Climate Change: Scale up Support Systems in Agricultural Biotechnology

By Mary Hearty

Agriculture remains a major cause of  climate change as it currently generates 19-29% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Without action, that level of GHG emissions is anticipated to rise substantially, according the World Bank.

Biotechnology, a range of tools that is used in accelerating profitability in agricultural systems such as grafting, tissue culture , artificial insemination, genetic engineering could play a crucial role in reducing these emissions.

To do this, Dr. Joel W. Ochieng, Senior Research Fellow and Leader, Agricultural Biotechnology and Wildlife at the University of Nairobi urged African governments to scale up support systems including policies and others.

“We need a very strong level of policy support because climate change will not be reduced without strong policy support, especially policies that are directly and intentionally geared towards reducing the emissions like in construction and transport,” he stated.

Dr Ochieng clarified that some policies are already existing, however, there is need to ensure that they are actually being implemented as there is a disconnection between policy existence and implementation.

The policy on the use of livestock manure for example, which gives a period of three months to allow the degradation of active compounds in the manure before deploying it as fertilizer. This is because using it while still raw is 100% likely to release methane.

“People at the grassroots level thought it was a strategy the government was using to sell their fertilizer due to lack of communication from the government. They did not explain exactly why,” he recalled.

“So, farmers need to be educated, instead of taking it to the farm the same day, they need to be shown what to do to compost it in a way that some of things decay before it is taken to the farm.”

Dr Ochieng also encouraged governments to put in place systems that do continuous monitoring so that all interventions can be targeted at hotspots of GHG emissions that ultimately contribute to high levels of temperature and weather changes.

The effect of climate change brings about unpredictable weather patterns which affect food production, especially in Africa where this is critical. Also, some wildlife suffer from food scarcity as a result of the new predators that now come to their territory, he said, adding that when methane combines with oxygen, it becomes almost 300 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide as it release more heat into the environment.

Aside from policy systems, Dr Ochieng suggested that governments should also increase funding for research and development in order to expedite agricultural biotechnology studies that focus on mitigating climate change.

He mentioned that several projects in agricultural biotechnology have been developed to mitigate GHG emissions. One of them is altering the diet of farm animals which was discovered in the United States of America, Dr. Ochieng said, adding that the study shows that using more corn in animal feed lowers the level of methane production.

However, he pointed out that this comes with limitations as there will only be approximately 7-10% of change which may interfere with the animal’s production.

“Typically, we rear animals for productivity purpose, so, if the method is going to lower production, then the farmer will have to keep more cows, which again will cause more problems. We want people to keep fewer livestock, while they are more productive,” Dr. Ochieng explained.

Another challenge, more corn will be grown in order to have more corn in the feed. Consequently, “When you plough land, you are exposing the reflected aspect of the sun’s rays, which is the natural aspect of climate change.”

He noted that they were working on a research involving saponins, a plant extract to reduce the processes that initiate the production of methane into the environment, and since it is a natural alternative to chemical additives, scientists anticipate it will be accepted.

Another project is adding supplements that slow down methane production like seaweed. In this case, red algae is added to cattle feed using artificial cow rumens. This overwhelmingly reduces methane production by 90%.

Nevertheless, Dr. Ochieng said that an artificial stomach is different from an actual living cow. Also, large scale production of seaweed may be challenging.

He also mentioned capturing and purifying methane for domestic use as a source of energy. But, production of enough methane for household use, Dr. Ochieng said, required large herds of cattle that are kept in an enclosed place at all times. Yet, outdoor grazing is the most common system in Africa.

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