Extreme and frequent droughts, storms, hurricanes, heat waves, and floods because of climate change can affect crop yields and production.
As the world faces increasing population growth, we need more climate-resilient crops and new ways to grow food. While plants and crops are increasingly becoming vulnerable to climate change, they are also effective mitigation due to their capacity to absorb and store carbon.
The Netherlands’ mastery of vertical farming and using greenhouses to grow food is an efficient food production alternative. The Washington Post article features the country’s use of greenhouses, seed technology, robotics to grow crops and animal farming for food. According to the report, it has nearly 24,000 acres of crops growing in greenhouses — almost twice the size of Manhattan. This method produces twice as much food using half the resources like water and fertilizer.
One acre of greenhouses can grow the same amount of food produced in 10 areas. They also use just 1.8 litres of water to raise around 450 grams of tomatoes compared to the global average of about 105 litres.
Dutch companies are the world’s top suppliers of seeds for ornamental plants and vegetables. One such company, Seed Valley, just north of Amsterdam, constantly develops new varieties of vegetables and flowers that are climate-resilient, for instance, more salt-tolerant crops.
Another company, Agro Care, has 645 acres (261 hectares) of tomatoes inside a glass house and employs 1,500. Their goal is to double these figures by 2030. The company produces nearly 200 million pounds (90 million kg) of tomatoes annually.
The carbon dioxide generated from their energy is used as a nutrient for the crop, piped into the greenhouse through huge ventilators. The plants turned this carbon dioxide into oxygen, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere.
Improvements in crop research, particularly synthetic biology (SynBio), have many exciting applications, from medicine to food to agriculture. Synthetic biology is used to develop new crop varieties that are resistant to pests, more nutritious, and more sustainable. Scientists are using synthetic biology tools to enhance plant growth and increase crop yields, which is a useful solution to the threats of climate change.
Recently published studies in the journal PLOS Biology explore the twin challenges of engineering plants to become climate-resilient and how to enhance their carbon capture potential.
PLOS Biology Editors Pamela Ronald and Joanna Clarke wrote a summary editorial and the description of the following papers:
An essay by Flint-Garcia & colleagues, Diamonds in the not-so-rough: Wild relative diversity hidden in crop genomes, explores how to preserve and effectively utilize the rich genetic resources that crop wild relatives offer while avoiding detrimental variants and maladaptive genetic contributions is a central challenge for ongoing crop improvement.
Discovering the right genes and transferring or editing these into the crops to improve crop production to address climate change and the demands of the growing population is only the start of the process.
For engineered plants that have the desired traits to reach the markets will require buy-in from farmers, national breeding programs, and agritech companies, as discussed by Feuillet and Eversole and also from policy-makers, as well as public support according to the perspective of Archibald and colleagues.
Although synthetic biology could be used to change how crops respond to the environment while maintaining their desirable features, such as fruit size, nutritional content, or stem height, there is negative consumer sentiment towards genetically modified plants, particularly in Europe, America, and even India.
For instance, India banned pest-resistant eggplants, although these have boosted yields and decreased pesticide use in Bangladesh and the Philippines because of anti-GM sentiment. The paper says that confusion around GM terminology and regulatory status may contribute to the negative public perception of GM foods.
However, researchers found that using concrete language and examples when discussing GM products increased positive emotions and support for GM applications and GM in general.
A perspective by Matthews explores how to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis. These hold a dual process of increasing crop yields and the ability of plants to capture and store carbon.
Alamos and Shih explore the idea of engineering plants for increased carbon capture by examining the role of synthetic biology in plant engineering and how knowledge gained from efforts to engineer photosynthesis can be applied to the challenge of engineering root systems.
Fierer and Walsh discuss how soil and root microbiomes could be manipulated to increase soil carbon sequestration in croplands and address whether we can increase carbon persistence in the soil.
Reiley, L. (2022, November 21). Cutting-edge tech made this tiny country a major exporter of food. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/interactive/2022/netherlands-agriculture-technology/
Engineering plants for a changing climate. (2023, July 20). Phys.org. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-climate-1.html#google_vignette
Clarke, J. & Ronald, P. (2023, July 19). Engineering plants for a changing climate. PLOS Biology. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3002243
Flint-Garcia, S., Feldmann, M. J., Dempewolf, H., Morrell, P. L., & Ross-Ibarra, J. (2023). Diamonds in the not-so-rough: Wild relative diversity hidden in crop genomes. PLoS biology, 21(7), e3002235.
Feuillet, C., & Eversole, K. (2023). An integrated, systems-wide approach is needed for public–private partnerships to drive genetic innovation in crops. PLoS Biology, 21(7), e3002181.
Archibald, B. N., Zhong, V., & Brophy, J. A. (2023). Policy makers, genetic engineers, and an engaged public can work together to create climate-resilient plants. PLoS Biology, 21(7), e3002208.
Matthews, M. L. (2023). Engineering photosynthesis, nature’s carbon capture machine. PLoS Biology, 21(7), e3002183.
Fierer, N., & Walsh, C. M. (2023). Can we manipulate the soil microbiome to promote carbon sequestration in croplands?. PLoS Biology, 21(7), e3002207.