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Lisa Dyson: A forgotten Space Age technology could change how we grow food

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We're heading for a world population of 10 billion people -- but what will we all eat? Lisa Dyson rediscovered an idea developed by NASA in the 1960s for deep-space travel, and it could be a key to reinventing how we grow food.

- Sustainability crusader
Lisa Dyson thinks a new class of crops might help us reinvent agriculture -- and feed the world. Full bio

Imagine you are a part
of a crew of astronauts
00:13
traveling to Mars or some distant planet.
00:18
The travel time could take a year
00:21
or even longer.
00:24
The space on board and the resources
00:26
would be limited.
00:29
So you and the crew would have
to figure out how to produce food
00:31
with minimal inputs.
00:35
What if you could bring with you
just a few packets of seeds,
00:38
and grow crops in a matter of hours?
00:42
And what if those crops
would then make more seeds,
00:46
enabling you to feed the entire crew
00:50
with just those few packets of seeds
for the duration of the trip?
00:53
Well, the scientists at NASA actually
figured out a way to do this.
00:58
What they came up with
was actually quite interesting.
01:03
It involved microorganisms,
01:06
which are single-celled organisms.
01:08
And they also used hydrogen from water.
01:10
The types of microbes that they used
were called hydrogenotrophs,
01:13
and with these hydrogenotrophs,
you can create a virtuous carbon cycle
01:17
that would sustain life
onboard a spacecraft.
01:22
Astronauts would breathe out
carbon dioxide,
01:26
that carbon dioxide would then
be captured by the microbes
01:30
and converted into a nutritious,
carbon-rich crop.
01:34
The astronauts would then eat
that carbon-rich crop
01:38
and exhale the carbon out
in the form of carbon dioxide,
01:41
which would then be captured
by the microbes,
01:45
to create a nutritious crop,
01:48
which then would be exhaled
in the form of carbon dioxide
01:49
by the astronauts.
01:52
So in this way, a closed-loop
carbon cycle is created.
01:54
So why is this important?
01:57
We need carbon to survive as humans,
02:00
and we get our carbon from food.
02:02
On a long space journey,
02:05
you simply wouldn't be able to pick up
any carbon along the way,
02:06
so you'd have to figure out
how to recycle it on board.
02:10
This is a clever solution, right?
02:13
But the thing is, that research
didn't really go anywhere.
02:16
We haven't yet gone to Mars.
We haven't yet gone to another planet.
02:20
And this was actually done
in the '60s and '70s.
02:24
So a colleague of mine,
Dr. John Reed, and I,
02:27
were interested, actually,
in carbon recycling here on Earth.
02:30
We wanted to come up
with technical solutions
02:34
to address climate change.
02:36
And we discovered this research
02:38
by reading some papers published
in the '60s -- 1967 and later --
02:41
articles about this work.
02:45
And we thought it was a really good idea.
02:48
So we said, well, Earth
is actually like a spaceship.
02:50
We have limited space
and limited resources,
02:54
and on Earth, we really do
need to figure out
02:57
how to recycle our carbon better.
03:00
So we had the idea,
03:03
can we take some of these
NASA-type ideas and apply them
03:05
to our carbon problem here on Earth?
03:12
Could we cultivate
these NASA-type microbes
03:14
in order to make
valuable products here on Earth?
03:17
We started a company to do it.
03:21
And in that company, we discovered
that these hydrogenotrophs --
03:23
which I'll actually call
nature's supercharged carbon recyclers --
03:28
we found that they are a powerful
class of microbes
03:32
that had been largely overlooked
and understudied,
03:35
and that they could make
some really valuable products.
03:39
So we began cultivating these products,
these microbes, in our lab.
03:42
We found that we can make
essential amino acids from carbon dioxide
03:47
using these microbes.
03:50
And we even made a protein-rich meal
03:52
that has an amino acid profile
similar to what you might find
03:55
in some animal proteins.
04:00
We began cultivating them even further,
04:02
and we found that we can make oil.
04:04
