Excerpts from correspondence re Future Biotechnologies


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by Gunter Pauli, director of the Global ZERI Network. Fall 2002 (5-15-05)

The research effort ZERI promotes and supports is centered around two clusters of technologies: (1) integrated biosystems and (2) material separation technologies. The logic to have both is simple: before the apple can subject itself to the law of gravity, the apple must defy the law of gravity. Before you can actually put things together, you must have the building blocks readily available. Nature is a master in both sets of technologies; it knows how to integrate and how to separate. And the combination of both technologies offers a system, which can address all the major challenges: water, food, health care, housing, energy and jobs. Some concrete examples will clarify this approach.

The provision of betacarotene at the rice farms in Southern Brazil is assured by an integrated farming system. The water for rice is used also for farming spirulina algae, a good source of betacarotene and Vitamin A. The kingdom of plants is complemented with the kingdom of algae. Concretely, if you are a rice farmer you can be a spirulina farmer. Perhaps rice is sold below cost, but if you have rice, then you have water, than you can farm algae at a multiple of revenues you could never get for the rice. Since the waste of rice straw is ideal for edible mushroom farming, the kingdom of fungi follows the kingdom of plants. And the waste of the mushrooms can be used as an additive to cattle feed, which produces manure that can be processed in a digester thanks to bacteria, and generate biogas in the process. These cycles never stop and as Prof. George Chan , the chief designer of these integrated systems remarks, "we now have an excess of nutrients!". The slurry from the digester is ideal for further mineralizing organic matter, as well as eliminating any residual harmful bacteria and then flow into a fish pond where the high alkaline nutrient flow into the water will enrich the feed of the fish! This is an integrated biosystem that generates more than any genetically modified organism (GMO) could ever have achieved. It is the way nature works, and it works at its best. What do you expect after billions of years of evolution.

This approach has been proven repeatedly. The farming of coffee leads to the production of a coffee bean, which ends up in a cup of coffee. In the process some 99.8% of the crop is wasted! No wonder the coffee farmers are suffering from a crisis. It is not the decline in the world market demand or the growth in supply that is a major problem. Our consumption and production system, which only offers value to 0.2% of the product, is questionable. The solution is not the substitution of coffee with something else; the solution is to establish an integrated biosystem which will give value to the 99.8% which was considered waste and without value in the first place. The waste from the farm can be used to grow edible mushrooms, and the waste from the mushrooms can help feed cattle, and the waste . . . it is all the same again. Here we can go one step farther. Indeed, coffee shops in the US can charge 3 US$ per cup of coffee by merely adding hot water to the ground coffee beans. The value of the three grams of coffee beans is a mere tenth of a cent. This is a staggering increase of value by factor 3,000 �. by merely adding boiling water? This implies that, if the mushrooms could generate as much value as the coffee shops do, the total potential of the coffee waste is a factor of 1.5 million? Nature, and its five kingdoms, is creative and human ingenuitiy can be enterprising, but nature is also dramatically predictable. Once the systems are known, then we just need to be inspired by the same logic.

A lot of biotechnology has been directed towards the adaptation of what works in four seasons to what is expected to work in tropical climates. From fish farming to tree farming, it is surprising how little interest has been reserved to the design of the real biotechnologies, making what works locally work better. This is true from the desert to the tropics and from the Andean highlands to the coastal zones of the Antarctic. If we are to define science and technology, research and development, as the ways and means of better responding to people's needs for food, water, health care, shelter, energy and jobs, then it is obvious that there is an urgent need to redefine what we consider biotech, and what we are funding. This is a first framework condition for biotechnology: only build on what you have locally available in biodiversity.

This integrated system emulates nature, but can also, thanks to human ingenuity, do better than nature. Prof. Dr. Carl-G�ran Hed�n, former director of the biology department of the Karolinksa Institute (Sweden), greatly improved the concept of a biorefinery. Paolo Lugari, the director of Las Gaviotas (Colombia), has demonstrated a vastly better way to reforest acid soils. The creativity of these two key ZERI scientists is at its best and shows that if one is keen on improving the situation using what nature has provided, then there are fantastic opportunities up for grabs.

