Bacteria to the rescue

OECD Observer

Did you know that life on earth would not be possible without micro-organisms? What is currently overlooked by the public and which could play a substantial role in the future are the different applications that could be made of micro-organisms, especially in the agricultural and energy fields. 

Take food, for instance. Some 9 billion people are expected to live on earth by 2050, compared with 7 billion today, but as the global population grows, the amount of land and water will remain unchanged. Most people will live in cities, so trade will be key, as will conserving produce in transit. Already today, a third of farm produce fails to reach the market due to disease or pests. Genetically engineered biocontrol agents (BCAs) could help address this by increasing plants natural resistance.

For energy, micro-organisms offer a sustainable way forward, which would be fitting since oil and gas are fossilised organisms. Population growth could spell trouble for many water-sapping biofuels, causing people to shift land-use back to food production. However, microbiology can at the same time give biofuels a boost, such as by enabling the use of algae to produce renewable fuels that can be cultivated on non-arable land, in wastewater streams and some marine waters, for instance.

These examples of what 21st century biotechnology could offer by using micro-organisms were the subject of policy discussions held in 2012, which form the basis of this book. Although technical, Biosafety and the Environmental Uses of Micro-Organisms provides a useful insight into how science and micro-biology in particular can help address world-wide challenges such as global warming, population growth and water and food security. Bacteria and viruses may be health risks, but they are essential for our future too.

OECD (2015), Biosafety and the Environmental Uses of Micro-Organisms: Conference Proceedings, OECD Publishing.

©OECD Observer No 302, April 2015

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