Oils are used to manufacture
many products.
04:06
We made an oil that was similar
to a citrus oil,
04:09
which can be used for flavoring
and for fragrances,
04:13
but it also can be used
as a biodegradable cleaner
04:16
or even as a jet fuel.
04:18
And we made an oil
that's similar to palm oil.
04:21
Palm oil is used to manufacture
04:24
a wide range of consumer
and industrial goods.
04:26
We began working with manufacturers
to scale up this technology,
04:30
and we're currently working with them
04:35
to bring some of these products to market.
04:37
We believe this type of technology
can indeed help us
04:40
profitably recycle carbon dioxide
into valuable products --
04:43
something that's beneficial
for the planet
04:47
but also beneficial for business.
04:49
That's what we're doing today.
04:52
But tomorrow, this type of technology
and using these types of microbes
04:54
actually could help us
do something even greater
04:58
if we take it to the next level.
05:01
We believe that this type of technology
05:04
can actually help us address
an issue with agriculture
05:06
and allow us to create
a type of agriculture that's sustainable,
05:09
that will allow us to scale
to meet the demands of tomorrow.
05:14
And why might we need
a sustainable agriculture?
05:18
Well, actually, it is estimated
05:22
that the population will reach
about 10 billion by 2050,
05:24
and we're projecting that we will need
to increase food production
05:29
by 70 percent.
05:33
In addition, we will need many more
resources and raw materials
05:35
to make consumer goods
and industrial goods.
05:38
So how will we scale to meet that demand?
05:41
Well, modern agriculture simply cannot
sustainably scale to meet that demand.
05:44
There are a number of reasons why.
05:50
One of them is that modern agriculture
is one of the largest emitters
05:53
of greenhouse gases.
05:58
In fact, it emits more greenhouse gases
05:59
than our cars, our trucks, our planes
06:03
and our trains combined.
06:06
Another reason is that modern ag
simply takes up a whole lot of land.
06:09
We have cleared 19.4 million square miles
for crops and livestock.
06:14
What does that look like?
06:21
Well, that's roughly the size
of South America and Africa combined.
06:23
Let me give you a specific example.
06:29
In Indonesia, an amount
of virgin rainforest was cleared
06:31
totaling the size
of approximately Ireland,
06:36
between 2000 and 2012.
06:39
Just think of all
of the species, the diversity,
06:42
that was removed in the process,
06:45
whether plant life, insects
or animal life.
06:47
And a natural carbon sink
was also removed.
06:51
So let me make this real for you.
06:54
This clearing happened primarily
to make room for palm plantations.
06:56
And as I mentioned before,
07:01
palm oil is used
to manufacture many products.
07:02
In fact, it is estimated
that over 50 percent of consumer products
07:06
are manufactured using palm oil.
07:10
And that includes things
like ice cream, cookies ...
07:13
It includes cooking oils.
07:17
It also includes detergents,
lotions, soaps.
07:19
You and I both
probably have numerous items
07:23
in our kitchens and our bathrooms
07:28
that were manufactured using palm oil.
07:30
So you and I are direct beneficiaries
of removed rainforests.
07:33
Modern ag has some problems,
07:39
and we need solutions
if we want to scale sustainably.
07:41
I believe that microbes
can be a part of the answer --
07:47
specifically, these supercharged
carbon recyclers.
07:51
These supercharged carbon recyclers,
07:55
like plants, serve as
the natural recyclers
07:58
in their ecosystems where they thrive.
08:02
And they thrive in exotic places on Earth,
08:04
like hydrothermal vents and hot springs.
08:06
In those ecosystems,
they take carbon and recycle it
08:09
into the nutrients needed
for those ecosystems.
08:12
And they're rich in nutrients,
08:15
such as oils and proteins,
minerals and carbohydrates.
08:17
And actually, microbes are already
an integral part of our everyday lives.
08:24
If you enjoy a glass of pinot noir
on a Friday night,
08:29
after a long, hard work week,
08:33
then you are enjoying
a product of microbes.
08:35
If you enjoy a beer
from your local microbrewery --
08:39
a product of microbes.
08:41
Or bread, or cheese, or yogurt.
