25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

Crispr Can Help Solve Our Looming Food Crisis—Here's How

Wired 08 Aug 2019 05:41

Renewable energy. Electric vehicles. Offshore carbon storage. These are just a few of the ways humans have been trying to counteract the planet-melting effects of pumping carbon into Earth’s atmosphere for the better part of a century. But according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, released Thursday, all those turbines and e-scooters and carbon taxes aren’t going to get the job done on their own. To have a shot at truly combating climate change, countries around the world are going to have to finally face the dirt-encrusted, fertilizer-soaked, methane-farting elephant in the room: agriculture.

According to the IPCC, feeding the world’s population now uses (and abuses) nearly three-quarters of the world’s ice-free surface, all the while contributing 22 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. To sum up the problem, there’s not enough land to produce enough calories for all those hungry human mouths, without sending Earth’s climate (and the enterprise of growing food itself) into a death spiral. Which is why this special report on land use urges policymakers to consider a variety of strategies for producing more food with less land and fewer emissions. Among them, shifting people to majority plant-based diets, reducing food waste, and planting crops that are genetically superior in the face of climate uncertainty.

By 2050, eating less meat and throwing less food in landfills could keep several gigatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere and free up millions of square miles of land to return to carbon-sucking forests, according to the IPCC. But that’s not nearly as sexy, or as controversial, as Crispr-ing crops to thrive amid the coming onslaught of severe droughts, massive heatwaves, megafloods, and rising seas. And though far from a cure-all, the potential for gene editing to make every acre of land more productive even in the face of climate change has captured the imagination of plant scientists, the agtech industry, and governments alike. These days, they’re placing ever-bigger bets on Crispr’s ability to future-proof the world’s food supply from the threats of an increasingly unpredictable environment.

“It’s hard to say for sure what we can achieve in the next few decades, but I think with Crispr we have a chance to catch up to climate change,” says Yiping Qi, a plant genome engineer at the University of Maryland whose lab has been developing Crispr tools for staple crops such as rice and wheat.


In the seven years since Crispr’s gene-editing potential was unleashed on the world, scientists like Qi have used it (or newer versions of it) to make jointless tomatoes, fungus-resistant bananas, and higher yield corn, soy, and wheat. People have been seeking to improve the genetics of their food crops for as long as they’ve been planting them. But before gene editors like Crispr became available, most breeders, scientists, and companies were limited to using a technique that randomly inserted DNA, a slow and tedious process that involved screening many plants until they found one where the new genetic code had landed in a good spot. Getting a new trait into a commercial crop took, on average, a decade. “With Crispr, we’re easily achieving similar outcomes for single traits within a year or two,” says Qi.

The trick is knowing which genes to target and which edits to make. But Crispr is already helping there too. Because it’s best at cutting DNA, Crispr allows plant geneticists to systematically knock out genes one by one and study what happens to the plant without them. It’s not genetic engineering so much as reverse-engineering the instruction manual to each plant’s genetic code.

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