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Gene Editing Can Help Agriculture Be Climate-Friendly... Here’s How

Connor McKoy
Connor McKoy
September 9, 2019

The United Nations continues to raise the alarm on climate change.

This week, the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change released their latest report, this time focusing on agriculture’s impact on the environment and the need to make the most use out of our current farmlands to prevent further damage.

Today, around 75 percent of the earth’s usable land is dedicated to feeding the world’s population. And as the population increases (expected to be 9.7 billion in 2050), the strain on farmland will intensify.

However, as Megan Molteni illustrates in a piece for Wired Magazine, ag biotech innovations like gene editing hold tremendous promise to slow the expansion of farmland by enabling farms to grow more food on less land—and with less resources.

And though far from a cure-all, the potential for gene editing to make every acre of land more productive even in the face of climate change has captured the imagination of plant scientists, the agtech industry, and governments alike. These days, they’re placing ever-bigger bets on Crispr’s ability to future-proof the world’s food supply from the threats of an increasingly unpredictable environment.

“It’s hard to say for sure what we can achieve in the next few decades, but I think with Crispr we have a chance to catch up to climate change,” says Yiping Qi, a plant genome engineer at the University of Maryland whose lab has been developing Crispr tools for staple crops such as rice and wheat.

Here are three solutions that gene editing can bring to face the climate challenge and how it’ll help farmers get the most out of their existing land:

  • Maintaining land health. Farming takes a toll on land. With every growing season more and more nutrients are taken from the earth—nutrients that are critical to crop growth. As a result, farmers will till their land to reinvigorate soil health, but this releases carbon into the atmosphere. Often farmers will also apply fertilizers to supplement the lack of nutrients. Because of gene editing, however, researchers are engineering the microbes within the dirt to route more key nutrients, like nitrogen, to plants. One company, Pivot Bio, is at the forefront of this technology and has received interest from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a group of high-profile investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos focused on investing in climate solutions.
  • Growing more with less. As the population grows, farmers will likely be forced to use lands with less than favorable conditions to grow their crops. Luckily, through gene editing we can enhance plants to thrive in these regions. Currently, a U.S. research team is working to enhance rice varieties that can thrive on marginal soil. And as the volume of farmable land shrinks, the ability to grow staple crops like rice will be becoming increasingly critical. 
  • Resilient crops. The effects of climate change are already here. Popular foods like oranges and coffee are already falling victim to disease spread which has been accelerated by warmer regions. Thanks to gene editing, we can develop disease-resistant crops that can fight off disease and thrive in a warmer world. Crops that have been enhanced to be disease-resistant are not new, however, the advancement of gene editing is allowing researchers to develop these traits in a fraction of the time when compared to conventional breeding, which can take decades.

If we are to feed a growing population in a warmer world, we must embrace innovations like gene editing to allow farmers to do more with less.

To learn more about how gene editing can reduce agriculture’s impact on land and thus our planet, check out