Berkeley, Calif. — Today, the Breakthrough Institute released a new analysis on the use of genetic engineering (GE) to improve soy, cereal, and other crops’ photosynthesis reactions to dramatically increase crop yields in the United States. The research, authored by Senior Food and Agriculture Analyst Emma Kovak, explores how this increase in crop yields has a large, but conventionally overlooked, potential to reduce agriculture's substantial climate footprint.
Until recently, improving photosynthesis in field crops was hypothetical. However, three studies published by the National Science Foundation-funded — Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project — show that different GE traits enhance photosynthesis by improving adaptation to changing light, detoxifying photosynthetic byproducts, and adding cellular machinery lead to yield increases of 15–40%.
With all three GE improvements to photosynthetic efficiency, yields are estimated to increase by a revolutionary 60%, with accompanying decreases in global food system emissions. Further additions of other emissions-reducing genetically engineered traits like nitrogen fixation and increased nitrogen use efficiency, will make genetically engineered crops a more powerful tool for making agriculture more climate-friendly.
The United States’ crop production is more efficient than many international markets, and increasing yields would alleviate the need for foreign production. Improving the ability of crops in the United States to adapt to changing light conditions could increase yields by 15% and decrease global food system emissions from land conversion by 5%, or 214 million tons CO2 equivalents per year (MtCO2e/yr).
“One major way we can help fight climate change is reducing land used for agriculture,” said Kovak. “More land that can stay undeveloped is more land that can keep storing carbon rather than adding to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions."
Historically, increased crop yields have decreased land conversion and diminished associated emissions. Land use for cereal production would have expanded over six times more than it did in the past 60 years without improvements to crop production. Advancements in crop genetics have contributed roughly half of the historical yield gains, making yield growth a powerful way to reduce emissions.