December 1, 2014

6 Ways Genetic Engineering Can Reduce Global Warming.


Genetic engineering is far from the great threat to humanity that environmentalists suggest.

Rather, it can produce more food per acre and so feed more of humanity. And it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hence slow global warming in six important ways.

First, it can take the strain off of rain forests, which are being destroyed to open more land to food production, and in the process releasing CO2.

Second, genetic engineering can produce low till crops, which reduce soil erosion and the CO2 that is released in the process.

Third, it can produce pest resistant crops, which reduce the use of pesticides, which also release CO2 emissions.

Fourth, higher yielding strains of an array of fruits and vegetables can decrease reliance on a few big grains, thereby creating more diverse farm ecosystems that help build up topsoil and trap greenhouse gases.

Fifth, high yielding crops can diminish the need for nitrogen based fertilizers, which release nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

And sixth, genetic engineering is crucial to developing biofuels out of crop wastes.

Many of the same people who complain of how conservatives ignore the scientific consensus on climate change seem unaware that virtually every major scientific body in the world has declared the current generation of genetically engineered food safe for human consumption. The World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the American Medical Association, the Royal Society of London, and the American, French, and German National Academies of Science have all stated this strongly. [1] But this is merely a sampling.

A European Commission report perhaps best summarizes the findings: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than, e.g., conventional plant breeding technologies.” [2]

Yet, government, academic, and non-profit investments in genetic engineering have declined dramatically in recent years due to the controversy that has been stirred up around its purported dangers. This has left investment in transgenic crops open to corporate giants, like Monsanto. And they have used this powerful technology to further monopolize agricultural markets while producing little of value to humanity. It is important when criticizing what Monsanto has done with this technology to not to confuse it with what others might do. These two realities are worlds apart.

Perhaps the greatest promise of genetic engineering lies in its potential to dramatically increase the yields of crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, peanuts and bananas, which grow in the global South. The green revolution in agriculture, which started in the mid-sixties, mostly effected the yields of a few big grains, like wheat, rice, corn and soy. But these seem to have hit a genetic glass ceiling, with lots of research producing little new increases in yields.

Since genetic engineering makes research cheaper, it is now possible to increase the yields of a range of crops, many of which hold great promise. If we can begin to increase the yields of chick peas, carrots, and broccoli, for instance, we can enjoy better nutrition and more diverse farm ecosystems alike. As more of the planet is taken over for human food production, croplands may become one of the last preserves for wildlife.

Global population is projected to increase by roughly two billion more people before it begins to decline in the 2040s, according to the U.N. World Populations project. But powerhouses like China are growing fast and this will increase their demand for luxury goods, like beef, which takes about eight times the amount of land to produce as a pound of grain. In the meantime, soil will continue to erode, as the key fertilizer of phosphorous disappears. This will further decrease food supplies. Hence, the area devoted to growing food will almost certainly grow, and much of this growth will occur in what is now rain forest. Any more food we can grow per acre means less forest will be destroyed somewhere. And since vegetation stores CO2, which is released when it dies, saving rain forests means slowing the rise in global temperatures.

Many estimates suggest agriculture may be responsible for as much as a third of greenhouse gas emissions. And the next generation of genetically modified crops can slow global warming in many ways. Many of these crops require little tilling of the soil. This means less CO2 being released from the soil and more food that can be grown in the long run. They are also pest resistant, which saves on greenhouse gas emitting pesticides, which further kill local wildlife and contaminate food.

Nitrogen fertilizer also produces nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. There is also a whole new generation of drought resistant crops, which will make farming easier in some of the poorest parts of the world as the global warming caused by rich world emissions kills off third-world crops. Finally, the next generation of biofuels has been awaiting a breakthrough in genetic engineering that would allow the hard cellulose of wood pulp to be more easily broken down. Once this is possible, we can begin to use crop wastes as a viable fuel source.

As the renegade environmentalist, Stewart Brand, has suggested, to paraphrase, “Those who know the most about climate change are the most worried. Those who know the most about genetic engineering are the least.” This is a whole lot of good to forego, based on a whole lot of questionable science. If you believe this vision is reasonable and deserves to be debated, please share this amongst your environmentalist friends. The environmental movement may be the last best hope for humankind, but if the consensus of scientists is correct, we environmentalists have got this one dreadfully wrong.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food_controversies#Health

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food_controversies#Health


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Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

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