Living Carbon, a bioengineering company based in San Francisco, is launching projects that aim to plant the company’s “photosynthesis enhanced trees” in different locations across the United States.
The trees have been genetically engineered (GE) to enhance their ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Pilot projects are currently active in four locations: two in Georgia, one in Oregon, and one in Pennsylvania.
‘Hyperaccumulate … More Carbon’
The main tree species currently advertised by Living Carbon is a Gray Poplar, which is a bioengineered hybrid between aspens and white poplar. The company’s website says their bioengineered trees can “hyperaccumulate nickel and capture more carbon on less land.”
Living Carbon’s science team has published a paper which they claim demonstrates proof-of-concept, where their hybrid poplars showed improved photosynthetic efficiency and subsequent growth. One laboratory test saw 53 percent greater biomass growth over a five-month period.
Living Carbon says their poplars store up to 27 percent more carbon dioxide than natural trees do. They also have options on their website to buy carbon credits from them.
‘Attention-Seeking Activists’ Oppose
Some environmental groups do not share Living Carbon’s optimism for the project. The Campaign to STOP GE Trees, for one, claims that GE trees are a threat to forests, and don’t forward the cause of “fundamental systemic transformation” to fight climate change.
They are also angry that Living Carbon’s trees are not eligible for regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), due to the fact that the USDA only regulates plants modified with organisms that can harm other plants. Living Carbon’s trees do not fall under that category.
So-called GE trees are nothing new, and commonly available hybrids are not regulated either, says Henry I. Miller, M.D., Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health.
“Genetically modified trees are not new, and new varieties crafted with less precise, less predictable genetic engineering techniques, such as hybridization, are subject to no government regulation at all,” Miller said. “‘Environmentalists’ who oppose genetic engineering innovations—whether to enhance growth rate, pest- and disease-resistance, ability to absorb carbon dioxide, or other desirable traits—are not environmentalists at all.
“They are self-interested, attention-seeking activists who oppose high-tech innovations despite their advantages to human health or environmental protection,” Miller said.
Results without “Elaborate” Alterations
Miller says that groups’ opposition to the GE poplars, as well as other more directly life-saving GE products, are unscientific.
“Examples include not only trees, but also crops like Golden Rice varieties fortified with a precursor of vitamin A that prevent vitamin A deficiency and prevent blindness and death in children whose diet consists largely of rice,” Miller said. “Their objections to trees on grounds of environmental safety are contrived and baseless.”
On the FAQ section of Living Carbon’s webpage, they address concerns about unintended consequences, reporting the technology only boosts natural processes.
“[W]e’re growing plants that can capture more carbon by using a metabolic change that addresses the same issue (energy loss through photorespiration) as C4 photosynthesis,” Living Carbon says. “Our method achieves similar carbon capture results without requiring elaborate anatomical changes.”
Third Party Monitoring
According to Living Carbon, the results of their pilot programs are being monitored by third parties, and their trees are unable to easily spread or cross-pollinate other species, because they are all female.
“All our current poplar trees are female and do not produce pollen, thus instilling a low fertility rate while maintaining the integrity of the tree to integrate with local ecosystems,” Living Carbon’s FAQ says.
The company plans to have four million seedlings planted by spring of 2024, toward their goal of removing just over 1 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide.
In 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy gave the company a $500,000 grant, and they have already secured at least $20.5 million in additional funding from various organizations and individuals.
Linnea Lueken (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute.
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