Could genetic engineering be a valued tool against climate change?

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As we look to the future of agriculture, one issue should dominate the debate: the world’s climate continues to become warmer. Companies and governments have started working with farmers to take steps to reduce the severity of climate change, including the use of biotechnology and genetic modifications.

The effects of global climate change will probably impact farmers more than other groups, because farming is almost entirely at the whim of precipitation and temperature. Because of global climate change, the USDA’s Economic Research Service in November predicted that, from 2020 to 2080, yields will decrease for corn, soybeans, sorghum, rice, cotton oats and silage, but will increase for wheat, hay and barley. In addition, the costs of irrigation for all of these crops will rise, due to increases in temperature, more frequent drought conditions, and the increasing scarcity of ground- and surface water. These changes will also change our definition of “normal,” from heat waves, droughts, pests, and diseases.

But as much as climate change has impacted farmers, the reverse is also true: agriculture is significantly impacting the changing climate. Farming activities are estimated to account for 10 percent of global temperature rises. Rice, for example, is responsible for nearly 20 percent of all human-generated methane, one common greenhouse gas.

Companies and governments are looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, and sooner rather than later. Recently, Monsanto pledged that it would become “carbon-neutral,” i.e. emit no net carbon in its operations or products, by 2021. The company announced that it would do this by changing its own internal operations, and by working with its seed production operations and farmers to encourage cover crops, conservation tillage, genetic modification of seeds and plants, and breeding.

These changes by Monsanto and other companies would impact all manner of farming: conventional, those using genetic modifications, and organic:

  • Cover crops involve growing certain plants to protect soils from erosion, evaporation and carbon emissions. Cover crops have also long been advocated for by the organic agriculture industry as an alternative to some pesticides, and as a way to preserve soil moisture and nutrients.
  • Conservation tillage is a hybrid of techniques espoused by conventional farmers, especially those working with herbicide-resistant crops. Conservation tillage includes “no till,” “strip-till,” “ridge-till” and “mulch-till.” Each uses special equipment to keep the previous year’s crops on the field, and planting the subsequent year’s crop on areas that have not been tilled, or have been cleared into a narrow strip or ridge, thus preventing carbon release and soil erosion. Some experts have estimated that using biotech crops that resist herbicides has increased the use of no-till techniques by 69 percent.

Genetic modification also has a powerful role in addressing global climate change, and has been combined with conservation tillage and cover crops. Some of these include effects that can directly reduce the severity and impact of climate change:

  • Earlier this year, scientists reported in Nature the development of a rice crop that, with the addition of a single barley gene SUSIBA2, reduced methane production of the rice. A three year trial in China demonstrated significant methane reductions. However, the product will probably not be available to consumers for many years as the crops will mostly like be created through traditional breeding, and not direct genetic modification, because they will probably be easier to approve.
  • In an unusual cross over move using agriculture for consumer products, the Massachusetts-based company Modular Genetics modified an industrial bacterium to grow on discarded soybean hulls (instead of sugar) to produce a chemical used in personal-care products. This recycles carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, without diverting the production of sugar to feed the bacteria.
  • The use of biotech crops has reduced fuel use around the world (and therefore, also reduced carbon dioxide emissions) by 1.2 billion gallons between 1996 and 2010. This reduction was brought about by fewer applications of pesticides (meaning, fewer sprayer, truck and tractor runs), and reduced need to cultivate soil.

Genetic modifications have also shown their ability to adapt to the effects of climate change (both those happening now, and are predicted to happen):

  • Officials from the drought-stricken Indian state of Maharashtra visited a field in Indonesia which has been growing genetically modified, drought-resistant sugar cane, usually a very water-dependent plant. Indonesian scientists and officials reported that the healthy-looking sugar canes had not been irrigated for four months.
  • The rising sea levels as well as incursion of fresh groundwater by sea water has forced farmers to face conditions of increased salinity, Indian scientists developed genetically modified varieties of rice that contain genes from plants that grow in mangroves (which thrive in salt water). The modified crops could survive in much higher concentrations of salt water. However, salt tolerance is a complex trait and not easily resolvable by inserting a small number of genes. Thanks to a lifting of field trial bans by the Indian government, research can continue.

Earlier this year, the USDA Economic Research Service issued a report that called for some changes in how genetic resources are used, including a shift in biotechnology’s focus from tolerance of pests and diseases, to handling heat and drought (preferably, both of those stresses together).

The USDA study also stressed that landraces (local varieties of a crop) and wild relatives of domestic crops might have genetic varieties that could be used for commercial crop production. This could, of course be done by traditional hybridization and breeding, or by recombinant or gene editing biotechnology, the latter of which is generally much faster.

Efforts to apply more biotechnology to agricultural problems and climate change have been met with opposition, however. As reported by the Genetic Literacy Project (and other outlets), so-called “green” organizations like Greenpeace have cited poorly-done studies that erroneously purport to show how biotech crops are ineffectual in drought or high-temperature environments. This spread of misinformation may pose a serious threat to universal endorsement of biotech-based agricultural solutions to climate change.

In a study on the attitudes of business, government and non-government non-profits showed, participants were more willing to privately favor biotechnology as a source of solutions to climate change, but few were willing to express that sentiment publicly. Philipp Aerni at the University of Zurich, the head of the study, wrote:

Since core stakeholders in both debates (Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are involved with both climate change and GMO issues) radically oppose the use of modern biotechnology, and can count on widespread public support, especially in affluent countries,…other stakeholders may also side with the popular view, even if that view may not be in line with their more pragmatic personal view.

Biotechnology may not be ‘clean tech’ as long as powerful environmental groups say it is not.

Private companies, government agencies, and farmers themselves are calling (and searching) for new tools to address adaptation to climate change, and determine whether its extreme forms are inevitable. A combination of science-based techniques and technologies, while simultaneously not adhering to one ideological, political or technical artifact, has been fingered as the most productive direction for society. As an Economist editorial concluded, “Thinking caps should replace hair shirts, and pragmatism should replace green theology.” Time for innovation: it’s getting hotter outside.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.