Megatrends and How to Survive Them #12 Biotechnology

Published by Patricia Lustig on

Megatrends and How to Survive Them is the title of our book published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing and available on Amazon.

This is one of a series of blogs based on the work we have done for the book. We chose Biotechnology as a topic for discussion because over the next decade advances in biotechnology will “challenge what it means to be human” as reported in the Financial Times of 3rd December.

Biotechnology offers technological approaches for many of the health and resource-based problems facing the world. The application of biotechnology to primary industries, to healthcare, and to industrial processes, could result in a sizeable global “bioeconomy” by 2030.

There will be a lot of publicity about health applications – personalised medicine, gene editing, synthetic biology and direct neural interfaces, and the recent publicity on the gene edited Chinese twins is only the start. Biotechnology will have a massive effect beyond 2030 and the ethical implications will be much clearer.

However, it could be that the big opportunity will be around rethinking agriculture and the food chain, and industrial processes – saving energy.

Many of the potential advantages of biotechnology, such as salt-tolerant food crops, renewable energy sources like fuels based on algae, using organisms to neutralise or treat waste, and climate change mitigation, might happen faster than we think. A recent OECD report highlighted the role of bio-plastics for instance, in replacing those based on petroleum products.

Agri-business is big. Gene modification technology applied to animals and crops has created economies of scope and scale that have driven rapid corporate concentration. Genome editing – using CRISPR/Cas9 and tools to come – could become commonplace and lead to improved – and also to new – crops. Recent discussions on using DNA from fossils in the tundra to generate new life forms, raise the spectre of Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park
On a remote jungle island, genetic engineers have created a dinosaur game park. An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now one of mankind’s most thrilling fantasies has come true and the first dinosaurs that the Earth has seen in the time of man can emerge. But there is a dark side to the fantasy and after a catastrophe destroys the park’s defence systems, the scientists and tourists are left fighting  for survival……….
Source: Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park”.

The main markets for biotechnology in primary industries (agriculture, forestry and fishing) could be in developing countries, due to the importance of primary production and industry to their economies.

There are a number of ventures developing food products using vegetable proteins to mimic more accurately the meaty, cheesy and creamy flavours of food derived from animal proteins. These products target the majority of meat-eating consumers, not just committed vegetarians. Using gene editing techniques to insert animal protein genes into food plants, offers the prospect of more convincing and delicious plant-based substitutes for animal proteins – “better than beef”.

If successful, these companies would create disruptive innovation across the human food chain, with profound consequences. As the ecological footprint of vegetable products is typically one tenth that of animal-based food, these innovations suggest the possibility of a sustainable path to feeding a global population exceeding 9 billion within our water limits.

Questions for leaders:

  • How will agricultural/primary industries biotechnology affect you?
  • How will health biotechnology affect you?
  • How will industrial biotechnology affect you?
  • How will you handle the ethical issues around employment and insurance cover which will be a side effect of genomic testing?
  • How will you answer Millennials and other generations who will ask about the ethical issues of biotechnology in relation to your people and products and services?

We live in exciting times!

Authors: Patricia Lustig, MD LASA Insight and Gill Ringland, SAMI Emeritus Fellow and Director, Ethical Reading.


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