COP21: Bringing Plant-Based Biotech to the Table

by Jayson Merkley

December 18, 2015

2015 Global Leadership Fellow Jayson Merkley

The Internet is abuzz with praise for last week s wrap up of COP21 climate change forum in Paris, and rightly so. COP21 has done well in raising the media profile for what is arguably humanity s most urgent collective challenge. I have no doubt that the organizers have the best intentions for addressing the systemic issues that put us in this crisis in the first place. In that regard I felt that they missed a big opportunity to make a point with something as simple as their catering choices.

It may seem nit-picky, but our food choices have had a huge impact on the climate. Agriculture is responsible for 30% of the human contribution to climate change according to the Climate Institute. This includes significant carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions. Obviously we can t eliminate agriculture, but 30% is much too big a chunk to ignore. We must find ways to feed ourselves while minimizing that greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. There is no single solution, but the data suggests that innovative technology and lifestyle changes can help.

Plants modified with the C4 trait will improve photosynthesis efficiency, increasing yields while reducing need for inputs. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Ross)

High-profile advocates James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger both urged attendees to be mindful of the impact of consuming animal products when considering their lifestyles. Indeed, UN data suggests that livestock alone (particularly cattle) accounts for 14.5% of anthropogenic GHG emissions. That s a bigger footprint than all of the cars, buses, trains, boats, and airplanes combined. And yet, COP21 attendees faced huge challenges in finding vegetarian food options. Bummer.

Reducing consumption of animal products is a simple and effective way for one to reduce their own climate impact. But few environmental groups seem eager to promote vegetarianism or veganism. Animal products, it seems, are too tightly intertwined in our cultural DNA, and nobody wants to face backlash from the bacon tho crowd. Fortunately, several organizations are developing technology to take the animal out of animal agriculture. We re not far away from seeing plant-based dairy, egg, and meat products that are virtually identical to their animal counterparts. It all hinges on biotechnology. Scientists already have the ability to genetically modify micro-organisms to produce the proteins found in animal products. It will not be long before consumers will be able to order a burger minus the onions, minus the pickles and minus the animal-based GHG footprint.

Speaking of genetic modification and climate change mitigating technology, GMOs featured in the COP21 catering may have been welcomed. Genetically modified crops slow climate change in a variety of ways. Some varieties reduce emissions from fossil fuels by minimizing spray applications; others improve carbon sequestration by promoting no-till practices. GM varieties have improved the per-acre output so much that so that they ve significantly reduced the need to bulldoze forests into farmland. In 2013 alone, the amount of GHG emissions prevented through the use of GMO crops was equivalent to removing 12.45 million cars from the roads.

Keep in mind that these climate benefits are the result of a first generation of GE crops that were not even engineered with climate change mitigation in mind. The early movers in genetic modification were more concerned about making life easier (and more profitable) for farmers. I can barely contain my enthusiasm in thinking about what genetic engineers could do if we d unshackle them and set them to work specifically on this problem. Anyone else excited at the prospect of nitrogen-efficiency GE traits?

Genetic modification is an amazing tool, and it s here to stay. With regard to climate, there are only two possible outcomes. Either we re going to elect to use the technology toward preventing catastrophe, or, as things get worse and worse, we re going to be forced to use it to adapt to those inhospitable conditions. Likewise, we can choose to reduce our water-intensive meat and dairy consumption now with help from innovative food biotech. Or rising meat prices may force more plant-based meals on us when the changing climate slows our supply of potable fresh water.

Unfortunately there are no silver bullets. Neither wide adoption of plant-based diets nor cultivation of GMO crops will likely be sufficient to prevent a crisis on their own. In combination with COP21 strategies, however, they might be just what we need to reverse these worrying climate trends.