Peace Is Still Possible in Ethiopia
How to Avoid a Balkan-Style Catastrophe in the Horn of Africa
Earlier this month, the much-anticipated UN Climate Change Conference came to an end. As part of the flurry of activity, the United States and the United Arab Emirates launched the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, one of the first major international initiatives wholly dedicated to cutting back on farming emissions. More than 30 countries joined. Many states also signed on to two other agriculture-related pledges, one to reduce methane emissions 30 percent by 2030 and the other to reverse deforestation.
The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, the methane goal, and the deforestation pledge all indicate that increasingly, states recognize the powerful relationship between farming and climate change. Food systems are responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrous oxide from soil and fertilizers can warm the earth, as can methane from livestock digestion and manure. Deforestation motivated by agricultural expansion releases the carbon dioxide stored by plants and is itself responsible for more than ten percent of all emissions. The connection between farming and climate change runs both ways, and deforestation in particular creates a vicious cycle of warming. Climate change has already reduced the growth of agricultural productivity by 21 percent since 1961, and as time goes by, that penalty will worsen. To compensate, countries could wind up converting more forests into farms, which will then further release greenhouse gases.
In order to make agriculture more environmentally friendly, many states are trying to encourage organic farming. But improving agriculture to address the twin challenges of climate change and deforestation will require every tool available. That means “natural” solutions alone will not be enough. Instead, states will need to embrace modern science, including CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology.
CRISPR is a recent gene-editing invention that can help countries decarbonize their food systems by making crops that can still thrive in bad weather—reducing the need for more farmland. Scientists in Belgium, for example, are using CRISPR to develop a new kind of corn that can withstand heat and drought. U.S. scientists, meanwhile, are designing drought- and salt-tolerant soybeans and drought-resistant corn. They are also using CRISPR to create cereal plants that can better absorb nitrogen from the soil, which could decrease emissions and pollution from fertilizers.
To solve climate change, states must embrace modern science.
But CRISPR will realize its full potential only if many countries embrace the technology. And unfortunately, plenty of governments are letting CRISPR fall victim to the same regulatory and public opinion pitfalls that have hobbled genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. CRISPR technology is not the same as GMO technology; it does not introduce DNA from other species into plants. Yet many governments remain largely opposed to using either GMO or CRISPR technology for crops, shrinking the toolbox for addressing climate change.
Europe may pride itself on its climate change measures, but in agriculture, it is an example of what states shouldn’t do. In 2018, the European Union’s top court ruled that gene-edited crops were subject to the same stifling regulation that has largely kept GMOs out of European fields since the late 1990s. That means that instead of relying on modern technology, the EU’s sustainable farming plan runs through its new Farm to Fork strategy, which will increase organic farming from nine percent to at least 25 percent of cropland in Europe. This may seem eco-friendly in theory, but in reality it is a counterproductive approach that will lower crop yields, requiring more land use for farming. The increase in organic farming under Farm to Fork, for example, would shrink cereal crop production in the EU by an estimated 21 percent. To compensate, Europe would have to convert approximately 3.7 million acres of its forests into farms, and the rest of the world would have to convert an additional 12.4 million acres. This would increase the amount of carbon released from the soil and destroy natural habits.
The EU is the main example of anti-GMO and anti-CRISPR government policies. But it’s not alone. New Zealand has explicitly stated that gene-edited plants must be regulated in the same prohibitive manner as GMOs. Mexico has not established any unique rules for gene-edited crops, so they are still covered under restrictive GMO regulations. India, the country with the world’s second-largest amount of cultivatable land (after the United States), has proposed deregulating only some types of gene-edited crops, and it is still relatively unclear as to which plants would actually be excluded.
Europe’s farming strategy will lower crop yields, breeding deforestation.
