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Reducing climate change impact with plant science

Rice fields - illustration

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on public health and the economy, an unexpected side effect has been the positive impact that worldwide lockdown is having on the environment. The reductions in industrial activity and vehicle usage have reportedly resulted in a 17% drop in global carbon dioxide emissions over April on average, believed to be the biggest recorded decline in history.

Promising as this may seem, this pollution hiatus will unfortunately have little overall impact on the progress of global warming. However, scientific advancements are showing how the world’s plants may be able to offer long-term viable solutions to not only the problems caused by climate change, but also potential solutions to climate change itself.

Crops as a renewable energy source

The UK is committed to a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as recommended by the Committee on Climate Change. Achieving this target will require drastic decreases in energy use, a diverse mix of renewable energy sources, and negative emission technologies. Sustainably produced biomass, either waste from forest management or from purpose-grown energy crops, is a low carbon energy source that will be required to supply 5-10% of the UK’s energy demand. If combined with carbon capture and storage technologies, it will become a negative emission technology.

Researchers at the Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences (IBERS) Aberystwyth University, with funding from BBSRC, have developed new hybrids of the biomass crop Miscanthus that will enable growers to scale-up production to meet the UK’s future biomass energy production needs. Such biomass can also be used as a feedstock to replace chemicals and materials currently derived from fossil fuels or energy demanding processes, and therefore further helps to decarbonise the economy. Industry partner Terravesta, which holds licences for the most promising new hybrids, is aiming for commercial roll-out of the crop in 2020. The new hybrids are also undergoing commercial trials in six European countries

Decreasing the environmental impact of food production

It is estimated that over a third of food produced globally is wasted. The United Nations estimates that if food waste were a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, causing 10% of total worldwide emissions. Reducing waste can reduce the amount of food that needs to be produced, and with it the pressures on land, water resources, the environment and soil degradation.

Researchers have long been investigating how to tackle this problem at all stages of the food journey. Recent projects have included the development of long-term storage systems which can prevent fruit spoilage for up to 12 months, and the creation of supermarket packaging that delays greening in potatoes. For the inevitable amount of food waste that is unavoidable, there is continued research into turning wasted food into bioenergy.

In another study, researchers from the University of Southampton – supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) – have been investigating how to keep salad leaves fresher for longer. The researchers found that reducing water use by 20% when growing the plants results in smaller, tougher leaves that last longer, which also has considerable environmental benefits.

Dr Steve Rothwell from Vitacress, who partnered on the project, added, “The results open the door to exciting further studies across a wider range of crops and geographies aimed at driving down the use of water whilst improving crop quality and shelf life.”

Coping with climate change

When prevention of climate change is uncertain, preparation is necessary. The adverse temperature fluctuations that result from climate change are one of the main issues facing worldwide crop production.

In response to this, scientists from the BBSRC-funded John Innes Centre have managed to breed a new fast-growing broccoli that no longer relies on a period of cold weather to flower, and goes from seed to harvest in only eight-10 weeks. This discovery is especially relevant for broccoli, as it is flower buds that we eat.

This breakthrough means growers could deliver two full field-based crops in a season, or four to five crops a year if the broccoli is grown in protected conditions, providing a lifeline to food resilience in the UK and global food security.

Dr Judith Irwin, who headed the project, said “This is a very exciting development as it has the potential to remove our exposure to seasonal weather fluctuations from crop production. This could mean broccoli – and in future other vegetables where the flower is eaten, for example, cauliflowers – can be grown anywhere at any time enabling continuous production and supply of fresh local produce.”

Last updated: 23 October 2020

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