Some of the key claims in support of synthetic biology center around the good it can do if applied to the corporate farming industry. By building stronger plants that can defend themselves against pests, viruses and drought, synbio is touted as a way to help feed the world. Microbes could be produced and injected into the soil or seeds or sprayed directly on the leaves of plants and harmful chemicals would be a thing of the past. The promise of reduced pesticides and herbicides as plants are built with new DNA sounds familiar. That was the promise of GMOs: stronger, healthier crops through technology that would all but eliminate the need for glyphosate and other chemicals. Synthetic biology is the next step down the path of linear problem solving that fails to address the complexity of the issue.
Symbolizing a fundamental shift in the prevailing philosophies of industrial farming and bio-engineering, the rising popularity of regenerative agriculture is taking root. More than just a trend in the organic market, regenerative ag is finding support in scientific journals, university studies and government agencies. In the opinion of Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA, “We want to go away from control and command agriculture. We should farm in nature’s image.” In doing so, farmers have the ability to rebuild damaged soil and drastically reduce the amount of carbon in the air.
Over the past 20 years, regenerative agriculture has developed into a well-tested, scientific methodology. By incorporating crop rotation, planting perennials and cover crops to reduce soil exposure, and allowing animals to graze naturally, the earth is afforded the opportunity to repair itself while sequestering carbon. Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, notes that 50 to 70 percent of the original carbon stock in the world’s cultivated soils has been lost. The earth wants that carbon back and is capable of pulling it from the atmosphere through plants. Plants draw carbon out of the air through photosynthesis and whatever is not needed for growth is filtered through the roots and feeds the soil. Carbon in the soil improves water-retention and soil fertility leading to healthier plants that draw more carbon from the air. It seems obvious when stated, but soil regeneration has been little more than an afterthought for decades.
Regenerative agriculture is not a quick, linear solution. It will take time and require more independent farmers and federal funding to bolster education and development. It is an investment in solving the root problems and not simply fixing the current symptom. The Rodale Institute, an independent nonprofit agricultural research center, has launched a global campaign to raise awareness of soil’s ability to reverse the effects of CO2 emissions. In a paper written in 2014, the institute estimates that over 100% of current annual CO2 emissions could be sequestered if regenerative agriculture methods were widely practiced. It is estimated that cover crops and a no-till rotational system can sequester up to a ton of carbon per acre every year. In addition, regenerative ag helps curb erosion, protect groundwater, and reduce the dependency on pesticide and fertilizers, which will alleviate the effects of runoff - all while matching or exceeding the crop production of conventional yields.
As synthetic biology grows into a multi-billion dollar global industry, regenerative agriculture will be spreading across the land one farmer at a time. The current trends are moving in the direction of more global awareness and a demand for corporate responsibility. If those trends continue, synthetic biology may be forced to have more transparency and clear labeling. The market would then decide if synbio is truly necessary to help sustain our food supply. Regenerative agriculture will also need to withstand the demands of the market. Will it prove profitable to convert land back to its organic state? Will the organic channel continue to grow in popularity? Whatever the outcome, we need to have a choice in the matter.