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Earth Day: Biotechnology to Save the Planet

April 23, 2018
To understand the significance of Earth Day, it’s important to understand how it was first established. As Jim Greenwood wrote in a piece one year ago, we’ve recognized Earth Day every April 22 since 1970. In that year, America was in the midst of the Vietnam War, making our way to the moon and still recovering from the scars left behind by the civil rights era. Even so, the nation’s concerns around mankind’s impact on the environment were so intense it motivated millions to take to the streets on April 22, 1970 to establish environmental protections of our planet.

Today, Earth Day is a global event celebrated by over 1 billion people in hundreds of countries. It is arguably the largest civic-focused day of action on earth. It has perhaps inspired researchers’, farmers’, educators’ and scientists’ work every day to lessen man’s environmental footprint. Biotechnology can help us take better care of the planet throughout the year, especially when applied to agriculture and environmental and industrial practices.

Greener Fields

Biotechnology is an essential part of agriculture practices that help save the environment by lessening the inputs needed to grow essential foods.

  • Drought Tolerant Crops. Through genetic engineering, researchers have been able to alter the genes of plants to require less water, which is crucial to limiting our impact on the environment. For example, researchers have been successful in modifying the genes of corn - through transgenic mutation - to be drought tolerant. By altering crops to require less hydration, farmers are able to limit their water waste. This is especially important in dry regions with limited access to water, a chronic challenge shared by many developing countries.

  • Resistant Crops. Probably the most widely desired trait when modifying the genes of plants, crops resistant to insects and diseases can help save the environment too. When faced with insect infestation, farmers are forced to spray crops with chemicals, thus reducing environmental impact. Additionally, crops that have been modified to be disease resistant tend to produce higher yields, thus reducing the amount of land and resources needed to grow the crop and lessening the farmer's environmental impact.

Cleaner Industrial Practices

Equally as important is the role biotechnology can play in developing greener industrial and environmental practices.

  • Biobased products. Through biotechnology we have created numerous biobased alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. These biobased products are naturally biodegradable. Companies like Coca-Cola, Heinz and Ford have been working with biotechnology companies to develop a 100 percent biobased alternative to PET - a plastic widely used in bottles. Until then, however, researchers have discovered a natural microorganism that evolves new enzymes to break down petroleum-based PET. Using biotechnology, the researchers believe they can improve the enzyme further, leading to an energy efficient method for recycling  plastic, and to new biobased plastics. Through biotechnology we may be able to one day eliminate excess plastic found in landfills, oceans and in all corners of the earth.

  • Biofuels. Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels are produced from living matter, such as corn. In the U.S., the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandates that a certain volume of renewable fuel be blended into the fuel supply to encourage the advancement of biofuels. Every year, the RFS slightly increases the required amount, thus expanding the market for biofuels. By increasing our biofuel supply, the U.S. can limit its reliance on fossil fuels, reducing our greenhouse emissions.

Since 1970, plenty of other historic events have taken place that could’ve easily distracted us from caring about Earth day. However, as we celebrate its 48th anniversary, our concerns around mankind’s impact on the environment seem to be growing stronger. Luckily, through biotechnology there is promise that in the future we will be able to eliminate some of the main culprits that have blemished this planet.