Although biotechnological applications in food have created much controversy in recent years, the science itself is nothing new. The 12,000-year history of farming is characterized by farmers manipulating living systems, creating new strains of crops through cross-pollination and manipulating the plants’ DNA.
Technology may have moved on, but the principle of manipulating organisms remains the same. Today, advances in genetic engineering provide solutions that are proving to be a key weapon in the fight to feed an ever increasing population.
However, the applications of biotechnology are not limited to food production. Craig Venter, famed for his project to sequence the human genome, is currently working to develop strains of algae as a biofuel source. Using algae is extremely beneficial as it doesn’t require arable land, can be grown in saltwater and is also capable of absorbing carbon from nearby power stations. If Venter hits his target, he will be able to produce 10,000 gallons of biofuel per acre, no small feat when compared to the 18 gallons produced by corn.
Such innovative examples may be just the tip of the iceberg as reductions in price and increased availability of technology puts them within the grasp of willing amateurs. This is already bearing fruit: shortly after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of students from the Delft University of Technology, created “Alkanivore,” a bug able to consume oil spills.
As the preserve of large organizations, biotechnology is already providing key advances, but easier access to the technology is multiplying the potential to find innovative solutions to food, energy and other global problems.
As the Arab Spring has shown, the spread of the internet and social media has helped people share and discuss societal problems, while providing tools to organize and fight oppression. An Egyptian protester summed this up in the following tweet: “We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and Youtube to tell the world.”
Access to information has proven to be the major catalyst in this process and we have never had so many people with access to so much information. Just consider that a Masai warrior with a smartphone currently has access to more information than the US president had fifteen years ago.
Despite this fact, it’s easy to forget that a significant portion of the world’s population does not yet have access to the internet. It’s estimated that three billion people are set to get online by the year 2020. Imagine the impact of people from all social statuses joining the global conversation, sharing their ideas and opinions.
The spread of global connectivity is already helping to solve societal problems across the globe. If we want to talk about abundance in terms of energy sources, then we don’t really need to look much further than the sun. It’s estimated that the solar power in the deserts of North Africa is enough to supply forty times the world’s current usage.
Many of the areas where solar power is most readily available do not have the money, industry or political stability to create the infrastructure to capitalize on this bounty. The price and relative lack of efficiency of first-generation solar cells was surely a big factor in the lack of take-up.
Since then, huge strides have been made in improving the efficiency of solar power through the use of thinner layers of silicon, of nanotechnology to concentrate the solar energy and of smarter capturing systems that follow the sun. As advances in efficiency encourage greater acceptance, larger scale production allows for increased affordability, creating a virtuous cycle. Solar prices are estimated to be dropping by 6 percent, and capacity growing by 30 percent annually.
Despite this continuing trend, the age of solar panels covering rooftops may only be a fleeting one, as advances have meant that we can now create much smaller, yet increasingly efficient cells.
In fact, we may not need rooftop panels at all. New Energy Technologies has recently found a way to turn an ordinary window into a solar panel by using the world’s smallest organic solar cell. They are not only far smaller, but also perform ten times better than today’s commercial models.
All these innovative trends encourage greater acceptance of the technology, which in turn helps to create further efficiencies through mass production, reducing the prices even more.
As the proportion of the population living in cities continues to increase and the amount of land suitable for growing crops decreases, the distance we ship food continues to climb.
In the US, for example, the average distance foodstuffs travel is 1,500 miles, but a meal of different ingredients could easily be five times that amount. In a world of scarce resources, this kind of practice seems unsustainable, but it’s hard to resolve as we move further away from where our food is grown.
Implementation of such growing systems reduces the need for arable land, which creates the possibility of urban or vertical farming. We could build inner-city, purpose-built structures or adapt old multi-story buildings, which would virtually eliminate transport distances and free up vast areas of land.
Such urban farms, aside from providing plant crops, could also incorporate systems of aquaculture, meaning that fish and seafood could be farmed in cities. This would not only give over-fished seafood stocks a much needed recovery break, but also provide nutrients for the plants.
By employing such methods in or around population centers, we could eliminate or greatly reduce many of the current system’s resource inefficiencies. Optimizing production and capturing techniques is only one side of the coin in the battle towards efficient management of the world’s resources. We also need to ensure that delivery systems of resources and products are efficient in order to minimize waste.
Today, sensors such as these have become so much cheaper and more readily available that we can employ them in a variety of areas to monitor pretty much anything. These technologies have the potential to improve the efficiency of delivering virtually everything, not just water.
Having sensors in goods, products and household items also creates the potential for all kinds of efficient automation. For example, your house could identify when you’re running low on essential items and order them for you. But domestic uses are dwarfed by the potential business uses, where raw material orders could be programmed to match demand and streamline supply chains, minimizing waste to an extraordinary degree.
The technology to create smarter delivery and distribution systems is available and if we invest in creating goods more efficiently, minimizing the waste of resources will be part of this efficiency drive.
Abundance provides a breathtaking tour of key technologies and the implications of their projected exponential growth, giving us a glimpse of how they may develop and discussing the ways in which this will impact society. From the potential role of robots and artificial intelligence in improving healthcare to the uses of nanotechnology and digital manufacturing in reducing waste and conserving natural resources, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that the future is not just bright, but may well be one of abundance.
Check out my related post: Do you know the science of why? – Part 1