The first thing that may come to mind when thinking of carbon capture are the technological methods in use at traditional power plants (i.e. those that release fossil fuels). But, vascular plants (i.e. those growing in your backyard) have evolved over hundreds of years to be the perfect vessel for carbon capture and storage, all without requiring a whack of new infrastructure to do so. Through photosynthesis, plants take in CO2 and store carbon in their roots. If more of that stored carbon remains in the soil than is released through harvest, the soil becomes a carbon sink (and gets healthier!).
Understanding this, and capitalizing on its potential, provides an opportunity to combat climate change and food security issues simultaneously. Climate change is liable to show up on our dinner plates in part due to changing and erratic weather patterns, and in part due to widespread deteriorating soil health, both contributing to failed crops and lower yields. Promoting carbon sequestration in agricultural soils is a promising solution (if you are a gardener, this is essentially the same as increasing organic matter content or adding compost). Recent agricultural research advancements are providing new avenues for farmers to do just this, without having to spread truckloads of manure around their lands (although this is a tried and true method too—see the Marin Carbon Project in California).
Leon Kochian is a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan; he has won the 2019 Arrel Global Food Innovation Award for his work on plant root systems. His lab works to digitize crop traits (a.k.a. phenotypes) and link them to specific genes in a searchable database. This creates the potential for tailoring design and breeding of agricultural crop root systems to the specific environments in which the crop will be grown. The goal is to breed crops with more efficient root systems that can grow successfully in less fertile soils.
A similar project undertaken by the Salk Institute (an independent, non-profit scientific research institute in California) has discovered a gene that influences whether roots grow shallow or deep. The “secret ingredient” here is auxin, a hormone that controls whether roots grow downwards or horizontally. Scientists in Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative expect that it will allow them to develop plants that grow deeper, stronger roots. This has multiple benefits: better drought resistance, increased atmospheric carbon sequestration, richer soils and better crop yields. They hope to focus future research on enhancing suberin content in roots, a natural, carbon-rich molecule that resists decomposition and thus stores carbon longer than other plant-made molecules.
These are exciting discoveries because current agricultural practices emit far more carbon than they sequester, but relatively small changes to production methods can reverse the flow of carbon from the sky back into the soil. As great as all these things sound though, farmers will be unlikely to invest in and adopt new technologies if costs compared to returns are too high. But crop yield losses are not inconsequential; Dr. David Lobb, soil expert and professor at the University of Manitoba, says that yield losses due to soil erosion amounted to three billion dollars in 2011. Farmers will likely be drawn to the prospect of recapturing some of that lost potential, and even increasing it.
The growth of agricultural carbon credit programs may also help facilitate the transition to new practices. Indigo Ag is a US tech company aiming to establish the world’s first carbon market dedicated entirely to agriculture. Their Terraton Initiative has a goal of sequestering one trillion tons (a terraton!) of carbon on farms, paying farmers $15/ton. And farmers have been flocking to sign up since its launch last June. CEO David Perry admits there are challenges ahead but believes that the government will get involved as his program hits on a bipartisan issue, addressing both environmental and economic concerns. As soil quality increases, farmers can expect to input fewer synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and less water—another fiscal benefit for them and healthier food and water systems for the rest of us!
How do you feel about this kind of genetic engineering as a tool to combat climate change?
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