The world continues to lose species on a daily basis, often as a result of degradation or destruction of ecosystems. Biotechnology can contribute to efforts in maintaining biodiversity. However, biotechnology is not the magical solution.
- Plant biotechnology
Modern breeding strategies target higher crop yields. By improving crop efficiency, in principle less land is needed for agriculture, and more land can be used for nature conservation. These approaches also offer a perspective for developing agricultural crops that guarantee stable yields even when the weather conditions are less favorable. In this way, new varieties of crops can help cope with the effects of climate change and could enable agriculture in more arid environments in developing countries. Plants that are more resistant to pests and diseases need less pesticides, which benefits the biodiversity in the proximity of the fields and reduces the negative environmental impacts of food production in general. Biotechnology could speed up the pace of the development of these high-yield, more drought- or more pest-resistant crops. As with other (new) technologies, not all biotech applications contribute to environmentally friendly agriculture. Evidently, regulations and supervision are required, so that biotechnology is used for the benefit of nature.
- The study of beneficial soil microbes
Biotechnologists also study plant growth-promoting microbes, occurring naturally in the soil. These micro-organisms can function as biofertilizers and have been found to promote plant growth by several mechanisms such as increasing the supply of nutrients, increasing root biomass, and increasing the efficiency in nutrient acquisition of the plant.
Meat consumption is one of the biggest causes of climate change. Therefore, eating plant-based products reduces our ecological foot print. Biotech can help by making plant-based food products healthier. Thanks to biotech, vitamin B12 can be produced in a sustainable manner.
Another big contributor to climate change is industry based on coal, oil and gasoline, providing fuels for cars, planes and all kinds of materials that make our life easy. The first and most important thing to do is to reduce our consumption of fuels and materials, minimize the use of planes and cars and avoid needless packaging. But even so, some energy and materials will still be needed. Biotech is offering solutions. For instance, biotech can be used to develop trees with cell walls that are easier to process into simple sugars. These sugars can then be further fermented to bio-ethanol or other bio-based products, such as bioplastics. Energy and materials from plants are just an additional source, next to solar and wind energy. We cannot afford saying no to any potential solutions that can mitigate climate change.
Biotech can save endangered species from extinction. The American chestnut-story is a nice example. American chestnut (Castanea dentate) trees were among the largest, tallest, and fastest-growing trees. The nuts fed billions of animals, until a blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) almost killed it more than a century ago. The American chestnut has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites, but can inevitably succumb again to the blight fungus and die back into the ground. The same fungus also threatens the European chestnut trees (Castanea sativa). Biotechnology might help saving the American chestnut from extinction.