Photo credit: Chris Williamson
“Successful healthcare means the freedom to carry out life in the absence of disease.” – Stephen Friend, Co-founder of Sage Bionetworks
Resonating throughout the four-day conference of the United Nations and Digital Healthcare Panel at GAPSUMMIT 2018 at Cambridge University, these words opened the discussions, as well as the purpose, of the direction our worldwide healthcare is headed at the Global Gap Summit. This year, the summit was joined by 100 young leaders of tomorrow, representing different areas of research and countries, together with leading bio-industry experts, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations.
The primary question is what can the future of biotechnology bring? Will it promote a sustainable future, increase equality, and enable access to education and healthcare? Can it increase the efficacy of our global economy?
During the conference, Fabrizio Hochschild, Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Coordination at the United Nations, emphasised that we need to work together to “kick start” a new trajectory, and that the proper use of biotechnology may be the answer to its creation.
In the field of biotechnology, we are seeing immense improvements in critical areas such as healthcare and agriculture. In agriculture, biotechnology has been used to improve the efficacy of pest control, harvesting, gross storage, transport and more. Mr Hochschild believes that these great movements have the potential to continue to decrease global malnutrition, reduce the speed of climate change, and transform agricultural value chains.
In the healthcare industry, biotechnology has the potential to strengthen the health and wellbeing of those who fall into the most vulnerable population groups. For example, digital healthcare can create affordable and accessible diagnostic devices that can be deployed in countries and regions that have limited medical services. These developments are believed to result in a “…cascading effect…” to impact on other Sustainable Development Goals, such as access to Education and Gender Equality.
To reach biotechnology’s potential, we need to address the biggest trends and challenges it is facing in digital healthcare and agriculture. The Digital Healthcare Panel; Dr Margret Zeigler, Executive Director Global Harvest Initiative; Dr Michael May, VP Public Affairs FutureGene Gap; Professor Baron Marc Von Montagu, Emeritus Professor Ahent University; and Sir Peter Kendal Chair, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board; discussed the key barriers they currently face and the technologies they believe to be the future of their respective fields.
Key Challenges in biotechnology:
- Resource Efficiency
- Depletion of Natural Resources
- Use and Exploitation of Nature
- Distribution of Monetary Resources
Key Trends in biotechnology:
Precision technology combines sensors, AI and imaging with real time data analytics to help farmers make smart choices and improve output, while reducing waste, water and chemicals. Sir Peter Kendal Chair of Agricultural and Horticulture Development Board claims that there is a shortage of this technology in agriculture which presents a growing need. The potential lies in treating a selection of high impact areas.
Though precision technology holds immense promise in farming, it is far from successful in developing regions. For this reason, it is important to remember the context of technological infrastructure before new technology placement, says Professor Montagu.
In relation to Context Placement, Professor Montagu believes that plant science has an important place in developing countries. It is predicted that the creation of new seeds, with equal nutrients and vitamins compared to non-modified seeds, will have a positive impact on supply to meet the increasing demand for food that the world will see through the growing population of sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr Michael May, VP of Public Affairs FutureGene Gap also proposes that molecular biology has potential for improvements in pest control, for example; through the creation of disease-resistant crops. This would mean genetic modifications to ecosystems by equipping our natural resources with DNA that is more resistant towards hazardous compounds, thereby improving life-cycles and sustainability.
Perhaps one of the most exciting technological areas – 3D fibre printing is growing towards having a substantial effect on easing climate change. Fibre printing is becoming more mainstream with many developments already underway. Major cities including Dubai have already adopted 3D printed skyscraper solutions. The construction industry has also adopted carbon-fibre based options, and increasingly more countries are banning plastic use. Carbon fibre alternatives are expected to have a significant impact on sustainability and create an entirely new value chain in warmer regions.
Like all technologies, there are risks that coincide with implementation. The development of biotechnology reduces inequality by encouraging women and children to part take in the economy. However, lack of proper management can lead to a contradictory effect. Mr Hochschild believes that greater inequality can occur if proper means of security, competitive fairness and transparency are not ensured. There is also a risk of re-engineered pathogens and accidental releases, which requires proper management and security. These risks are known as the “Frontier Issues,” and commonly occur with the release of new knowledge and technological breakthroughs.
The future of biotechnology will undoubtedly lead to a cascading effect in both healthcare and agriculture. And although it has great potential, developments in biotechnology come with new risks. For this reason, we, as companies, individuals and organisations, need to assess the direction of our operations. We must navigate ourselves through the frontier by holding onto a global end goal, to engage all stakeholders in peaceful co-existence, progress, and increase standards of living and freedom.
Cecilia Johansson is an industrial engineer with one foot in business tech and another in corporate sustainability. She strives towards ensuring that corporations grow together with society.