How Can Biotechnology Enable Sustainable Growth Of The Human

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As the name suggests, biotechnology is technology that is based on biology. It utilises cellular and biomolecular procedures to develop products and methods which can be used to enhance business processes and improve our quality of life as well as the health of the environment (Bio, 2020). Mankind’s use of these biological processes are by no means a novel occurrence as we have utilised them for thousands of years to preserve food and produce food products such as cheese, bread, wine and to domesticate plants (Science Learning Hub, 2010).

Today the global economy is faced with a vast number of societal challenges, most of which stem from our aggressively growing population which we have to feed and keep healthy; the insidious consequences of climate change and our huge over-reliance on non-renewable resources which are completely unsustainable (Vanderhoven & Corbett, 2017). So essentially the three key issues which biotechnology can help solve are:

  • Feeding our growing population
  • Tackling disease
  • Reducing environmental damage (Nee & DaCunha, 2016)

The production of most consumer products, materials, chemicals and energy (including transport, heat and electricity), are hugely reliant on oil, coal, rare metals and natural gas. Even though these materials have been an important driver of the industrial revolution, the consequences over their over-exploitation are proving very problematic (Ritchie & Roser, 2017). The extraction process from the earth involves intensive procedures which are harmful to the environment. Not only can these procedures be damaging at their point of extraction but also during the hazardous transportation of these materials to their production hubs (Vanderhoven & Corbett, 2017). Traditional manufacturing processes are damaging to the environment because they demand very high amounts of energy through their fabrication and transportation which also results in the emission of greenhouse gases. They are also responsible for the by-product of toxic chemicals which affect the surround air, water and soil quality and harmful waste materials due to an inefficient use of materials, for example CNC milling can generate as much as 95% waste. In addition, the final products themselves are often inefficiently designed which results in them generating their own waste and pollution when they are used (3DEO, 2018). Not only that, but many products once they have reached expiry are not easily recycled and take a very long time to decompose and therefore have a damaging persistence in nature as well as high toxicity (Vanderhoven & Corbett, 2017). Plastic is one of the key culprits of such damage with many plastic based items taking up to 1000 years to decompose (LeBlanc, 2019).

How biotechnology can provide solutions

1. Feeding the growing population:

According to the World Bank, it is forecasted that we will need to increase our quantity of food production by another 50% by 2020 and global malnutrition, even though falling, is still a large problem (see figure 1). This is even more problematic if you consider the fact that climate change may reduce productivity by 25% and less than 5% of the populations’ of developed countries work in agriculture (Nee & DaCunha, Four problems that biotechnology can help solve, 2016). Biotechnology is already a large part of food manufacturing with the use of enzymes and fermentation. However this can be taken a step further as new biotechnologies can now facilitate the selection of desirable agronomic-efficient traits of various plants and the transference of these traits to a transgenic plant thereby increasing its viability and overall yield (Borgen, 2018).

Selective breeding is also proving very useful. Molecular markers make it possible for plants with favourable genes to be chosen for agriculture which results in crops that are more resistant to disease and harsh environmental condition and therefore provide a higher quality and yield (Borgen, 2018). The yield of high value chemicals such as pharmaceutical ingredients, fragrences, food flavourings and sweeteners, as well as the environmental impact of their production can also be improved through biotechnology (Vanderhoven & Corbett, 2017). Grapefruit flavouring is a great example of this since it is a flavouring which is in very high demand but short supply and its traditional synthetic method of production using orange oil requires large amounts of energy and produces toxic by-products (BBSRC, 2018). Oxford Biotrans is a company that ‘specialises in enzmatic process technologies that yield high value chemical compounds’. They produce natural-grade nootkatone, (which has the flavour and scent of grapfruit), through the environmentally friendly process of biotransformation of natural valencence. The prodcut is also designated as ‘natural’ meaning it will be more desirable for customers (Oxford Biotrans, 2020).

