This article was researched and written by students at Allegheny College participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE)Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.
Humans began modifying their crops through biotechnology almost 20,000 years ago. Simple seeding techniques can be attributed to advancements in biotechnology, but today’s technologies are much more complicated and controversial. Many policies and strategies have been written, implemented, and supported to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions using technology. Some policies include the implementation of new biotechnologies that can be beneficial to reducing GHG’s. The aforementioned technologies can lead to the manufacturing of renewable energies such as biofuels. Bioenergy, or energy acquired from a biological resource, is a promising strategy for reducing humanity’s fossil fuel use and can be supplemented via biotechnology.
The potential for technologies in the agricultural framework to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane is immense. The emissions of these gases compose 1/5 of the radiative forcing effecting climate change. Radiative forcing refers to the act of radiation energy moving in and out of the atmosphere; more radiation energy can lead to hotter temperatures and vice versa. There are many areas of environmental technology which can be supplemented to reduce radiative forcing; restoration of degraded lands is one viable option. Coupled with the production of biotechnologies, restoration of land can yield a byproduct of genetically altered crops in agriculture that can produce bioenergy.
Recent developments into biotechnologies include tissue culture and molecular genetics to develop superior plants. Molecular genetics refers to the process of locating, isolating, characterizing, recombining, and multiplying DNA in order to achieve specific traits. Progression in the field of molecular genetics has become broad with many possibilities. One form of genetic modification includes the alteration of lignin biosynthesis to promote cell wall degradation during the production of bioenergy and even render pre-emptive plant treatment unnecessary. The previous idea can reduce the costs associated with the production of alternative energy, making biotechnology even more practical.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a result of molecular genetics, can provide a sustainable source for the production of bioenergy. Such altered bioenergy feed-stocks as corn and switchgrass can supply the demand necessary to generate alternative energies. Through the use of biotechnology (specifically genetic engineering), the feed-stocks can be biologically modified to maximize energy yields and minimize farming costs. Metabolic engineering and aerobic stress resistance are two strategies that can improve energy output of feed-stocks and maximize yields. Energy sources like ethanol (manufactured from sugar producing plants), biodiesel (manufactured from plant seed oils), and biogas (manufactured from organic wastes) are all possible fuels that can be produced if feed-stock is used to be converted to bioenergy. For example, the genetic modification of corn to produce its own pesticide can reduce the need to crop dust saving fossil fuels (used to fly the plane) and costs of plane maintanence. Another example is the use of micropropagation, or the cloning of plants, to potentially create a completely disease resistant strain of a crop and increase yield while decreasing growing time. Different types of biotechnologies and strategies can be used to maximize energy yield and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. GMO’s can also be used to create large plantations yielding one single crop in vast quantities.
The stabilization of carbon concentration in the atmosphere is an unprecedented requirement for climate change mitigation. Fossil fuels have taken over as the dominant energy source and contribute an unrivaled amount of carbon to the atmosphere. In 1990, only 3.3% of energy consumption in the United States was supplied by biomass energy. Since 1800, the U.S. has contributed 90 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, and currently stands in second place for the most carbon contributed behind China. In 2006, the consumption of petroleum products led to 42% of GHG emissions for the year.
Liquid biofuels and electricity from biomass feed-stocks are both prominent alternative energies. They can effectively reduce GHG emissions, but each has a restraint in common - the assurance of feedstock supply and the availability of land. The switch to biomass energies is feasible in many ways, but only in crop-friendly climates and where governments might reduce land rent rates.
One of the major issues with the use of biotechnologies is the rate of water consumption required. By employing biotechnologies, humanity will need a drastic increase of water in their agricultural sector that will take away clean water reserved for consumption. Irrigation for agriculture already withdraws nearly 70% of studied water supplies, and nearly 80% of that is directly consumed. As the major water sources can be imported by first world, developed countries leaving those in the third world and other impoverished nations lacking the water supply to employ this method of energy creation. Their inability to be able to purchase and provide the necessary infrastructure to implement bio-energy proves to be another issue that continues the rift between the rich and poor countries on energy issues.
Waste is another concern that follows the debate over whether or not to use biotechnology. The waste resulting from GMO’s, including genetically modified crops, has recently questioned matters of waste safety.
During the process of decomposition, the DNA of an organism does not reduce to a monomer level. There is a fear that the DNA of an antibiotic resistant strain spreading to human DNA has surfaced. As this would be resistant to medicine it is a serious concern to weigh over. DNA can stay in-tact for long periods of time in soils as well and is resistant to decomposition. It can spread in the environment through bacteria, making it a threatening side effect of biotechnologies. While this is a dangerous result it is not a guaranteed one, only a possibility. There is also a chance that instead of passing on a negative trait to the genes of another species it could pass on one that is positive. This in turn would cause one species to possibly rise over the rest and cause the extinction of multiple species not affected or negatively affected. Biotechnology’s ability to alter other species makes it a less desirable alternative to the energy sources currently employed.
Sustainable development is essential if hopes for climate change mitigation are to be met. As previously stated, ethanol is a promising producer of renewable energy and is manufactured from sugar-laden crops. However, sustaining the crops required to make bio-fuels is a problem. The water supply for the world will be reduced greatly as it is consumed by agriculture. Also, food security is at stake, and by redirecting food crops for energy use we will be reducing the supply available for consumption as food. For example, as corn ethanol production increases, the price for corn as a food-stuff also increases. Yet the energy ratio can be positive – studies suggest that corn grain ethanol can produce around 25% more energy than required to manufacture it. But, in order for the amount of energy to be provided for one car in the United States, between .7 and 10 hectares of land must be used to grow the crops. In addition, many countries do not have the technologies to grow in such economically intensive ways. The resulting shortage of crops for both biotechnological production and food pose a painstaking problem for GHG reduction.
There is a growing concern of developing countries lacking the means to produce biotechnologies. Education on the basics of science is necessary to bolster the potential of a country in these situations, yet some cultures lack strong educational resources. Differences in the capabilities of countries can account for specific technological advancements, making climate mitigation incremental and uncertain. Asia is expected to jump ahead in its productions given the recent technological boom, but third world countries may be affected the most by climate change with an inability to adapt. Each country must play their strengths and minimize weaknesses for an efficient attempt at creating and utilizing biotechnologies, in turn effectively reducing uncertainty resulting from economic and educational capability variation among countries.
While there have been several strides that make the idea of biotechnology more appealing as part of the solution to mitigate our GHG emissions, more uncertainty lies in the application of biotechnology. It is currently unclear how biotechnology can be used in the world’s agri-food system. Although multiple promising have been created in the past 7 years, many of them have received criticism which may suppress their success. The discovery of new gene-splicing techniques has advanced biotechnologies greatly and resulted in the ability of humans to control what species of plant will grow, its attributes, and a uniformity in crop fields. With such control, wild growth rates of crops can also be implemented and controlled. Yet there are five factors influencing and limiting agricultural advancement by means of biotechnology. They include research and development policies, the location of biotechnologies, the issue of technology vs. society, the marketing of GM foods, and who will be winners and who will be losers. The uncertainty facing the advancement of biotechnologies in each field is astounding and places a large hindrance on technological advancement.
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