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Innovations in Biotechnology to Save the Climate

November 26, 2018

Editor’s Note: As part of BIO’s 25th Anniversary celebration we will be spotlighting biotechnology innovations that have made a major impact over the past 25 years. This “Innovation Series” will publish on the 25th of every month throughout 2018. In the ninth installment we spotlight food and agriculture biotechnology. 

Earlier this Fall, the United Nations raised the alarm on the world’s collective progress in meeting the climate goals outlined in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. To summarize their report: much more work is needed. Specifically, the report states “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes to all aspects of society” are needed.

From the fuel that keeps us moving, to the food that nourishes us, to the packaging for our stuff, biotechnology innovations for industrial and agricultural processes can be the widespread change needed to reduce environmental impact and slow climate change.

Reducing Plastic Waste

The abundance of plastic that sits on the Earth contributes significantly to the world’s climate challenges. Just in our oceans alone there are 12.7 million tons of plastic floating. Add in the countless tons on our streets and in landfills and the world is almost drowning in plastic. Unfortunately, these plastics have become integral to our daily lives and it’s hard to imagine existing without them.

Most of the 300 million tons of plastic manufactured each year are harmful to the environment because they aren’t biodegradable and they are made from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal – otherwise known as petroleum-based plastics – which release greenhouse gases (GHG) into the environment.

Thanks to biotechnology, however, new bio-based plastics derived from renewable biomass sources are being developed as viable replacements. These bio-based plastics are recyclable and often biodegradable, thus breaking down naturally in the environment and leading to less greenhouse gas emissions.

Already companies like Coca-Cola and Ford are investing in bio-based plastics, using the plastic alternatives for items such as drink bottles and foam for car seats.

If more large companies and manufacturers like these replaced petroleum-based plastics with bio-based alternatives, we would make significant progress on our global climate goals. In addition, by using biotechnology we can replace other petroleum-based materials harmful to the environment with bio-based alternatives, including paints and cosmetics.

Driving Decarbonization

When most people think of climate change though, transportation fuel probably comes to mind as the main culprit. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation fuel is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in the air, accounting for more than a quarter of total emissions in the U.S. alone. All in all, the world uses 50 million barrels per day of carbon-emitting fossil fuels to power our cars, planes and ships.

Unlike transportation fuels derived from fossil fuels, biofuels are produced from living matter – in most cases from corn – and do not emit as much carbon. By increasing our use of biofuels, like ethanol, we can make significant progress in lowering the transportation sector’s environmental impact.

Moreover, biofuels can be produced from sources that otherwise would emit greenhouse gases, such as factory waste or animal waste. These innovations allow biorefineries to repurpose waste into cleaner fuel to keep us moving. But the technology doesn’t apply strictly to automobiles.

Earlier this year, Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines partnered with LanzaTech, a company pioneering the use biotechnology to develop fuels, to use the company’s next generation advanced fuel recycled from industrial waste gases to power a flight from Orlando to London. Estimates show this fuel blend reduced greenhouse gases by more than 70 percent when compared to burning conventional jet fuel.

If we are to make progress on curbing climate change, we'll need to continue innovating new  biofuels to be used in more transportation modes, including more domestic and international flights and more cars.

Efficient Agriculture to Feed the World

And when it comes to fueling ourselves, innovations in biotechnology can also help us grow food at a large scale in a more environmentally-friendly way.

Biotechnology – including gene editing tools like CRISPR – hold tremendous promise in creating more crops that are drought-tolerant or disease resistant. Since the 1996 introduction of biotech crops, pesticide use has decreased by more than 8 percent. In a single year, the use of biotech crops and no-till farming systems reduced CO2 emissions by 27.1 billion kg, equivalent to taking 16.7 million cars off the road.

But new innovations will be needed to stop the warming of the planet, especially in regions where most food is produced. This month, a report issued by the U.S. government noted that temperatures in the Midwest – where a significant portion of U.S. crops are grown - will climb more than any other region and, as a result, agricultural production will stifle.

Ag microbial technology is a newer biotech innovation that could help solve this challenge.

In a plant’s soil, there are billions of microbes – tiny organisms like bacteria and fungi – that naturally exist to provide the plant the nutrients it needs to grow. Through biotechnology, microbes can be engineered with desirable traits to enhance a plant’s growth.

Companies like Pivot Bio, a biotech company based in California, are engineering microbes to provide plants more nitrogen, which is critical to plant growth and health. By doing so, Pivot Bio is reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers which often runoff, polluting our waterways and leading to increased GHG emissions.

The research into ag microbials has been so promising in fact, investors are lining up to help fund Pivot’s efforts, including Breakthrough Ventures, an innovative investment fund lead by Bill Gates’ with contributions from other billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Branson.

If we are to implement the far-reaching changes needed to mitigate global warming, large investments from groups like these will become increasingly critical

Through the adoption of biofuels and bio-based products, such as bioplastics, innovations in biotechnology for industrial and agricultural processes have begun to show progress in slowing climate change. Additionally, farms across the country are starting to incorporate newer innovations in biotechnology to grow more food, more efficiently, and with less environmental impact.

The UN’s report adds more urgency to build on this progress and continue incorporating innovations in biotechnology into our daily lives.

Time is running out. Rethinking the way we produce food, fuel and everyday products will go a long way towards meeting the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. Innovations in biotechnology for industrial and agricultural processes have – and will continue to - provide the tools to build a healthier planet.