One of the key issues surrounding agricultural biotechnology involves affordability and accessibility since biotechnology developments require large financial inputs (Ozor, 2008). It is vital that the technology is innovated responsibly and made affordable for small farmers and those with low incomes, because if they cannot purchase or maintain it then they cannot reap its benefits and unlock its full potential. The purchasing of expensive transgenic seeds presents an opportunity cost and risk to some farmers. For example in Nigeria bacillus thuringiensis cotton produces higher yields than other local species, however it greatly underperforms in comparison when environmental conditions are not optimal (National Research Council, 2008). Furthermore products such as biofortified grains are obviously very desirable for consumers, especially the impoverished who rely heavily on staple foods (New Agriculturist, 2013), however they are more costly to the farmer, produce smaller yields and do not command higher prices. All in all the challenge remains in creating a sustainable marketplace whereby farmers can provide affordable prices for their product (Ram, et al., 2016).

2. Reducing environmental damage

The use of biological systems allows us to make products which could not be made using traditional methods such as bio-based materials and fuels which come with new properties and a superior performance (Vanderhoven & Corbett, 2017). Plastic is one of the most pernicious environmental problems we are currently facing. More than 50% of plastic packing is used once and then discarded (Notpla, 2020), this plastic is non-biodegradable and is hugely destructive towards the environment, threating the lives of wildlife and works its way into our food and water supply (Fernandez, 2019).

Notpla is a revolutionary new product made from brown seaweed which is natures’ most renewable resource given that it can ‘grow up to 1 meter per day, it doesn’t compete with food crops, it doesn’t need fresh water or fertiliser and it actively contributes to de-acidifying our oceans’ (Notpla, 2020). They use Notpla to produce ‘Ooho’s’ which is an edible and biodegradable alternative to plastic packaging. Ooho’s have a plethora of uses such replacing plastic cups and bottles at running events (Notpla, 2020). Not only does this reduce plastic waste, but runners can hydrate themselves far more easily by swallowing the whole package of water in its entirety rather than having to sip out of a cup whilst running. This is one example of how bio-based materials can have the added benefits due to their new properties. Bioplastics and biodegradable packaging such as Notpla help achieve sustainable production with a superior end of life performance which is a key element underpinning a circular economy (Vanderhoven & Corbett, 2017).

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Chemical pollution of the planet is also a serious issue and through glacial records we can see that global pollution dates back to 2,500 years ago (Nee & DaCunha, Four problems that biotechnology can help solve, 2016). Thankfully biotechnology can help to counteract this damage, for example companies such as Universal Bio Mining are developing enzymes which are able to degrade the chemical residue of petroleum in the oil sands industry (Nee & DaCunha, Four problems that biotechnology can help solve, 2016). They engineer the ‘natural processes of extremophiles used in metal extraction’ of mineral ores, manipulating organisms to ‘suit the needs of particular mining operations.’ (Nee & DaCunha, 2020). This type of biotechnology is extremely promising when it comes to cleaning up chemical pollution and ultimately restoring our environmental to its natural balance.

While these solutions for pollution and plastic alternatives appear very promising, their legitimacy often has to be questioned as there are a number of ‘solutions’ that actually do more harm than good (McCarthy & Sanchez, 2019). A good example is biodegradable water bottles, a number of which have been made out of plants and are supposed to biodegrade when disposed of in nature and are of no health risk to animals. Scientist Bill Levey found a number of issues with such products. Firstly, a number of them are only capable of biodegrading in certain controlled conditions, meaning that the likelihood of them doing so in the natural environment is very small. In addition, a number of companies are deceptive and still include plastic linings or chemicals within the product which cannot naturally biodegrade (Levey, 2019). This is poor example of responsible innovation, therefore it is important that we look beyond the surface and address the root cause of environmental issues, for example the most sustainable option for water bottles are reusable ones rather than ‘single-use alternatives’ (Levey, 2019). Questioning the claims of companies who appear to be making their products more sustainable and environmentally friendly is also vital.

3.Tackling Disease

The world population is rising fast and globalisation only helps to facilitate the rapid spread of disease (Saker et al., 2004). Infectious diseases provide a large growing concern worldwide as 40% of deaths each year are due to infectious and parasitic disease such as malaria and AIDS (Afzal, et al., 2016). Thankfully biotechnology can play an integral part in alleviating these concerns through facilitating diagnosis, treatment and prevention of many diseases over the years.

