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Bill Gates recently shared an astounding fact on his blog, Gates Notes: there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and plant life combined. The carbon improves soil health, but if the soil shifts then carbon is released into the environment as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.
Gates pointed to Kernza, a new strain of wheat developed by The Land Institute, as a way to keep more carbon in the ground. The plant has long, thick roots capable of absorbing more carbon from soil.
This is just one of many agricultural innovations aimed at making food production more environmentally friendly.
“Agricultural innovation is essential to address environmental problems in a world that must soon support more than 9 billion humans,” scientist Jeffrey Sayer and Kenneth Cassman wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Learn more about five exciting advancements here:
1. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Multiple startups are researching and developing microbes that, when applied to soil or seeds, can help plants increase their nutrient uptake. Their use will help limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the inputs needed to grow food.
Tech pioneers, including Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Meg Whitman and Mark Zuckerberg, have all invested in the effort.
2. Protecting Endangered Species
Mosquitoes carrying avian malaria have decimated Hawaii’s native birds. Just 42 of more than 100 species of Hawaiian birds have survived the threat.
A new breeding method, gene editing, could help protect these birds from mosquitoes. Science writer Michael Specter explains in The New Yorker, “A mutation that blocked the parasite responsible for malaria, for instance, could be engineered into a mosquito and passed down whenever it reproduced. Within a year or two, none of the original mosquito’s offspring would be able to transmit the infection.”
3. Getting More Crop for the Drop
Researchers are using cutting-edge plant breeding methods to develop new water-efficient varieties of crops. With 70% of the world’s freshwater used for agriculture, reducing the amount of water needed to grow food could have a significant environmental impact.
“Studying the genome of water-efficient plants may also provide insights into a plant’s ability to use slightly saline water and maintain growth under higher temperature and lower clean water availability,” said Jerry Tuskan, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
4. More Land for Conservation
Using gene editing, scientists have developed higher-yielding crop varieties. These new plant varieties are producing more food, without additional inputs.
The result: using these high-yielding seeds, farmers can grow more food on less land. This leaves land that would otherwise be used for farming available for wildflowers, animals and insects.
5. Reducing Food Waste
In 2007, the global carbon footprint of wasted food was 3.3 billion tons — about 7% of greenhouse gas emissions, according the U.N. Food and Agriculture Commission.
Plant breeders are using gene editing to develop new crop varieties specifically designed to cut the amount of food wasted. By making a small change to a potato’s DNA, for instance, researchers will be able to make it less likely to bruise and brown. The new characteristic could eliminate 1.5 billion pounds of wasted potatoes.