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The case of West Africa

In order to get a clearer picture of the biophysical base and the human impacts on it, including brief comments on associated economic activities, it is helpful to "go down" in scale from a global to a continental or even to a sub-continental or regional scale. For a first overview one could adopt the zonal classification of "landscape belts" (Landschaftsgürtel), which can be used as an expression of the existing combined attributes of climate, vegetation, soil, and land use.

In West Africa, this sequence of "landscape zones" extends from the rain forest to the desert in a fairly regular fashion. An analysis linking this major biophysical pattern with corresponding patterns of land use and economic development poses some interesting questions. Political boundaries have cut right across this ecological zonation, usually encompassing several landscape belts within each state. Development of land use, including industry, has been strongly influenced by history, i.e. mainly by events in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods. Within this biophysical donation, agricultural activities and mining industries play a more dominant role than manufacturing. Similarly, rapid urbanization has influenced the patterns of development.

West Africa belongs, broadly speaking, to the group of less and least developed countries, although some states such as oil-rich Nigeria or the resources-rich Gabon and Côte d'Ivoire have been (erratically) nearing the level of the newly industrialized economies (NIEs). In many African countries, economic development has been assisted by foreign aid programmes. Much of the rest has been driven by natural resource development projects controlled by large foreign based oil and/or mining companies. There is no history or deep-rooted tradition of political democracy. Ethnic and tribal identities are stronger than national loyalties. "Checks and balances" are weak. Government, when based on parliamentary forms, is likely to be single party in practice. The alternative is military dictatorship. Owing to the political situation (in Liberia, the Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, etc.), so far only very limited chances for any eco-restructuring exist.

In a few of the better-functioning African economies, industrial activities cover the whole chain of production from the extraction of raw materials to materials processing and manufacturing and final waste disposal. Industrial enterprises are the main consumers of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, including mineral ores, energy, and agricultural products in all forms. Industrial processes often produce toxic wastes, gases, and other effluents. Furthermore, many goods imported from the North cannot be recycled and become difficult or even hazardous wastes.

Land resources and land use in West Africa

For many West African nations, access to land resources is important for sustainable development. Land resources provide the basis of most human activities, including the management of soil, water, and energy. In urban areas, in particular, access to land is becoming difficult because of growing conflicts between industry, housing, transportation, and recreational needs. But in rural areas too the increasing use of fragile, marginal land calls for improved planning and management of land resources. As a first step to combat unsustainable practices, a sound land-use policy, with improved land tenure structures, possibly even introducing a more efficient land registry system, will be important.

Population growth in Africa is generally correlated strongly with the expansion and intensification of agricultural land use. Often this results in deforestation, if not desertification. On the other hand, studies (e.g. Zaba 1991) have shown that population density and growth may rank well below economic factors causing environmental degradation. However, these relationships are by no means clear. They often depend on rather complex local circumstances and require further situational assessments of considerable subtlety.

Whereas there are a number of very well-documented studies on the Amazonian forests (e.g. Dickinson 1987; Fearn side 1990), we know very little about the corresponding African situation. One of the marked differences is the much more limited impact (or even absence) of livestock farming or ranching in the cleared forests. This is mainly because of the adverse effects of the tsetse fly, carrier of "sleeping sickness" (trypanosomiasis) in tropical Africa.

So far, only very few comparative aggregate studies have researched the role of environmental driving forces in Africa on a statistical/empirical basis. Most micro-type studies have been of a more descriptive nature, often in relation to population carrying capacity and landscape transformation. Perhaps the UNU project on Population Growth, Land Transformation and Environmental Change (PLEC) and also UNU's Research and Training Centre on Natural Resources in Africa (INRA) will provide some further insights into regional and local dynamics of environmental land-use/ land cover changes leading in many cases to land degradation.

Some environmental aspects

Only a small number of African problems can be mentioned explicitly here.

Air pollution

In many urban areas, air pollution resulting from electric power generation, transportation, local industries, and domestic cooking is already a major problem. In addition to the normal sources, atmospheric pollution is also the result of widespread forest-clearing operations, especially forest burning by small holding farmers and bigger agricultural enterprises.

Another source is the large-scale transportation and deposition of dust by desert winds. Estimates of the quantities of dust moved are quite large: 13 million tonnes per season, mainly from the Saharan and Sahelian zones, are deposited on land all the way across the Atlantic. This material not only "fertilizes" the Latin American and Caribbean forest belt; it also provides trace nutrients (including phosphorus) that permit the growth of oceanic plankton (Morales 1979).

Water pollution

Through clearing of vegetation and the transformation and intensification of land use, both for ploughing and for the accumulation of "bricks and mortar" (urbanization), surface runoff has increased and a number of river beds have become significantly silted. In the bigger urban centres the industrial impact on the hydrological cycle is quite marked. The dumping of liquid and solid wastes of all kinds has polluted the urban water supply almost everywhere. Waterborne wastes include industrial waste water from timber and paper-pulp mills, mercury pollution from gold mining, pollution from leather tanning, and pollution from cellulose-based industries. There are presumably significant saline water wastes from oil drilling and pumping operations in Angola and Nigeria.

