Two New Types of Crops Benefit Farmers and the Environment

Climate change is reducing crop yields and threatening global food security. At the same time, farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the climate problem. Innovations in biotechnology could help to address this dilemma by developing more productive and resilient crops that have a lower environmental impact.

Gene-editing for higher resistance

For the first time in history, man-made climate change is occurring at a faster pace than plants can adapt to, causing a reduction in both yields and seed protein content. Many scientists are betting on the technology of gene editing to improve resilience in crops.

Using gene-editing technology such as clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), biologists are able to edit DNA – the genetic code of plants – to raise yields and make them more resilient to diseases and environmental pressure such as heat, floods, droughts, and salinity. Gene editing has the added benefit of making crops healthier by removing allergy-causing elements, reducing saturated fats, and improving nutrients. 

Gene-edited crops are not the same as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs involve the insertion of DNA sequences from other plant or even animal species, while in gene-edited crops, CRISPR and other gene-editing tools allow for the fine-tuning of DNA sequences. Authorities in the US consider gene-edited crops to be “substantially equivalent” to natural crops, which means food products from gene-edited crops do not require special labeling. Since 2021, the UK and China have also relaxed their regulations for gene-edited crops. 

Plant geneticist Yi Li, a professor at the University of Connecticut and Supertrends expert, is developing gene-edited citrus trees that can resist a devastating disease called Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greeening disease. Due to the comparatively longer life cycle of citrus trees, he expects that HLB-resistant citrus trees could be developed through gene-editing by 2030. However, he pointed out that the development period could be as short as one to two years if a plant’s reproduction cycle is relatively short. 

We see a role for genome editing technologies in many other plants used in the agricultural, horticultural, and forestry industries. For example, we are creating lawn grass varieties that require less fertilizer and water.”

Professor Yi Li, plant geneticist and Supertrends expert[1]

Crops that produce their own fertilizer 

From production to usage, fertilizer contributes one third of all emissions from agriculture. Nitrogen and phosphorus from excess fertilizer can also run off the land and pollute waterways. Bioengineers are taking an innovative approach to making crops produce their own fertilizer instead of using artificial fertilizer. 

Plants like beans and peas do not require fertilizer because they receive nitrogen from a type of bacterium called rhizobia that lives in the soil. Rhizobia fix nitrogen and exchange nitrogen with carbon from beans and peas. If major crops could produce their own fertilizer like beans and peas do, the environmental benefit would be substantial. 

A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working on a project to make this happen. The team aims to enable cereal crops, such as corn, rice, and wheat, to make the nitrogen/carbon exchange with rhizobia bacteria. The researchers plan to identify and produce the molecules that enable the exchange in beans and peas through genetic engineering. 

“Focusing on corn alone, this [the production of its own fertilizer] could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons, and it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.”

Professor Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists[2]

Biotechnology innovations like those mentioned above and others have been used to address many challenges in agriculture and to benefit farmers, consumers, and the environment. 

[1]  Li, Y. “These CRISPR-modified crops don’t count as GMOs”. The Conversation. 22 May 2018. https://theconversation.com/these-crispr-modified-crops-dont-count-as-gmos-96002

[2]  Meadow, M. “Using plant biology to address climate change”. MIT News. 19 April 2022. https://news.mit.edu/2022/using-plant-biology-help-address-climate-change-0419

Agriculture


Jiqing Hansen

Having worked passionately for 15+ years in Medicine, I felt that I yearned to do something a little bit different, something that satisfies my curiosity and creativity, maybe something that helps to inform me and others what our world will look like in the future. That's when I took on the challenge of being the editor & expert relationship manager at Supertrends. I love the fact that I can still be in touch with my academic background when I am trying to understand and reach out to the experts in the most exciting fields. I also love the diverse and enthusiastic team at Supertrends. The best of all, I get to have a peek into the future, and I am at the position of helping many others to get the opportunity to look into the future.

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