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petrochemicals_factoryAs the 21st century began, political figures, industry experts, and people across the globe realized the problems of this century are not the same as those of past centuries. The 19th and 20th century saw humanity expanding its horizons, cultivating stable international relationships, and developing game changing technologies. Humanities innovations created massive economic booms and population growth especially later in the 20th century, which generated the problems challenges of the next era. With technological advancements causing increasing life expectancy, and lower infant mortality rates, and the subsequent growing population sizes the expansionist thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer viable due to resource limitations. However, the current global market’s enormous demand for products will not be diminishing anytime soon.

 

iStock_000017034509XLargeThe challenge of the 21st century is to develop technologies to better harness our planet’s potential, and sustainably produce the same products pioneered by our forefathers. One of the main ways to create sustainable production is by taming ecosystems and engineering them for our needs through the practice of farming. However, farming typically requires arable land which is becoming limited, and with climbing global population sizes most if not all of this land is needed for food production. In 2009 the Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO) reported a record number of starving people around the globe exceeding 1 billion.1 This was largely exacerbated by biofuels and bioproducts production which has consumed crop lands and raised market food prices.

 


 

AMAZON RAINFOREST DEFORESTATION, BRAZIL - 1989As of 2004, the International Energy Agency reported 14 million hectares or about 35 million acres of cropland converted to biofuels production.2 These crop field conversions cause increases in food commodity prices which then justify expansion of existing croplands, yielding the destruction of forests and other natural ecosystems in many developing countries. One of the most common crops for biofuels production is corn. While the FAO reports that corn can remove 1.8 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year, it also reports that clearing farmland from forests can generate 600-1000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare.2 This is because the slash and burn techniques used by the developing world in clearing land generate harmful greenhouse gases, which the Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change reports account for 20% of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions.3 Therefore, the expansion of crop lands to accommodate biofuels and bio-products production may take up to 500 years to sequester the carbon dioxide created in the conversion of land, even excluding the carbon dioxide created from biofuel usage. Even if this expansion of cropland is prevented, the resulting impacts would certainly include famine and social unrest in the developing world.

 

Microalgae in FlasksTherefore, our current biofuel production is very damaging to the environment and global sustainability goals, primarily due to biofuel’s dependence on arable land. Algae however are not limited by the same constraints as terrestrial crops and can offer substantial benefits to the cause of sustainable production. While efficient algae production is primarily limited to warmer temperatures, it does not require the use of arable land. In fact, much of the current algae production exists in rural arid environments due to the lack of sun obscuring vegetation and lower risk of pond contamination from wild algal species. The lack of a dependence on land quality means we can produce algae for sustainability efforts, without impacting the available farmable land. Furthermore, since the strains of algae targeted for industrial applications are not the same as those used for food and use less stringent growth restrictions, they are not likely to compete for land with food production or affect food prices in any way. Algae may also be produced in the process of cleaning water from both the environment and human waste sources.

 

In conventional wastewater treatment processes, the clean water that leaves the treatment facilities may contain large amounts of natural biological molecules like nitrates, nitrites, ammonia, and phosphates. These are generally considered harmless, but can cause very rapid growth of bacteria, algae, and other aquatic plants. If the nutrients are high enough in concentration they can cause blooms which will have negative effects on the environment. Algae production may be added to these existing water treatment operations to provide a final polishing step, or it can be tied to large ecosystems such as lakes to try and correct long term contamination effects. In both of these ways, algae are not only being farmed on non-arable land, but may also be correcting environmental contamination issues spurring from other industrial processes or population density. Algae production is therefore a promising alternative to conventional farming techniques, which may negatively impact food markets or the environment through their application.

 

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References:

1. Office of the Director, A. D. E. D.; Department, E. a. S. D., High Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050. 2009.
2. Chief, E. P. P. a. S. B.; FAO, C. D.-. THE STATE OF FOOD AND AGRICULTURE 2008. 2008.
3. Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning,; Z. Chen, M. M., K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller, Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC 2007.