If biotech follows the same arc of growth as agriculture or computer technology, it could transform the world.
For all of our shortcomings, humans are very good at getting better. The ability to refine and improve our methods and technologies is a defining feature of our species. For thousands of years, we found more effective and efficient ways of working with raw resources like wood and metal, turning them into tools and technologies that get ever more advanced. Now that we’re learning to innovate with the complex biological machinery invented by Nature, recent history in other industries suggests the rate of growth could be transformational for everything from manufacturing to medicine to food.
During the millennia when humans first stewarded landscapes and livestock, it was in part by way of observation and selection. Seeds from a crop that grows plentifully and reliably are saved; an animal that produces and behaves well is favored. Over time, we domesticated the species and strains that worked best for our needs, and operating in this way we reached the limits of growth based on the knowledge and tools available at the time. For centuries, yields for crops like corn remained relatively steady.
Everything changed in the middle of the 20th century. Advances in synthetic fertilizers and strain selection and other tools of modern agriculture kicked off an ongoing period of immense growth in the output of agriculture. Worldwide gross output increased by 60 percent from 1938 to the late 1950s — since then, it has more than doubled again. Today, on average, the world produces nearly three times as much cereal grains as we could get from the same area of land in 1961. Since 1950, there has been a more than five-fold increase in overall corn yields in the United States alone.
Things really got cooking in the 1970s, during the first period of skyrocketing agricultural output, called the “Green Revolution”. Advances in chemical fertilizers, strain selection, pesticides and other technologies were plugged into an increasingly globalized crops and commodities market, which led to improving crop yields around the globe, and the ability to feed growing populations. More recent improvements have come about through new technologies like robotics and genetic editing, but the returns these provide are diminishing. From 2011 to 2019, the overall amount of global agricultural output was 6% less than it would have been if we had kept the same growth rate of the decade prior.
This could be described as the top of an ‘S curve’, which typifies the growth of new technologies that proliferate explosively during a period of innovation and discovery, then level off as adoption slows and a new ‘normal’ is established.
These ‘S curves’ are most often associated with computer technologies, a history that almost overlaps with the Green Revolution. After the first building-sized mainframes of the 1950s came the desktop personal computer in the 1970s and 80s, mostly used by researchers and hobbyists. Then everyday people started using them in the early 1990s, and by the mid-2000’s, the internet becomes popular and now everyone has a computer in their pocket.
The speed of innovation around personal computing has seemingly tapered a bit after years of boom and bust cycles. This is in part because of the limitations of physics — for many years, computer chips got exponentially smaller and faster, roughly doubling in speed and halving in size every two years, known as Moore’s Law. But scientists and engineers can only squeeze so much performance out of finite materials, and may be approaching their limits (at least for now). But that is not the end of innovation — in areas like VR, social media, AI, and other applications and sub fields are enjoying their own smaller S curves, perhaps smaller than the arc of the microchip or personal computer, but then again, maybe not.
There is a rough analogy to agriculture, too, where slowing technological advancements also effect the rate of growth, which means higher prices and other knock on effects. Growth is crucial, so every effort is made to sustain it. Companies like Monsanto edit the genes of crops to create resistance to pests and to add efficiencies, as minute as the thickness of a cell wall, to eke out small gains in growth. Even that small amount can be crucial at large-scales in food and commodities like corn or soy, but the overall pace of innovation and growth in output have not been seeing quite the gains they did in the middle of last century. The next development that can spur growth to meet food demands may come from a lab striving to squeeze more yield from the standbys like corn, or it may come from somewhere totally unexpected.Innovation is often what sparks the growth, along with the formation of infrastructure and supply chains to support it. New fertilizers enable commodity-scale markets for crops like corn; smaller, faster computer chips enable a nearly complete worldwide distribution of computers; a newly studied organism creates the ability to produce novel enzymes, materials or chemicals that serve mass market needs far more sustainably than the status quo.
Indeed, biotechnology seems to be at the beginning of its own S Curve. Biotech is all about studying and working with living systems, in some cases even treating them a bit like computers. Maybe it’s shouldn’t be a surprise if it follows a similar growth trajectory.
In this arena, liquid fermentation — which traditionally uses yeast for everything from citric acid to alcohol at industrial scales — might be roughly analogous to corn or the personal computer, a ‘slowing’ technology that is crawling to the top of its S curve. Meanwhile, advances in precision fermentation, new and more sophisticated gene editing techniques, and the growing diversity of organisms that science and industry can now learn from and work with are combining to open up new landscape of innovation for bio-based materials, products, and manufacturing methods. We’re just at the beginning of a period of discovery with biotech, and there’s no telling what that could mean for the ways we make what we need and use.
Working with biology means building products and processes that can be compatible with nature. But it is important to note that there have historically been consequences to the massive periods of growth since the industrial revolution. In agriculture, increased yields have come at the cost of crop diversity, and a switch to monoculture as well as enclosure by companies that copyright seeds or code their eventual obsolescence into their very DNA. You can also see this in the explosion of computer technologies has created the fastest growing waste streams in the world. Many of us take inspiration from the vision of industry innovators like those who saw computers from an idea to a world-shaping technology that transformed the way we interact with one another, or who managed to develop and distribute the means of feeding our growing world. Biotech can set an example too, not just by transforming the way we make the things we need and consume, but to do it equitably and in harmony with Nature.
If biotechnology is about to grow exponentially, can it change this aspect of the innovation cycle? If so, we may soon look back on a big bang moment, when a diverse range of new products and applications, based in biology, marked a shift of global consumer culture into better alignment with the planet.