08:43
These are all products of microbes.
08:47
But the beauty and power associated
with these supercharged carbon recyclers
08:49
lies in the fact that they can
actually produce in a matter of hours
08:55
versus months.
09:00
That means we can make crops
09:01
much faster than we're making them today.
09:03
They grow in the dark,
09:07
so they can grow in any season
09:09
and in any geography and any location.
09:11
They can grow in containers
that require minimal space.
09:15
And we can get to a type
of vertical agriculture.
09:19
Instead of our traditional
horizontal agriculture
09:23
that requires so much land,
09:26
we can scale vertically,
09:27
and as a result
produce much more product per area.
09:29
If we implement this type of approach
and use these carbon recyclers,
09:36
then we wouldn't have to remove
any more rainforests
09:40
to make the food and the goods
that we consume.
09:43
Because, at a large scale,
09:48
you can actually make 10,000 times
more output per land area
09:50
than you could -- for instance,
if you used soybeans --
09:56
if you planted soybeans
on that same area of land
09:59
over a period of a year.
10:02
Ten thousand times
over a period of a year.
10:04
So this is what I mean
by a new type of agriculture.
10:08
And this is what I mean
by developing a system
10:12
that allows us to sustainably scale
to meet the demands of 10 billion.
10:15
And what would be the products
of this new type of agriculture?
10:22
Well, we've already made a protein meal,
10:26
so you can imagine something
similar to a soybean meal,
10:28
or even cornmeal, or wheat flour.
10:31
We've already made oils,
10:34
so you can imagine something
similar to coconut oil
10:35
or olive oil or soybean oil.
10:39
So this type of crop can
actually produce the nutrients
10:42
that would give us pasta and bread,
10:46
cakes, nutritional items of many sorts.
10:48
Furthermore, since oil is used
to manufacture multiple other goods,
10:52
industrial products and consumer products,
10:59
you can imagine being able to make
detergents, soaps, lotions, etc.,
11:01
using these types of crops.
11:06
Not only are we running out of space,
11:09
but if we continue to operate
under the status quo
11:12
with modern agriculture,
11:15
we run the risk of robbing our progeny
of a beautiful planet.
11:16
But it doesn't have to be this way.
11:22
We can imagine a future of abundance.
11:24
Let us create systems that keep
planet Earth, our spaceship,
11:28
not only from not crashing,
11:34
but let us also develop systems
and ways of living
11:36
that will be beneficial
to the lives of ourselves
11:40
and the 10 billion that will
be on this planet by 2050.
11:44
Thank you very much.
11:48
(Applause)
11:50

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About the speaker:

Lisa Dyson - Sustainability crusader
Lisa Dyson thinks a new class of crops might help us reinvent agriculture -- and feed the world.

Why you should listen

Dr. Lisa Dyson is the CEO of Kiverdi, a technology company with a mission to develop innovations that go beyond traditional agriculture to help us feed and power a growing world, one that will include 3 billion more people by 2050. Kiverdi's bio-process uses natural microbes to convert CO2 into the proteins and oils that are the same as the ones we use today for sustenance and to power industry.

Dyson holds a PhD in physics from MIT and has done research in bioengineering, energy and physics at Stanford University, UC Berkeley and Princeton University, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, where she received a master of science, and has degrees in physics and mathematics from Brandeis University.

Dyson has broad business experience developing corporate strategies in a number of industries including in chemicals, packaging, energy, automotive, telecommunications and non-profits. While at The Boston Consulting Group, Dyson worked with executives at multi-national corporations to help them solve strategic business problems including cutting operational costs, expanding internationally, franchising, developing governance structures, designing effective organizations and developing market entry strategies.

More profile about the speaker
Lisa Dyson | Speaker | TED.com