John Sterling
John Sterling

In 1912, a New Zealand newspaper published the following: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”

Kind of prescient, huh?

Let’s jump to 2019. A new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, has been published. Its author, David Wallace Wells, writes that climate change “is worse, much worse, than you think.” He goes on to note that the planet could experience a rise of 4 °C by 2100. The result: more floods, plagues, water shortages, famines, wildfires, and desertification. He refers to these and other aspects of global warming as “elements of climate chaos.”

So, what do we do? Well, biotechnology might help alleviate some of the symptoms of climate change—and even slow climate change itself.

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), which has a special focus on industrial biotechnology, reports that using a gene editing technology such as CRISPR could lead to a new type of sugarcane as a source of bioplastics and biofuels. This could help reduce society’s environmental footprint by replacing nonbiodegradable and petroleum-based plastics.

How about developing plants that can store more carbon dioxide in their roots? At BIO, a communications director named Joshua Falzone considers the possibility: “If this is done on a very, very large scale across the world with major agricultural crops—such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton—it could help slow down climate change.”

Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, BIO’s former executive vice president for food and agriculture, notes that climate change hurts crop production, distribution, and yields through changes in temperature and precipitation and by increasing pest and weed outbreaks. “Through biotechnology, crops yield more per acre, plants naturally resist insect pests and diseases, and farmers use less energy,” she says. “Genetically engineered plants and animals can naturally fight diseases and adapt to environmental stress.”

Of course, the political, economic, and social establishments of countries around the world have huge roles to play in addressing climate change. Not to be left out, biotechnology, too, has started to tackle this serious issue.

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