Thankfully, many other states are exempting CRISPR crops from GMO-style rules. Following the 2018 court ruling in Europe, a coalition of ten countries—Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, the United States, and Uruguay—sent a signed statement to the World Trade Organization arguing that gene-edited plants should be regulated the same way as conventional ones. The United Kingdom is now freeing itself from the EU ruling and pushing forward with research on CRISPR crops. Japan has signaled that it intends not to classify gene-edited plants as modified organisms under the Cartagena Protocol. China has yet to publicly speak up, but the country has invested heavily in genome editing, so it will also probably defend CRISPR. These governments clearly understand that addressing the challenges climate change poses for agriculture requires all the tools the world has, including gene editing.
But even if CRISPR were simply a new way to create GMOs, that wouldn’t make it inherently dangerous. GMOs can accomplish tremendous good—including by making emission-friendly products that CRISPR can’t. Genetic modification is better than gene editing at producing crops resistant to pests and diseases, which increases yields and allows for the production of more food on less land, decreasing deforestation. The use of insect-resistant, genetically modified Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) crops, for example, has increased yields by an average of 25 percent globally. Genetic modification is also more effective than gene editing at making herbicide-resistant crops, which improves weed control and increases yields. And insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant GMO plants have reduced tractor use for insecticide spraying and tillage, dramatically cutting yearly greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the yearly reduced usage is equivalent to taking 1.6 million cars off the road. States clearly shouldn’t limit modern crop improvement to CRISPR.
At least in the United States, the public isn’t reflexively opposed to genetic engineering. Instead, polls suggest that acceptance of the practice varies widely based on the type of application. In a Pew Research Center survey, for example, only 21 percent of respondents said genetic engineering was acceptable if used to create glowing aquarium fish. But 70 percent said that limiting mosquito reproduction to reduce disease is an “appropriate use of technology,” and 57 percent said the same of breeding animals with tissue and organs that could be given to humans. Some environmentalist groups have also signaled that they are open to genetic engineering, provided it advances their causes. The preservationist Sierra Club—which has historically opposed all genetically modified organisms—recently indicated it is receptive to planting genetically modified American chestnut trees, which could help restore a species that dominated eastern U.S. forests until it was nearly wiped out by blight in the late 1800s. That means gene editing has an opening. The vast majority of the world is concerned about climate change, as are most environmentalist organizations. It is possible that they will come to endorse, or at least accept, using CRISPR and GMOs to cut agricultural emissions.
But unlocking the potential of genetic engineering requires more than just favorable public opinion and environmentalist acquiescence. In order to get a wide range of CRISPR products that address climate change and appeal to consumers, developers and countries need better access to the technology. Various iterations of CRISPR gene editing are covered by over 6,000 patents in the United States alone, with 200 more filed every month. This complicated structure means that a developer may have to license many different patents in order to commercialize a single product. Without reform, this messy system may inhibit development.
States need to change their intellectual property laws. But even if they won’t, there are steps that private actors can take to make gene editing more accessible. Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands recently pledged to license its CRISPR patents for free to nonprofit organizations that are using the technology for noncommercial applications, a step that other patent holders should follow. Holders should also make sure their inventions are affordable for small developers and poor countries that don’t have the money for massive licensing fees. They can do so through patent-sharing agreements, patent consolidation, and transparent pricing, which would go a long way toward allowing a variety of companies to commercialize CRISPR gene-edited crops. These measures would also help breed innovation: more developers means a wider variety of products.
Finally, regulatory bodies should increase the transparency of their decision-making processes regarding CRISPR by requiring that agricultural companies provide the same kind of information on gene-edited crops exempt from GMO regulations as they do for crops subject to GMO rules. To allow the technology to earn more consumer trust and to reduce public skepticism, developers should also provide product assessments that go beyond safety and show buyers evidence of the environmental benefits. The European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy suggests that in many countries, officials and publics are still generally opposed to using modern biotechnology to make farming more sustainable. Fighting climate change and improving agriculture’s resilience requires a change of mindset. Companies and regulators need to act quickly to prevent unfounded fears of CRISPR from taking root; as the entrenched opposition to GMOs demonstrates, it can be difficult to win people over to a new technology or method once distrust has set in. The world cannot allow a similar dynamic to prevent CRISPR from helping stave off the worst-case climate scenarios.
Preparing for the Inescapable Effects of Climate Change