The term agroecology has been used in scientific literature since the 1920s, but, interestingly, there is no internationally agreed upon definition for the term. I learned about it while taking a bachelor’s degree course in agriculture. It’s a concept of applying knowledge of ecology to agricultural production systems. Many people equate it with organic farming or regenerative agriculture, which often excludes the use of biotechnology from the list of effective innovations to achieve agricultural goals. Whether you think of biotechnology as genetic engineering, genome editing, or other techniques (some of which are not at all related to genetic manipulations), or just by the most popular term “GMO,” biotechnology fulfills all the 10 elements of agroecology, as proposed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and together they create a powerful toolkit that benefit everyone in society. The FAO’s 10 elements are diversity, co-creation and sharing of knowledge, synergies, efficiency, recycling, resilience, human and social values, culture and food traditions, responsible governance, and circular and solidarity economy.
Agroecological systems are meant to be highly diverse and biotechnology can help keep them diverse. All breeding techniques depend on diversity, embracing the range of traits found in plants and beyond to develop robust, tasty crops needed to feed our families. Sometimes these traits already exist in the same or related species and need just a little selective breeding to have the new trait(s) incorporated in that crop, as has been done for 10,000 to 12,000 years, since we invented agriculture. In other cases, traits need to be shared between two unrelated (sexually incompatible) species, which is accomplished by genetic modification, both naturally or through engineering. In fact, all plant species naturally have gained new traits by picking up bacterial genes to survive and thrive on dry land. Modern biotechnology is helping diversify our diets and adapt to changing conditions. Purple tomatoes that contain more antioxidants than blueberries, more nutritious and less pungent kale, a mustard variety with zero-erucic and high-oleic acid with great health benefits and nitro-fixing cereal crops are just a few examples worth noting.
Agroecology depends on context-specific knowledge. Co-creation and sharing of knowledge have been essential to our understanding of the biology of living organisms and their interactions at the molecular level. Research in molecular biology and its application in the form of biotechnology can help to scientifically validate and improve upon immensely powerful traditional and indigenous knowledge while protecting vulnerable ecosystems and promoting biodiversity. Unfortunately, ideological arguments and unfounded fears often jeopardize scientists’ ability to verify the efficacy, ensure the safety, and demonstrate the benefits of biotechnology.
Improving efficiency is a vital element of agroecology and can be directly strengthened by biotechnology. This could include developing a crop variety that can grow with less water or require significantly less or no chemical pesticide or fertilizer or vegetables or fruits with longer shelf life. It can also include commonly consumed crops supplemented with needed micro/macro-nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamins (e.g., vit A, as achieved by Golden Rice) and many other such nutrients via biofortification through genetic engineering. All of these innovations increase the efficiency of our agricultural systems. A recently published farm level survey in Vietnam showed that the average amount of herbicide active ingredient applied to the biotech crop area was 26 percent lower and 36 percent lower in terms of environmental impact of the herbicide use as compared to control fields planted with non-biotech crops.
Agroecology places a strong emphasis on human and social values. Increases in agricultural productivity with the use of biotechnology have resulted in better farmer livelihoods. In Vietnam, the farmers earned an additional income of $6.84 to $12.55 for every extra $1 spent on biotech seed relative to conventional seed.
In agroecology, recycling means agricultural production with lower economic and environmental costs. Biodegradable plastic (bio-plastic) is enabled using biotechnology in bacteria and increasingly in plants. There are many other ways biotechnology can help in recycling not just farm byproducts but also polluted water and soil via remediation to remove various types of contamination, including heavy metal and petrochemical pollution.
People, communities, and nations show more resilience when their food systems satisfy all the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental. Overemphasis on one or two of these pillars can lead to gaps in achieving food security, community development, or biodiversity objectives, especially in many developing countries and farming communities. Standard organic and regenerative farming practices, which are often equated with agroecological principles, aim to meet resilience and sustainability goals, but there are differences in productivity.
Gaps in productivity have been noted in Europe, particularly important for wheat, with a “yield gaps ranging between 40 percent (Germany) and 85 percent (Italy) of conventional yields.” Yield loss has also occurred in tropical countries like Sri Lanka, which has banned import of fertilizers and agrochemicals that include insecticides and herbicides while trying to shift to organic farming. In the United States, costs for organic corn are estimated to be $83–$98 higher per acre than their conventional counterparts and costs for organic soybeans are estimated at $106–$125 higher. Buyers must pay a higher price for such organic products. Farmers producing organic crops need to charge proportionately more to compensate for the yield loss. Most farmers and other consumers in the world do not have the luxury to buy more expensive food. Together, agroecology and biotechnology can overcome the gap.
Biotechnology can be used to enhance, support, and save cultural values and food traditions. Without biotechnology, we probably wouldn’t have papaya in many places in the world, which was saved using biotechnology from a ringspot virus almost 20 years ago. Biotechnology is currently being used to save the American chestnut.
Sustainable food and agriculture require responsible and effective governance mechanisms at different scales – from local to national to global. Responsible governance is critical to enable farmers to have access to the latest innovations in both agroecology and biotechnology. Like anyone else, farmers and small businesses need stable, predictable, and trust-worthy platforms for trade to sustain livelihoods. At the end of the day, having the ability to choose will enable consumers to decide what to buy and at what price, and the farmers to decide what is beneficial for them to grow. Biotech crop varieties have been adopted rapidly by farmers in almost every country where they have access to such seeds.
Consider the eggplant farmers in India. They lost the opportunity to cultivate genetically engineered (GE) eggplants as the Indian government did not approve use of such seeds, even though India’s official regulatory body agreed to their use. At the same time, thousands of farmers in Bangladesh have been successfully growing the GE eggplants for many years now, and recently, the Philippines approved a similar GE eggplant variety. Now, illegal cultivation of the GE eggplant is reported in India since farmers there understand the benefits the GE eggplant will bring them.
Agroecology offers valuable tools for farmers to take advantage of natural processes for the common benefit of the environment and local communities. The goals of agroecology are not at odds biotechnology, but rather can be magnified by biotechnology. These complementary approaches to agriculture must be united in our shared goal of developing more sustainable food systems.
About the Author: Jayanta Chatterjee is a Franklin Fellow working in the Office of Agricultural Policy (AGP) in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB). Dr. Chatterjee earned his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology and agricultural biotechnology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland.