If Genetically Modified Trees Could Help Stop Climate Change Would You Support Them?


photo: Luis Argerich/Creative Commons

Some new research in Bioscience outlines different ways in which genetically modifying trees and plants to help them increase their carbon sequestration potential to fight climate change--we're talking billions of tons of carbon a year here--immediately raises the question of support for them. If GM trees could really help stop climate change, would that make you any more likely to support them? The paper Photosequestration: Carbon Biosequestration by Plants and Prospects of Genetic Engineering [PDF], goes through a number of ways in which trees and plants act as carbon sinks (through biomass, in soil, biochar, use in wood products, bioenergy crops) and examines ways in which genetic modification could boost this: Enhancing photosynthesis, increasing the carbon allocation to roots, improving tolerance to environmental stresses such as salinization and drought conditions, and improving biomass quality in bioenergy crops.

It's all interesting from a technological point of view and I encourage those interested to dig into the original report for more info. But what's the theoretical payoff of using GM technology along these lines?

The report authors show that maximizing photosynthesis could lead to a 50% increase in productivity, calculating that on land currently under cultivation this could boost carbon storage by 2-3 gigatons annually. GM tweaking of other aspects of carbon storage could produce an additional 6-8 gigatons of storage.

Now that's by no means an insignificant amount of increase, but it's also less than one-third of total carbon emissions caused by human activity. And the researchers specifically note that this is just one of many policy and technological tools available to increase carbon sequestration in natural vegetation and crops (AIBS BioScience).

Considering that, would you back using GM plants in this manner? Obviously some of the same issues that dog other GM crops would still be in play: Health issues, cross contamination with non-GM plants, and (the bigger issue to me) continued consolidation of corporate control over essential elements of life. What do TreeHugger readers think?

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More on Genetic Modification:
Ireland Says Not in this Country: Bans Genetically Modified Crops
India Suspends First GM Food Crop Introduction - Environment Minister Wants More Tests
While Bill Gates Wants Africa to Embrace Industrial GM Food, Italy Fines Franken-Maize Growing Farmer

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Carbon Sequestration | Genetic Engineering | Global Warming Solutions | GMO