The bridge from the active knowledge of the integrated biosystems to a complete system design incorporating many products and processes which are inspired by nature is a first step in the right direction but more is needed. The missing link is the introduction of a set of technologies known as material separation technologies. The combination of both integration and separation technologies guarantees that the best of nature be used for both production systems based on nature's model, where waste of one species from a specific kingdom is an input for another species which belongs to yet another kingdom.

The engineering schools around the world only focus on how to quickly put things together; they have no idea of how to separate them. The only well known and widely applied technique to dispose of whatever has been manufactured and which has come to the end of its useful life, is either destruction or incineration. When we have no clue of what to do with this used up product, we eliminate it by force. Havoc is generated in the process resulting in air pollution (toxins in the air) and soil pollution (toxins leaching into the soil) but all within the limits of the law which permits polluting less. Instead, the time has come to eliminate the concept of pollution.

Lack of understanding about how to separate raw materials into their distinct components for multiple uses has lead to a most destructive process design. When bauxite is mined, the only interest is aluminum (max 3%). When coffee is farmed, the only interest is the soluble coffee (max 0.2%). When beer is brewed, the only interest is the starch (8%), even protein (26%) is considered waste in a world where 25,000 people die each day from hunger. When trees are felled to make paper (20%) the rest is incinerated (80%). The list is indeed very long. How is it possible that this singular approach dominates our industrial way of thinking?

Take the example of the Tetra Pak aseptic packaging (cardboard cartons for milk, juice etc.). This is an outstanding example of how engineers are capable of producing the best packaging system, which can be collated quickly and reliably, but which causes a dramatic problem at the end of its one life: no one knows how to separate the plastic from the cardboard and from the aluminum.

When bauxite offers 3% aluminum, Tetra Pak offers a staggering 11% aluminum of 99.8% purity. That is an exceptional resource on the condition that one knows how to separate the aluminum from low density polyethylene of food grade quality. Separated, both are worth a lot of money; sticking together, they are a pollutant. Tetra Pak has spent considerable time and money in order to figure out how they could one day separate it but even the best of Swiss and Swedish engineering could only figure out a shredding-freezing-centrifuge solution that separates up to 70% of the packaging. This still leaves 30% for landfills after a high expenditure of energy, not to speak about the need to transport all empty packs to one processing center. Japanese engineers figured out how to subject empty packs to an ultra-sharp knife which cuts off the paper for recycling, leaving the rest for landfill. And a Finnish paper group has agreed to take in 60,000 tons of packaging from Tetra Pak Germany in order to release the pressure on the local landfills and recycling organizations. StoraEnso is only separating the cardboard to be recycled with other waste paper; the rest goes through the same one way process: throw it away.

It took a Colombian researcher no more than one year to crack the problem. Unlike Tetra Pak, which urges the users to rinse out the packaging, Gloria Isabel Ni�o noted that the residual milk or juice in the carton quickly starts to ferment. She noted that micro-organisms were able to loosen the cardboard and the plastic. The solution was right in front of her � the fermented milk and juice delivered the micro-organisms which were keen on working their way through the packaging and within minutes these creatures, invisible to the eye, were able to separate the cardboard from the Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) and from the aluminum, leaving a minimum of four perfectly clean films for recycling.

Originally the solution required warm water to operate quickly. But it did not take Gloria Isabel Ni�o a lot of research to figure out how she could do the same in cold water. Can you imagine the solution? You have to look for a synergy in another kingdom of nature! Once the logic is clear, it is a compelling guideline for being creative. It is a wonderful basis of inspiration and the development of new industrial processes will have never been that simple before. We really are at the brink of a technology revolution, a biotechnology we could only dream of: a combination of at least 3 species from 3 different kingdoms of nature and the interplay gives us unlimited solutions which work perfectly in each local condition, like nowhere else in the world. Just imagine the impact when there are 4 species belonging to 4 kingdoms involved. And what when there are 5!

What we have witnessed is only the beginning of a new era of biotechnologies. The time has come to go beyond the mere design of a product or the design of a process. The time has come to integrate it all into a system, which includes two main blocks of technologies: material separation and integration biosystems. This new approach is not only a revolution for scientists and researchers; it is also a wake-up call for industry.

Footnote

Link to Spirulina. One of many.

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