Rooting the future in engineered climate-smart crops

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Researchers from The Land Institute harvest Kernza® in Kansas. (Photo: The Land Institute)

By Maya Glicksman, agriculture and soil science intern

For millennia, plants have been sucking carbon out of the air through photosynthesis. Now, plant scientists see opportunities to harness their full carbon removal potential by developing new, enhanced crops. This next generation of crops could revolutionize the way farmers grow our food and help fight climate change in the process.

The power of agricultural soils

Agricultural systems hold a lot of potential to store carbon — but over the past 12,000 years, agriculture has been really hard on our soils. It’s estimated that over 133 petagrams of carbon (that’s 16 zeros!) have been lost from agricultural topsoils, mostly over the last 200 years. Year after year, practices like intensive tillage, annual cropping, and monoculture farming have contributed to soil erosion and loss of carbon. Agricultural management techniques that add carbon back into soils simply replenish the carbon lost over millennia of human farming.

Agriculture in one form or another is integral to our way of life — we all eat, and about 2.5 billion people depend on farming for their income. Improving the ways we grow our food on a global scale could help significantly in the effort to slow climate change.

Modeling agriculture after nature

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The Land Institute shows the incredible difference between perennial and annual root systems. (Photo: The Land Institute)

Plants are the original solar-powered carbon removal machines and have evolved in delicate balance with their ecosystems over millennia. Unlike farmland, natural grassland and prairie soils are brimming with deep, strong root systems and support flourishing soil microbiomes — and huge stores of carbon.

To rebuild the carbon in our agricultural soils, some scientists think we should model our farms after these natural grasslands. One organization embracing this strategy is The Land Institute. Led by experienced ecologists and agricultural scientists, the Kansas-based research center aims to return our industrial agricultural paradigm to one that more closely mimics nature. Instead of focusing on high yields over soil health, The Land Institute seeks to grow food in partnership with nature and repair agricultural soils in the process.

“He’s just looking at the prairie going, ‘This ecosystem doesn’t lose any soil. This ecosystem actually builds organic matter. It fertilizes itself through nitrogen fixation and weathering. It runs on sunlight. It doesn’t run on fossil fuels. Why doesn’t our agriculture try to model itself more after the ecosystems that came before it?’”

- Tim Crews on Wes Jackson’s inspiration to found The Land Institute. Tim Crews is the nonprofit’s director of research and lead scientist of their ecology program.

According to The Land Institute, perennialization is at the heart of this approach. While the fruit and nut trees we grow today are perennial — meaning they produce year after year without needing to be replanted — crops that need to be replanted annually account for about 70% of food consumed globally, the majority being rice, corn, wheat, and soy.

To replace many dominant annual crops with perennial analogs, The Land Institute is developing perennial versions of wheat, rice, legumes, and other grains. With nature on their side, these new perennials can help draw carbon back into the ground and prevent soil erosion, while meeting our growing demand for food. Leading ecologists and crop scientists are crossbreeding wild perennial “cousins” with existing crops to create these new perennial varieties, with significant success. Developing these crops doesn’t fall under genetic engineering — these crops will be produced purely through selective breeding, rather than diving into the genome and making specific edits.

The Land Institute has already released Kernza®, the first perennial grain available in the US. Kernza® is in the early stages of commercialization, and you can find it in Patagonia’s Long Root Ale.

Beyond the grassland model

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The Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative aims to create plants with deeper, more robust root systems (right) than conventional crops (left). (Photo: the Salk Institute)

On top of this return-to-nature approach, many scientists envision a new class of climate-fighting crops. One research program applying this approach is the Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, which aims to create new deep-rooting crops with enhanced carbon storage capacity. These so-called Salk Ideal Plants® are specifically designed to grow deeper, larger root systems that produce larger amounts of a natural compound called suberin. Researchers are targeting suberin because it absorbs carbon yet resists decomposition, allowing for greater and more durable soil carbon storage.

The Harnessing Plants Initiative is only in its second year, but researchers have already identified key genes responsible for root growth and suberin production. They aim to create a sort of gene arsenal with up to 20 to 50 genes which can be modified and tried in new crop plants. Once the key genes are identified, researchers could produce these crops without genetic engineering and proceed with a selective breeding program, but the process would just take a lot longer. Either way, it may be a while before these plants are agriculturally viable and ready for mass production. The Salk Institute aims to begin global distribution in the next 5–10 years and achieve “significant” carbon drawdown in the next 10–15 years.

A different breed of GMOs

For several decades, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have sparked controversy and shifted food market trends. While GMOs were once promoted to improve food security and crops’ nutritional value, agricultural giants like Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta have weaponized GMOs against small and socially disadvantaged farmers by engineering and patenting seeds. These firms monopolize seed markets, controlling how (and at what cost) farmers can access those seeds. Now, GMOs are linked to corporate profit rather than the common good.

“It’s just a technology… Maybe if it’s for the good of the planet, people will find a different way to think about it.”

- Wolfgang Busch, professor and researcher at the Salk Institute

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Kernza®️’s roots might be taller than you are! (Photo: Patagonia Provisions)

Scientists working on these solutions are conscious of consumer and farmer skepticism of genetically engineered or selectively-bred crops, even if it is for the good of the planet. As new climate-fighting crops enter the market, we must be careful to harness their soil carbon benefits while also supporting equitable agriculture. For future demonstration projects, researchers must prioritize partnerships with small and underrepresented farmers, not just big agricultural corporations. In time, these crops will require a new generation of policy incentives and regulations to support ethical, equitable, and just deployment.

Harnessing the carbon removal potential of agricultural soils will be crucial in our fight against climate change. Focusing on improving crops through selective breeding and genetic engineering could significantly increase carbon removal potential in agriculture, while also reclaiming soil health and bolstering food security. Still, we need to carefully consider the social risks and ethics questions that arise with GMOs and establish necessary safeguards.

In the meantime, we can advocate for R&D to prove the efficacy of these new crop solutions and continue to support policy incentives for soil health practices that already exist today. While we wait for these exciting new perennials and deep-rooting crops to come to fruition, there’s still a whole lot we can do to draw more carbon out of the atmosphere and back into our agricultural soils.

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