Biotech Innovation: The Low-Hanging Fruit They Missed in Glasgow
By: Val Giddings
Although verdicts vary, and some progress was clearly made, the climate change consensus emerging among scientists post-Glasgow is that the world continues on a path to exceed the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius identified in Paris in 2015 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But there is a course, so far too much neglected, that could magnify the tangible progress against carbon emissions everyone wants: embracing biotechnology innovation.
Strangely, Glasgow was marked by the almost complete absence of any discussion of agriculture, which is widely charged with contributing 20 to 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change. This is an unfortunate omission as advances in genetics over just the past decade have given us powerful tools to tailor precisely the metabolisms of plants and animals. Living organisms are major sources and sinks for atmospheric carbon, so researchers are developing ways to apply genetic tools to reduce emissions and increase carbon capture and sequestration.
Biotechnology cannot solve the whole climate problem on its own, but unlike nuclear fusion, which has been “30 years off” for the last 50 years, bioengineered innovations have already transformed agriculture, and gene-edited improvements are rapidly expanding those successes. The first research programs have already tweaked photosynthesis to deliver productivity increases of 20 to 40 percent in greenhouse tests that are now being scaled up and broadened. Doubling agricultural productivity by 2050 is well within reach.
The methane that cows and other ruminant animals produce is a significant contributor to global warming, but while U.S. herds have doubled their productivity in the past half-century, they have done so with older technologies. Dairy farmers are now poised to apply the new technologies to accelerate further changes and achieve carbon neutrality in a generation or less.
Another huge opportunity is food waste, which accounts for roughly half of agricultural emissions. Gene editing is reducing waste by extending the shelf life of fruits and vegetables while also enhancing nutritional value and quality.
Meanwhile, bioengineering and gene editing are increasing biofuel crop yields by producing larger harvests and improving microbial digestion of cellulose. This is a welcome boon for the emissions-heavy transportation sector.
Myriad human activities contribute to non-biogenic greenhouse gas emissions — from lighting, warming, and cooling buildings to producing cement and steel — so simply cutting agricultural emissions obviously will not be enough. But bioengineering and gene editing are also being applied in other ways that can help offset some of the difference, such as enhancing the ability of grasses, trees, crops, and algae to capture and sequester carbon at the required scale.
John Kerry, President Biden’s Special Envoy for climate, recently said, “The measure of success at Glasgow is we will have the largest, most significant increase in ambition [on cutting emissions] by more countries than everyone ever imagined possible. A much larger group of people are stepping up.” He went on to note, “There is a massive amount of money and energy going to bringing these [clean technologies] up to scale.” That is necessary, but not sufficient. Governments also must take steps to unchain and liberate the innovative potential of these new technologies.
COP26 missed a chance to make a giant step forward by galvanizing governments to take specific steps to capitalize on biotechnology innovation. The first priority should be eliminating unscientific regulatory burdens and barriers that hinder the development of safe gene-edited products for no reason other than unfounded fearmongering. Governments also should increase their investments in and coordination of research and development (R&D) priorities such as advancing CRISPR tools, enhancing photosynthesis, and improving methods to measure and increase soil carbon. Finally, they should expand incentives that will spur rapid adoption of novel gene-edited technologies in the marketplace.
As the financial think tank Carbon Tracker has noted, “Mitigating climate change is no longer an expensive collective action problem; it is a technology revolution with enormous wealth-generating and redistributive potential.” The solutions are within our grasp. It is time to make the policy changes needed to capitalize on them.