Tackling the scarcity of resources

One of the biggest challenges facing humanity today is reducing our ecological footprint. Can research in areas like clean meat and precision agriculture help us limit our environmental impact?


Overview

Humanity is facing a global crisis. The latest results from the National Footprint Accounts - a globally recognised ecological footprint dataset - indicate that our ecological footprint is already 1.7 Earths. In other words, we are currently using nature 1.7[1] times faster than our planet's ecosystems can regenerate. And this global ecological ‘overshoot’ continues to grow.

The impact of this was clearly illustrated in a report released in May 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which highlighted that 1 million of the world’s 8 million species were now at risk of extinction.[2]

Since 1800, the world population has grown sevenfold, surpassing 7.6 billion, and the global economy has grown 30-fold.[3] But it has really been in the last 50 years that economic development has driven a phenomenal increase in the demand for energy, land and water that is fundamentally changing Earth’s operating system. This phenomenon is known as the Great Acceleration. 

It is economic development and the growth of the world’s middle classes, rather than simply population rise, that is dramatically influencing the rate of change. This growth has improved the lives of billions of people. Global average life expectancy is over 70. Diseases such as smallpox have been eradicated and others look set to follow soon: mumps, measles, rubella, polio. More children reach adulthood and fewer women die during childbirth. Poverty is at an historic low.

Did You Know?

1.7

Earths - we are currently using nature 1.7 times faster than our planet's ecosystems can regenerate.

7x

population growth: since 1800, the world population has grown sevenfold, surpassing 7.6 billion.

20%

of the Amazon rainforest has disappeared in just 50 years.

Scarcity of resources Visual Scarcity of resources Visual

However, these health, knowledge and standard-of-living improvements have come at a huge cost to the stability of the natural systems that sustain us. Our impact has now reached a scale at which it interferes profoundly with Earth’s atmosphere, ice sheets, ocean, forests, land and biodiversity.[4]

Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius – with climate change already impacting nature from the level of ecosystems to that of genetics.[5] In April 2018, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached an average of 410 parts per million (ppm) across the entire month – the highest level in at least 800,000 years.[6] Rainforests are shrinking: almost 20% of the Amazon, referred to as the lungs of the planet, has disappeared in just 50 years.[7]

To tackle these challenges, it is vital that we understand the biggest threats to nature so that we can better protect it. Climate change is certainly a growing threat, but according to the latest Living Planet Report and the IPBES report, the main drivers of biodiversity decline continue to be the overexploitation of species, agriculture and land conversion – all driven by runaway human consumption. 

What’s currently happening in this field?

There is no one field of research tackling the scarcity of resources. Indeed, research in almost every area of science, from atmospheric physics to Artificial Intelligence could profoundly shape how we maintain Earth’s natural resources, and reduce humanity’s impact. The below gives a quick snapshot of just a couple of areas which are of particular interest to us:

Clean meat

Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife. While meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.[8]  Finding a viable - and palatable - alternative to meat could therefore have huge implications for tackling scarcity of resources and reducing our impact on the planet.

Clean meat, also known as ‘clean protein’, ‘cultured meat’, and ‘lab-grown meat’, is meat grown from real animal cells through a process known as cellular agriculture. It eliminates the need to breed, raise, and slaughter animals for food en-masse, reducing the heavy environmental impact of factory farming.

Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture encapsulates everything that makes the practice of farming more accurate and controlled when it comes to the growing of crops and raising livestock. A key component of this farm management approach is the use of information technology and a wide array of items such as GPS guidance, control systems, sensors, robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, variable rate technology, GPS-based soil sampling, automated hardware, telematics, and software. 

The primary aim of precision agriculture is to ensure profitability, efficiency, and sustainability while protecting the environment. This is achieved by using the big data gathered by this technology to guide both immediate and future decisions on everything from where in the field to plant a particular crop, to when it’s best to apply chemical, fertilizer or seed.

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