I just watched an amazing TED Talk thanks to this Wired article. It has given me more hope that we can turn climate change around than anything I’ve read up to this point. Seriously. I feel like I can finally exhale.
Thanks to plant biologist Joanne Chory and her team, there is a possibility that we can dig ourselves out of this very dark and suffocating hole that we have placed ourselves in. And while the solution takes a great deal of expertise, it’s actually rather easy to understand. Here’s my condensed version.
Humans have put too much CO2 in the atmosphere, which is causing global climate change. (If you haven’t come to accept that fact, there’s really no point in reading the rest of this.)
Plants take in CO2 and release oxygen, but they’re currently unable to keep up with our pace.
But this team has come up with a way to modify plants so they’ll take in more CO2.
Suberin is a waxy substance that some roots have that allows them to take in more CO2.
This team has figured out a way to genetically modify plants so that they’ll produce more suberin, and also produce more roots and deeper roots, without having a negative impact on crop yields.
At the end of a plant cycle, unfortunately, a lot of plants rot, which causes them to release the CO2 back into the atmosphere. That’s why the root depth is so important. If we can get roots to go deeper, they’ll hold the CO2 longer, and rather than release into the air, the carbon will go into the soil, making it much more fertile for the next crop. (Soil depletion has been causing reduced crop yields for years, even as our population increases, so this is an amazing side benefit.)
This enriched soil also has the ability to retain moisture.
This team believes they are within 10 years of creating wheat, corn and rice crops that will have all these enhanced traits. How exciting. How amazing.
I see only two downsides to this endeavor:
People are terrified of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms.) That has a lot to do with this trend toward a fear of science in general, and it’s a pity. I genuinely do not think that all GMOs are bad. In fact, genetic modification occurs in nature all the time. Nothing that you eat now is genetically identical to what was going on in nature a thousand years or more ago. So calling this stuff “Frankenfood” is inaccurate at best. (This article from WebMD backs me up on this.) But if people refuse to buy these products, then farmers will refuse to plant them, and all this amazing research will be for naught. There’s a solution in our future, folks. Let’s not torpedo it with our ignorance.
Dr. Chory, the team leader, is experiencing increasing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. So she is in a race against time to get this research completed. I hope that her team could carry on without her, but I think her knowledge and experience and leadership is greatly needed, so I hope she’s able to beat the clock, for the sake of the planet.
Despite the hurdles, I finally feel like I can take a breath, because I know there are thousands of other scientists out there who are also running this race and coming up with answers. If we are going to be saved, it’s the scientists who will do the saving. There are also plenty of us who care about the environment enough to make sacrifices and also push for green energy solutions.
So take heart, dear reader. Take heart. All is not yet lost.