Sustainability session comment piece: Engineering Green Growth by Professor Calestous Juma

Engineering Green Growth

1.12.11Calestous35goodA classical way for developing countries to promote industrial growth is to adopt existing technologies from around the world, especially from industrialized countries through foreign investment. Many of these technologies, however, were developed with little consideration for their environmental impacts.

The outcome, especially in the newly industrialized countries, has been rapid growth associated with equally high rates of pollution and ecological degradation. A key challenge for developing countries is pursuing economic growth while protecting the environment. This is part of a larger global sustainability challenge that cannot be achieved without effective international cooperation.

Recent trends in a variety of engineering fields have shown the prospects of pursuing ecologically sound technological leapfrogging. For example, the rapid adoption of mobile phones in African countries demonstrates how connectivity can be increased while reducing the ecological footprint of communication. Similarly, the rapid adoption of genetically engineered crops has shown how agricultural production can be enhanced while reducing the use of harmful agricultural chemicals.

Despite international controversy, farmers in developing countries are already bridging the “biotechnology divide,” according to a new report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). “For the first time, developing countries grew more, 52% of global biotech crops in 2012 than industrialized countries at 48%,” the report says.

The Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2012 says this is “contrary to the predictions of critics who, prior to the commercialization of the technology in 1996, prematurely declared that biotech crops were only for industrial countries and would never be accepted and adopted by developing countries.”

Agricultural biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology over the last century. According to the report, “2012 marked an unprecedented 100-fold increase in biotech crop hectarage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 170 million hectares in 2012.” The rapid adoption of transgenic crops is an indication they farmers find them valuable.

These trends are accompanied by more economic benefits accruing to developing countries. During “the period 1996–2011 cumulative economic benefits were high in developing countries at US$49.6 billion compared to US$48.6 billion generated by industrial countries,” the report says.

Other emerging engineering fields such as new material and nanotechnology offer the potential to expand technological options for developing countries to leapfrog into the age of “green innovation.” Nanotechnology is helping engineers to design low-cost solar cells that can be deployed as part of decentralized energy systems. Polymer-based water filtration and desalination will increase access to clean water while reducing energy and material use. New biopolymers for slow release of fertilizers and pesticides offer immense possibilities to reduce the costs of agricultural input and reduce pollution.

International cooperation in engineering education and commercialization of new products is essential in promoting such leapfrogging. A recent example of such successful cooperation is in biopolymer research between Slovenia, Germany, Austria, the United States, and Kenya.

Building the new field of polymer diplomacy started with high-level political commitment from Slovenia and dedicated support from leading researchers in the field. In June 2012 Harvard University and Slovenia hosted the International Conference on Technology and Innovation for Global Development: Schumpeter and Polymer Research.

Addressing the conference, former President of Slovenia, Dr. Danilo Türk, stressed that “optimization of development is possible and that any optimization starts with science, technology and innovation.” Harvard University’s Professor Venkatesh Narayanamurti underscored the importance of investing in the engineering sciences as a foundation for prosperity.

The conference led to the establishment of an international network of polymer scientists and engineers from around the world. The network includes Austen BioInnovation Institute (Akron, USA), Biotechnology Center of Excellence Corporation (Waltham, USA), Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard Kennedy School, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), VDI/VDE Innovation (Germany) , PoliMat, and Polymer Competence Center Leoben (Austria). The network includes enterprises such as Aquafil Group (Slovenia), Kračun, MikroCaps (Slovenia), and Westminster Company (Kenya).

In January 2013 a pioneering Biopolymer Research Programme was created at JKUAT in Kenya.  The programme will focus on research in agriculture, health and environmental management.

This example offers four important lessons. First, it shows the vast potential for harnessing the power of engineering to promote the sustainability transition in developing countries. Second, it underscores the role that universities and the private sector play in technological leapfrogging. Third, the youth—especially in universities—are the best agents of change and should be the focus of future engineering for sustainability efforts. Finally, it demonstrates that a lot can be achieved quite quickly with commitment and dedicated champions.

by Calestous Juma (@calestous) – GGCS sustainability session speaker and panelist

Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011). He was a member of the judging panel of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

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One Response to Sustainability session comment piece: Engineering Green Growth by Professor Calestous Juma

  1. Martin says:

    Dear Mr Juma,

    I am surprised to read in your first paragraph “Many of these technologies, however, were developed with little consideration for their environmental impacts.” and then go on to talk of GMOs as a solution for development in Africa. The fact that some farmers are adopting them might be a hint that farmers find them valuable, but the same can be said of many aspects of the traditional development model that, as you know, has many “negative externalities”. Also, the fact that the companies commercializing GMO spend billions yearly promoting their products could be biasing the farmers’ perception.

    The fact that 49 billion profit was made in developing countries is hardly good news. As these are patented technologies, you can expect something close to 0% of these benefits to stay in these countries. They are also expensive inputs, threatening to heavily indebt farmers leading to often dramatic social consequences. ~This is evidenced by the huge wave of farmer suicides in India, who had in common of growing Bt cotton, which failed spectacularly while organic cotton farms are thriving. There have also been further shortcomings of GMOs, with most GMO farmers in the US declaring having glyphosate resisting weeds, meaning they have to apply more agrochemicals.

    I do agree with you on the potential contribution of science and engineering to agriculture, but there are alternatives to GMO, such as conventional breeding technologies that have already produced drought resistant crops in Africa, developed by African labs and universities. Furthermore, the agenda in favour of GMOs is led by corporations who have all interest to standardise the global food system, and I am sure 99% of GMO plantations are monocultures of the likes of soy or maize. This is exactly what has been killing our biodiversity which is lost forever and has given us a myriad of environmental problems which we are yet to deal with. Agroecology already offers whole system management techniques which effectively reduce the use of agrochemicals and increase yields while managing the environment in a healthier way. You will agree I hope that it is not only about “more science” but also more participative, holistic, environmentally and small farmer friendly science.

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