you can use less land because you don’t have a loss. This is even true for crops that can be implemented for better yield or resistant to pathogens or abiotic stresses, this means less loss during agriculture. So, you can use less land and that piece of land can be more efficient and you can leave the other land for the natural environment.
“I think that for these new technology as it concerns agricultural biodiversity, obviously, there are a lot of different varieties and for these new breeding technologies, it is very important to preserve these because they are actually the source of information for improvement because if you go back there might be a cultivar that’s very resistant to that particular pathogen or that is adapted to a particular soil and you can use that information for a cultivar that is good for production,” the biotechnologist, Manuela added.
Speaking exclusively to our correspondent, a plant breeder at the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Nigeria, Prof. Mahammad Ishiyaku averred that biotechnology can help in ensuring the sustenance of biodiversity by protecting some species from going into extinction.
“For instance, some invasive species can come into an environment and eat out everything. This has been recorded in the cases of rats in a particular area. They are eating up the bird’s eggs, at the end of the day you’ll find out that those birds will go into extinction but some specially bred rats were brought in to control this,” he said.
Ishiyaku also pointed out that some chemicals that are harmful were often used for the clearing of lands in agriculture which killed even unintended plants and animals, saying only the desired species to be controlled in a given time would be targeted if biotechnology is used.
“So, in short there is very close relationship between biodiversity and biotechnology. The essence of having a convention on biodiversity and then a whole protocol popularly known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was developed because of this very germane reason that the world community appreciated the potential positive impact of biotechnology in the conservation of biodiversity but to do that any perceived risk should be mitigated using scientifically designed means, so, in other words if the relationship does not exist the protocol would have not been developed,” he added.
Speaking on proceedings of COP 14, the plant breeder urged parties to the convention in Sharm El-Sheikh to look at science in a natural way, contending that scientific breakthroughs should not be impeded out of fear of non-existing risks, urging them to make laws that would allow science to be used to solve countries’ developmental problems.
“I urge the world community to look at science in its natural way, science is based on things you can see and measure. It is not based on emotions or some imagined non-existent things. The laws that should be agreed upon by the world community should be such that would facilitate the evaluation and monitoring of products of this science from time to time on its own merits. Then products of any of the technologies should be made available to those societies that require them to solve their developmental problems.
“I am completely opposed to some of those people who think that we shouldn’t try anything. If we had lived like that there wouldn’t have been aeroplane for us to fly around, there wouldn’t have been tractors where 200, 300 hectares of land can be cultivated in a day and so on. So, science should be exploited in a responsible and safe manner to develop technologies that would save our individual countries,” he emphasized.