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The pervasive impact of Biotech – II

The full “circular” cycle of use of environmental resources supported by biotechnologies. Image credit: Environmental biotechnology, a quest for Sustaninable Solutions. Sneha V. NanekarAsha A. Juwarkar

Our environment is what, in the far away past, gave rise to life and life in turns transformed it, sometimes creating the condition for new types of life to appear (cyanobacteria led to the oxygen atmosphere we have today that fostered the appearance of more complex life) and quite often for existing forms of life to disappear (staying on the same reference, cyanobacteria production of oxygen destroyed a big chunk of life that was not capable to adapt to the “poisonous” oxygen leading to the first mass extintion on our planet).

As selfish beings, we humans feel strongly about the need to preserve our species and therefore we are concerned for any changes in the environment that would detrimental to us. I know that I might look cynic, but I am not too far from the truth….

Of course we are now enjoying a growing awareness of the many species populating the globe, of natural resources and of the many inter-relationships existing (if bees were to disappear, as it could happen if we keep polluting the environment, pollination will stop and we will starve for lack of food. Notice that some are looking into ways to decrease the pollution that is affecting the bees, others are looking at alternatives for pollination, like using robots/drones….).

Biotech is already playing a significant role in oa and ur interaction with the environment and its role in the coming years will increase providing tools for:

  • detection and monitoring
  • shifting from non-renewable to renewable resources
  • recovery of resources and waste
  • restoration of environment quality

The monitoring of the ambient has increased through the use of better sensors. Biotech can further improve sensing capabilities (for an up-to-date view on biosensors look here). It is not just about developing sensors using biotech, it is also about leveraging on life through biotech like the possibility to use  living cells and organisms, to detect the presence of specific molecules that might signal a danger for the environment. As an example,  trees can be used as sensors to detect air acidity over periods of time. By embedding (normal) sensors in their bark (deciduous trees are particularly good in detecting air acidity) we can get precise indication of air pollution in various areas of a city. Several other forms of life can be used as indicator of air, water, soil quality. By joining forces (using IoT) with what Nature has developed over billion of years it becomes possible to have a real time status of the environment and to appreciate the impact of human activities (including those designed to improve the environment).

The use of biofuels is an example of substituting non renewable sources (fossil fuel) with renewable ones. The progress in this area has been significant but at the same time it is no silver bullet. Producing bio-fuel is diverting resources from food production to fuel. For most part the biofuel is more expensive than fossil fuel and requires Government subsidy. In turns this subsidy is leading to intense soil exploitation (and even deforestation) with a negative impact on the environment. At present 64% of ethanol is produced from maize, 26& from sugarcane and the rest from molasses, wheat, cassava and sugar beets. Biotech can lead to improved yield, thus decreasing the size of arable lands needed for the production. An interesting example of biotech applied to fuel production is the modification of algae to produce methane (watch the clip).

Ecological footprint of consumption in 2019. A shape greater than the actual geographical size represents an over exploitation of available resources (consume is greater than availability). Image credit: Worldmapper.org

Waste recycling and utilisation are other important areas for biotech. The amount of waste humans produce is staggering and it keeps growing: we generate over 4 million tons of waste every single day, that is 10 times the amount that was produced 100 years ago (there are now 3 times more people on the planet but event taking that into account we are now producing more than twice the waste we did 100 years ago and a good portion of that waste is not bio-degradable, read plastic)  .  The food waste is estimated by the UN in 30% of the global production, a value exceeding 1 trillion $ a year and contributing to 8% of CO2 emission.

All this is shouting at us the magnitude of the problem and the need to tackle it. What is most notable is that in most Countries, as shown in the graphic, we have exceeded the availability of resources. Using biotech can greatly help in waste recycling (particularly plastic) and utilisation (converting waste into thermal/electrical power).

Measuring the “quality” of the environment and monitoring the changes at local level is the first needed step to take action for rebalancing and restoring environmental quality. This is the other area where biotech can help. Notice the crucial role played by global monitor and local action. We need to understand the effect of our activities at a global level. Often our actions can result in a local quality improvement but they may affect in a negative way the overall system: electrical vehicles can decrease pollution in urban areas but the generation of the required electrical power, if based on fossil fuels, can increase CO2 at global level and the batteries needed for an EV create pollutions in mining (lithium) and in their disposal, removing e-waste created by developed Countries and dropping it developing Countries increase pollution somewhere else, most likely in places where the disposal of that waste is generating much more pollution than would be the case if managed in the waste originating Countries.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.