Super - Plants: How genetically modified organisms can reshape the way we approach climate change
March 24, 2023
5 min read; 938 words
Tags: Energy Policy
Author: Joey Wu
In our busy lives, we often forget to stop and smell the roses. But if you ever get a chance to take even a cursory glance, you’ll stumble across a fascinating world with the untapped potential to remediate much of the world’s problems. Welcome to the world of botany.
Just how many plants are in the world? Even in increasingly urban regions, it is easy to think of parks and trees dotting everyday paths. With more than 320,000 species of plants dispersed throughout the world and over 3 million trees, there is approximately a 400:1 ratio of trees to people! From a statistical standpoint, the overwhelming ratio just begins to illustrate the untapped potential that plants could bring to global issues.
Generally, environmental scientists characterize forest systems as a biological carbon sink. As plants grow, they take in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and use the carbon input to build leaves, stems, and grow larger. Larger plants with more leaves (where the bulk of photosynthesis occurs) have enhanced carbon sequestration properties, meaning that they can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at higher rates. As a carbon sink, this carbon removal is not permanent. When plants die and decompose, carbon is returned to the atmosphere. This cyclical revolution of carbon helps moderate the greenhouse gas effect, where increasing carbon dioxide levels lead to higher tropospheric temperatures.
With the rapid progression that global warming has taken place, we can only imagine how dangerous the situation could have been without the help of the various marvelous plants that surround us. In the battle against climate change, genetically enhanced plants can assist in three domains: mitigation, alleviation, and support.
With so many climate problems directly rooted to rapidly increasing carbon concentrations, GMO plants can create net positive effects. Plants are generally seen as carbon ‘neutral', due to the release of their carbon storage upon decomposition; by constricting the carbon in anthropogenic sources after plant death, the carbon content can be stored from the atmosphere. The most prominent natural example of this phenomenon is coal, where ancient plant populations were fossilized to form high-energy sources. As the coal is burned, all the stored carbon is released, the main reason why current carbon levels in the atmosphere are at an all time high.
Genetically modifying plants to grow faster allows for an increase in carbon intake rates. Considering the phenomenal volume of plants in every corner of the world, if carbon intake were to change by even 1%, there would be unimaginable effects. Even with incremental shifts in plant productivity, climate change would become far more manageable.
Beyond this, fast-growing plants can reform the way biofuels are approached. Increasing crop growth rates reduces the economic burden placed on farmers; by having quick turnover rates, biofuel energy can become more widely available as a renewable energy source. Modifying plant functionality to enhance oil concentration can further increase biofuel efficacy. Storing more oil will allow more efficiency during energy conversion.
Recently in the news, stories of droughts, wildfires, storms, earthquakes, and other terrible natural disasters are becoming far more rampant. Climate change is increasing both the rate and intensity of such extreme weather events, resulting in unfortunate human suffering across the world. While plants have been shown to assist all such events, the best example is the alleviation provided in storm events.
When assisting their natural habitat, plants form strong roots and embed themselves into the soil. Underground, this forest of roots creates a weaved gridlock (imagine an intense crochet session) where movement is restricted. This holds the land together in large storm events. In regions where deforestation is present, damage to surrounding buildings heightens due to stronger drought and flood conditions. By stripping the natural protection provided by local plants, the impact of climate change is intensified.
By genetically modifying plants to increase tolerance to external stress conditions, extreme weather events will not impact natural forested communities as strongly; this leads to a direct alleviation method for residents, as the impact of natural weathers will be reduced by plant populations. This not only alleviates future stresses about extreme weather but provides financial incentives to restore wildlife populations.
To support the rapidly growing population, genetically modified plants can directly combat malnutrition. In many chronically malnourished populations, there is little access to critical nutrients such as Vitamin A. The Golden Rice Project sought to solve this issue by modifying rice to include this key vitamin. Most notably, Vitamin A is necessary for good vision and bodily development. Through the simple modification of a common universal grain, this group provided critical populations with nutrients that were previously unavailable. The possibilities of other additions to crops allows infinite possibilities to treat malnutrition and reduce the global hunger crisis.
Overall, genetically modified plants have broad-based applications that can directly combat biofuels, disaster relief, and global famine. By improving original plant functionality by even seemingly unnoticeable amounts, large waves of impact may very well result. The sheer volume of biomass available throughout the world grants such a powerful potential that slight enhancements can transform the world. With this in mind, anti-deforestation efforts must be supported; the importance of plant populations to human health is more prominent than we realize.
Climate change won’t be solved by a singular new savior technology. But with so many plants around to help us, genetic enhancements might just be a step in the right direction.
The next time you’re walking down the street, take a while to smell the roses. They might be more important than you realize.
Joey Wu is a sophomore studying bioengineering and environmental science (VIPER) at the University of Pennsylvania.