Skip to main content

Recap SD-CAB Symposium 2012 "Food and Fuels in the 21st century" - Part I


Today, I attended a symposium organized by the San Diego Center for Algal Biotechnologies. This symposium started three years ago but has grown each year since then. This year the symposium is three days long and titled “Food and Fuels in the 21st Century”. Professor Kay and Mayfield both framed the relevancy of the symposium by mentioning that the increasing world population, our dependency on limited resources (fossil resources such as oil and phosphates, land and water) which are increasingly becoming scarce, coupled with stresses put on by global warming require an adaptive response by increasing the output of agricultural production to meet the need. Agricultural biotechnologies and algal biotechnologies can provide an answer to the challenges mentioned earlier. With this background, professor Mayfield introduced the first talk.



KEYNOTE: Rob Horsch, Gates Foundation
The Importance of Sustainable Productivity Growth Among Smallholder Farmers.

Rob Horsch goal was to introduce the Melinda Gates Foundation to the community, explain its goals and why it was interested in algal biotechnology. According to Rob Horsch, the Gates Foundation was created in 2000 and doubled in size by an endowment given by Warren Buffet in 2006. In the past, the Gates Foundation focussed half of its efforts on global health issues, a quarter went to global development and a quarter to development in the US. With the recent reallocation of funds, half is on spent on global development, and half is spent on global health. The program has focused on a couple of areas especially agricultural development. The reason for this focus came from the observation that agriculture is the source of livelihoods for billions of people but also represented the largest reseroir of poverty. Then in reverse improving agriculture will help the poorest the most. As an example, the first green revolution dropped poverty in India down to 40%. There are two dilemnas:

  1. Farmers benefit from high prices while consumers benefit from low prices.
  2. Poor farmers grow less than they consume and are net purchasers.

The Gates Foundation therefore thinks that the solution is increasing productivity so that more can be sold at lower cost. It matters whose productivity increases. Increasing productivity in the US does not help poor farmers in third world countries. It creates a dependency of poor people on rich countries for food donations. This approach is not sustainable. So there has been a shift to technology transfer to help the poorest. Rob Horsch notes that the US emphasize on biofuels may have helped bring the focus back to productivity. Another reason for helping the small farmer is that they are the ones who are least productive. Making improvements here will have the largest impacts because improvements can often be obtained through simple cheap measures (it is easier to improve something low). In light of the fact that many of the small farmers are net food consumers, increases in productivity here are especially important as it will eliminate the need for food donation programs from rich countries over time. The way the Gates foundation wants to help is by helping to develop a framework that can distribute public goods. Lastly, the Gates Foundation explained the rational for their interested in photosynthesis. Although a high risk approach, the Gates Foundation thinks that engineering photsynthetic organisms could be useful because there are huge potentials in increasing water use efficiency.

More talks will be posted as I write them up over the next couple of days.

Popular posts from this blog

Sustainable Living: Sunscreens

This is an important topic and so I want to get the most important things out of the way first:

Chemical sunscreens containing the following ingredients contribute to coral bleaching: 
OxybenzoneOctinoxateOctocrylene (used to also stabilize avobenzone)4-methylbenzylidine camphorAnything containing Parabens Don't be part of the problem and avoid using them! It's important to note that claims on sunscreens are not regulated and therefore, companies can put the wording "coral reef safe" on the packaging even though they contain the above chemicals. This is misleading if not outright false. Instead use "physical" sun screens that contain non-nanoparticle zink oxide. Physical sun screens differ from chemical sunscreens in that the sit ontop of the skin to reflect or scatter UVA/B rays away from the skin before it reaches it. Chemical sunscreens absorb the UVA/B rays instead to neutralize them.

To be clear, I am not proposing not using sunscreen! Instead use phys…

Focus on Algae - Part II: Energy

In the last focus section, we discussed how algae can be used to treat waste waters and mitigate CO2 in the process. Today's post will explore how algae can be used for energy generation. As already mentioned in the last time, biofuels have become very visible as of late due to environmental, economical and geopolitcal reasons. If at the heart of traditional biofuel generation lies in the creation and decomposition of biomass, then it would be easy to substitute corn or other less controversial land-based plants with algae. Although a lot of attention is paid to the use of algae in biofuel generation, and this article also mainly focusses on this aspect, it should be noted that algae can also be used to generate electricity by direct combustion of the biomass. Plans for these kinds of schemes are already on the way in Venice and a few other European locations [1].

Algae and Biofuels

What happens to the biomass after it has been created depends on the type of biofuel that is desired…

Sustainable Living: One man's trash...

Since Earth Week is starting tomorrow, I wanted share with you some concrete ways of how individuals like you and me can make an impact on a wider scale. I then also wanted to use this example to challenge everyone to think creatively about the larger context.

So you know how the saying goes: "One man's trash is another one's treasure." Today, I want to talk to you about garbage. Plastic garbage specifically. Plastic is quite a wondrous material. Made from oil by man with just a few additives can turn this polymer into so many different sorts of plastics with so many different properties from thin and flimsy plastic bags, to the carpet on which I am standing, to this plastic bottle from which I am drinking.