Students from St. Catherine University and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) recently spent their time delving into agricultural solutions that can assist in the fight against climate change. Through the Department of State’s Diplomacy Lab project, the Office of Agricultural Policy (AGP) partnered with students to conduct separate studies regarding genetic engineering (GE) and its relationship with climate. The information gathered helps to support the State Department’s diplomacy work to address agriculture’s role in climate change mitigation and adaption.
The agricultural sector is highly threatened by the impacts of climate change, including an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events like drought and floods, as well as shifts in growing seasons. These negative consequences of climate change hurt farmers’ livelihoods and threaten global food security. Meanwhile, agriculture contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions through practices such as the use of fertilizers and other chemical inputs, as well as the conversion of wild landscapes to crop and grazing lands. There are a variety of tools, practices, and approaches that can help support increased resilience to the impacts of climate change while decreasing the environmental impacts from farming. Use of genetic engineering, genome editing, and biotechnology in general is one suite of tools in the toolbox that may be used by farmers to address and adapt to the climate crisis.
Climate change adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, and economic systems to respond to expected climate change effects. Virginia Tech students involved in this Diplomacy Lab project delved into this topic by researching the potential of genetic engineering in two widely grown crops, corn and soybean, to contribute to agricultural adaptations to the impacts of climate change, such as more severe and prolonged drought. Their research, along with that of others, indicates genetic engineering can enable crops to be resistant to drought or flooding events, allowing for possible adaptation to extreme weather events. In the United States, occurrences of drought and flooding are already increasing in both frequency and severity, highlighting the importance of efforts to better understand the science and policy of climate change.
After over 20 years there is evidence that some crops that employed genetic engineering led to greater resilience to certain extreme weather events. For example, a study published in the Journal of Genetically Modified Crops in 2020 reported that the use of one GE rice strain is expected to increase the rice yield per hectare by 10 percent. This rice strain has been engineered with traits that provide climate adaptation mechanisms, such as insect resistance, as well as flooding tolerance for up to 14 days.
Climate change mitigation refers to actions that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by human activity. St. Catherine University’s Diplomacy Lab research team focused on how genetic engineering could enable climate change mitigation in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study noted that while not definitive, GHG emissions tended to be lower in countries with larger shares of GE crops.
In line with these findings, a 2017 study analyzing the impacts of GE soybean, corn, cotton, and canola on GHG emissions found that increased use of genetically engineered herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops from 1996 to 2015 crops enabled carbon “savings” through less soil tillage and heavy equipment use. They estimated fuel use from fewer spray runs decreased agricultural carbon dioxide emissions by more than 26 billion kilograms over the same 20 years. In this same timeframe, the maintenance of soil carbon in field using no- and reduced-tillage practice is estimated to have prevented over 227 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to more than 10 million people giving up driving for a year!
The food security challenges presented by a combination of the decreasing availability of arable land, an increasing global population, and the impacts of climate change makes the availability of effective tools and technologies to deal with these challenges a necessity. As climate change causes increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather that threatens crop production, the use of genetic engineering and other related tools in biotechnology may help farmers be heroes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Through initiatives similar to these Diplomacy Lab research projects, younger generations can take an active role in developing solutions for challenges we all face.
Diplomacy Lab is a public-private partnership between the Department of State and a network of U.S. academic institutions that enables State to “course-source” research related to foreign policy by harnessing the efforts of students and faculty at universities across the country. To learn more, visit diplomacylab.org or email email@example.com.
About the Authors: Sonam Rustagi and Caitlyn Skavdahl serve as student interns in the Office of Agricultural Policy in the Bureau of Economics and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.