Most traditional diagnostic equipment is costly, imprecise and time consuming (Afzal, et al., 2016). However with modern biotechnology the speed and accuracy at which a diagnosis can be made plays an integral part in reducing the death rate and helps to allocate resources more efficiently by not wasting them on incorrect treatments (Daar, et al., 2002). Biotechnological diagnosis’s utilise a number of techniques to combat disease, the most common being; gene therapy, microarrays, monoclonal antibodies and polymerase chain reaction (PCR), all of which are highly accurate, specific, time efficient and cost effective (Khan et al., 2015 and Quigg et al., 2008). Nanotechnology is a development in biotechnology which allows for the detection of diseases without the need for molecular amplification. A common technique is a DNA array detection method which utilises two electrodes coated in gold nanoparticles. If the pathogen is present in the blood sample then the gold particles close the circuit to produce a detectable signal. This method offers far more sensitivity and specificity in detection of diseases than conventional methods (Park, Taton, & Mirkin, 2002). Gene therapy is a method used to prevent diseases or genetic defects, such as cystic fibrosis and mitochondrial genetic diseases, before they occur, rather than treating the consequences like conventional methods. This highly effective since it means that time, money and resources are saved from having to conduct diagnosis’s and lengthy courses of treatment (Mizan, 2013).

These biotechnological treatments do not come without their issues. One particular risk with potentially very severe consequences lies around errors made by scientist when experimenting with infectious diseases. Scientists of course have to study these pathogens in their laboratories in order to further their understanding of the potential dangers and to develop methods of diagnosis, detection and cure. However if human error results in the mishandling of a deadly pathogen a public health emergency could ensue (Bessen, 2020). For example, in 2014 a technician in the Center for Disease and Control was infected with the Ebola virus due to a mix up between samples (Grady & McNeil, 2014). In order to minimize such risks, institutions where infectious diseases are studied need to take further precautions with monitoring and security technology. This will of course require finances but at a necessary expense.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Current gene therapy systems suffer from the inherent difficulties of effective pharmaceutical processing and development, and the chance of reversion of an engineered mutant to the wild type. Potential immunogenicity of viral vectors involved in gene delivery is also problematic. Current gene therapy systems suffer from the inherent difficulties of effective pharmaceutical processing and development, and the chance of reversion of an engineered mutant to the wild type. Potential immunogenicity of viral vectors involved in gene delivery is also problemati Current gene therapy systems suffer from the inherent difficulties of effective pharmaceutical processing and development, and the chance of reversion of an engineered mutant to the wild type. Potential immunogenicity of viral vectors involved in gene delivery is also problematic

The solutions to global challenges which biotechnology can offer are very promising, however much the potential good that can be done is easily undermined if responsible research and innovation (RRI) doesn’t take place. Von Schomberg defines RRI as ‘a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society)’ (von Schomberg, 2012). Many innovations such as biotechnology which use controversial methods inevitably create a number of new potential risks and moral dilemmas. The regular and long-term participation of society is necessary to address such issues, as it is important that they decide how willing they are to accept the potential benefits of biotechnology relative to dealing with the potential negative consequences that may also occur (Rosemann & Molyneux-Hodgson, 2020).

Even though biotechnology seeks to make production methods more environmentally friendly and sustainable, this does mean RRI is necessarily being followed. For example many biotechnology products will only facilitate the production of FMCG’s that currently pollute our environment (Rosemann & Molyneux-Hodgson, 2020). There are also ethical dilemmas with procedures such as gene therapy, the use of which to cure disease is acceptable to many but others dispute the idea of “playing god”. It’s also hard to determine where to draw the line for its use as well as the risk of severe genetic damage from the surgery (Bessen, 2020).

Additionally ‘more sustainable’ products can often come with a number of unintended or unforeseen consequences for societies and the environment (Rosemann & Molyneux-Hodgson, 2020). The earlier example of plastic water bottle alternatives represents this issue well. It’s important to question as to whether companies are conducting genuine, thorough research and analysis to substantiate their claims of their products being ‘green’ or whether they are simply trying to use sustainable initiatives as a marketing ploy instead of having a genuine concern for the environment. Therefore the responsibility depends on governments to apply stricter laws surrounding sustainable product claims so that new innovations and their potential consequences are fully analysed giving consumers full transparency of the impact of products; on companies to uphold a strong ethical code; and for consumers to thoroughly research the claims made about products they purchase.

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