By Mary Hearty
Gene editing offers a promising opportunity to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and other sectors, according to Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) 2020 report.
Recent advances have proved that this biotechnology technique could help capture carbon from the atmosphere and support biofuel development.
“It can play an important role in limiting and removing greenhouse gas emissions. Once an esoteric interest of just a handful of molecular biologists, gene editing is now the second-most published topic in biology and a key tool for tackling climate change,” Val Giddings, senior fellow at ITIF, who co-authored the report said.
“Gene editing can improve biological processes like photosynthesis to deliver positive climate impacts,” Giddings added.
“While it is impossible to predict the extent to which gene-edited solutions will contribute to climate change mitigation, it is clear there is considerable potential.”
Gene editing has the potential to impact each of the areas where greenhouse gas emissions arise including fuel, fertilizer, agricultural wastes and other inputs, as well as growth of crops.
Among the discussed solutions offered by gene editing to mitigate climate change and carbon removal in agriculture include reducing food loss and wastes.
“The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that about one-third of the food grown around the world is wasted. This wasted food produce as much as 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, which warms the atmosphere,” the ITIF reported.
Food wastes can arise from factors such as plant diseases, insect damage, browning and bruising. Gene editing offer multiple potential solutions to these agents.
“Fire blight, for instance, is a bacterial plague on apples and as many as 75 other fruits and vegetables. It is expensive to control and imposes substantial losses on food and food processors. Gene editing can help solve this disease and others,” the ITIF researchers noted.
In addition, food waste caused by insects is reported to have dramatically reduced due to conventional genetically engineering, specifically in corn and cotton.
Gene editing also increases crop yields through improved weed control. The biotechnology inhibits weeds thus result in reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per unit harvested.
Tillage which has been the preferred approach of controlling weeds over the years, disrupts the microbial populations that are essential to soil health and responsible for much soil carbon sequestration.
“Tillage increases greenhouse gas emissions, the ITIF explained in the report, ‘’by accelerating microbial degradation of soil organic matter, while at the same time increasing water loss, and exacerbating erosion, which increases groundwater contamination and downstream pollution.”
Agricultural economists have documented reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to inputs especially fuel, from no-till farming.
Genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops also play a vital role in facilitating adoption of no-till farming, as they have proven so superior to other weed-control measures. Crops like corn, cotton and soybean now contain this characteristic.
Gene editing can also make this technique easier by making crop-herbicides with high impact and toxicity less harmful. For instance, dicamba used to control Palmer Amaranth.
Moreover, gene editing helps in reducing ruminant emissions which are largely methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Ruminant methane is caused mainly by symbiotic microbes in the digestive tract rather than the cattle themselves.
The ITIF reported that a cow produces between 70 and 120 kilograms of methane a year. Altering the diet of cattle could help cut methane emissions.
For instance, certain types of seaweed to cattle feed has been shown to reduce methane emissions by as much as 67 percent.
“Such a diet changes the balance of microbes in upper digestive tract, which are the main source of emissions,” the ITIF clarified in the report.
Several companies have commenced producing commercial feed additives of this type and could be on the market within a few years.
Furthermore, the ITIF added that gene editing combined with selective breeding could offer a sustainable solution to eliminate methane.
This follows a study conducted by Australian researchers, which examined 1,016 cattle in several herds, and found more than 250,000 different microbes in their digestive systems.
A core group of 512 species was common among the herds, and a subset of 39 correlated with both productivity and methane generation.
The ITIF suggested: “Identification of genes responsible for the presence of microbes using gene editing could make it easier to knock out those responsible for high-methane production bacteria or increase the expression of others that favor low-methane species.”
Gene editing could also play a role in improving Nitrogen-use efficiency. Farmers use almost 500 million metric tons of Nitrogen in fertilizer each year to grow the world’s three most important food crops: rice, maize and wheat.Since fertilizer is a vital source of greenhouse gas, Nitrogen therefore is an obvious target for improvement to mitigate those gases.
World Research Institute estimate that gene editing and other breakthrough technologies for improving Nitrogen use efficiency could reduce 2050 Carbon dioxide emissions by 0.5.
Gene editing could also help reduce methane emissions from rice paddies, since rice cultivation is estimated to emit about 1.3 percent of emissions globally.
According to the ITIF, rice farming emissions arise from anaerobic bacteria in the soil. When rice fields are flooded, these microbes generate methane.
Although 60 to 90 percent of such methane never reaches the atmosphere, the remaining portion still presents a problem can be solved. Researchers are pursuing genetic methods to alter rice to this end, such efforts will no doubt be enhanced by gene editing tools.
“The gene editing toolkit is so powerful, its applications so widespread, and its development so rapid that we simply cannot yet conceive all the ways in which it will be used in the coming decades.
“With sufficient support for and coordination of R&D, scientifically defensible regulatory policies, and incentives for private sector deployment, there is ample basis to expect a significant positive contribution from gene-edited solutions to the challenges of climate change,” Giddings encouraged.
Climate and clean energy innovation have been focused on physical and chemical solutions. The ITIF says that it is time for biology to play a bigger role in solving one of humanity’s greatest challenges.
The ITIF research report shows an increase in crop yields since the invention of this biotechnology in 1996.
Climate change is the most pervasive and threatening issue the world is facing currently.
Excess emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities have accumulated in the atmosphere at levels sufficient to disrupt global patterns of heat exchange, driving changes in climate and weather with dramatic, detrimental consequences, according to Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).
Studies suggest that its consequences possibly will be devastating on where we live, how we grow food and other services vital to our well-being.