Plant Gene Editing Can Play Key Role in Fighting Climate Change, Says New ITIF Report

September 14, 2020

WASHINGTON—To date, the focus on climate change has been largely on engineering and chemistry—building improved solar panels, taller wind turbines, or better batteries—and biology has largely been ignored. That needs to change.

Gene editing has emerged in the past decade as a key platform technology that has already proved its potential to drive dramatic innovations in medicine and agriculture. But beyond these well-publicized applications, recent advances in the field also offer promising opportunities to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and other sectors, to capture carbon from the atmosphere, and to support biofuel development, according to a new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the world’s top-ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

To harness this opportunity in the fight against climate change, the report calls on governments to eliminate unscientific regulatory burdens on gene editing while also increasing support for gene editing research and development (R&D), particularly in plant applications.

“Gene editing can improve biological processes like photosynthesis to deliver positive climate impacts,” said Val Giddings, senior fellow at ITIF, who co-authored the report. “It can play an important role in limiting and removing greenhouse gas emissions. Once an esoteric interest of just a handful of molecular biologists, gene editing is now the second-most published topic in biology and a key tool for tackling climate change.”

Based on the dramatic increases in agricultural productivity that technological advances have brought over the past century, ITIF’s report estimates gene editing could lead to a 50 percent improvement in agricultural productivity by 2050. It could also help reduce methane emissions from cows and rice paddies, optimize biofuel crops, and make fish and shrimp aquaculture more sustainable.

To succeed in applying gene editing solutions to tackling such problems, ITIF’s report argues the U.S. federal government should take four essential steps:

  1. Eliminate unscientific regulatory burdens that hinder the development of safe gene-edited products.
  2. Increase investment in R&D in areas such as advancing genetic tools and enhancing photosynthesis.
  3. Improve coordination of existing R&D efforts within the United States and among our allies.
  4. Expand incentives to spur the rapid adoption of novel gene-edited technologies.

“While it is impossible to predict the extent to which gene-edited solutions will contribute to climate change mitigation, it is clear there is considerable potential,” added Giddings. “The gene editing toolkit is so powerful, its applications so widespread, and its development so rapid that we simply cannot yet conceive all the ways in which it will be used in the coming decades. With sufficient support for and coordination of R&D, scientifically defensible regulatory policies, and incentives for private sector deployment, there is ample basis to expect a significant positive contribution from gene-edited solutions to the challenges of climate change.”

Read the report.