Solid waste

Data on solid waste are very scanty. Pollution by solid waste is generally high in countries with major mining operations (e.g. iron ore in Liberia and Mauritania, tin/columbite mining in Nigeria, gold mining in Ghana, or bauxite mining in Guinea and Cameroon). These operations cause major potential environmental hazards but they also often constitute the only source of hard currency - along with cocoa or coffee - for the national economies.

Manufacturing waste is far less voluminous than mining or agricultural waste. Municipal waste is an increasing problem, however. In many urban agglomerations, "waste economies" are an important part of the informal sector. Special situations arise when social groups live on (and from) waste dumps, as for instance in Cairo.

Industrialization and urbanization

In West Africa, industrialization is still in a very early stage. So far, West Africa is suffering many of the disadvantages and enjoying only a few of the benefits of industrialization. Local small-scale industries often concentrate on repairing and renovating industrial products.

Urbanization has fuelled industrialization. Energy supply, transportation facilities, public infrastructure, and proximity to political power (because of security and influence considerations) are important location factors for the siting of industries in the big cities. Metallurgical and chemical industries exist on a very limited scale, if at all. The same applies to electronics industries. There is, however, a certain growth of small-scale industries in rural areas and in smaller regional centres.

The main resource-based industries such as mining, quarrying, and agricultural enterprises are generally not closely linked to urban centres. The socio-political influence of the transnational corporations has declined in Africa in recent years. These enterprises often operate in isolated "enclaves," such as mining or plantation areas, with minimum interaction with the larger society.

Pollution control and other regulatory measures, including recycling and cleaner forms of production, are in a very initial phase. In most African countries environmental control mechanisms exist only "on paper." For instance, Nigeria has its Environmental Protection Law of 1986, but, as in most developing countries, actual enforcement remains difficult.

Social impacts

Besides demographic growth (generally around 3 per cent per annun or more), African development is strongly influenced by the situation of the political economy and the access of countries to resources. Critics of a one-sided climatic explanation of hazards and disasters often quote the Sahel crisis of the 1970s as an example to prove the dominant role of socio-political parameters in coping with a famine initiated by drought. However, it seems clear that only consideration of both biophysical and socio-economic and cultural factors can explain the vulnerability of the "political ecology" within this zone. If one looks at it spatially, one finds that the most vulnerable groups do not necessarily live in the most vulnerable locations. It is the combination and overlap of the two that leads to the most problematic cases of marginality and sensitivity.

In this respect the impact of technology may vary. Irrigation, for instance, may reduce biophysical vulnerability. On the other hand, irrigation practices may lead to salinization and waterlogging. The heated controversy over the consequences of the "Green Revolution," with its technology packages (improved water supply, seed selection, chemical fertilizers, etc.), for resulting development is typical of this debate.

Structural adjustment programmes

Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) have been adopted by more than 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more especially in the 1980s, although African states were already affected by World Bank and IMP policies in the 1960s. Because world recession problems had to be overcome, African governments cooperated with the Bank and the IMP in various ways. Sometimes "shock treatments" were implemented in less than two years to resolve a crisis. In other cases more gradual reforms were spread over longer periods, also affecting the industrial sector. It was claimed that the beneficiaries of SAPs were the rural poor, because they were protected in relation to the urban poor by the stimulation of exports and an increase in farm incomes, offsetting in part the decline in wages. However, it seems unsafe to argue on the basis of the rural-urban dichotomy alone. What, for instance, is happening to rural incomes that are often dependent on remittances from urban and industrial workers (Morgan 1994, 1996)?

On the whole, and in most parts of the world, one of the most generally recognized impacts of SAPs has been increased social differentiation, including the rural poor. Although this process seems to have been stronger in Latin America and Asia than in Africa, even the World Bank initiated special policies directed at the poor to complement the existing SAPs.

It is interesting to note that environmental problems, such as, for instance, the dependence of economic productivity on the conservation of the endowment of natural resources, have so far hardly been considered in the design of SAPs.

Although it can be reasonably argued that in some cases SAPs have been a success (e.g. the Economic Recovery Programme in Ghana), on the whole sub-Saharan Africa has had a long history of poverty, war, and famine extending over millennia: "vulnerability, inequality and threats to the social fabric in Africa are not a product of the 1970's and 1980's, much less of Fund and Bank prescriptions for stabilization and adjustment. Nor are they purely imported colonial phenomena" (Green 1989).

Africa's economic and financial problems were made worse by a combination of:

1. an investment in growth and development that failed to earn the expected rewards;

2. the international debt crisis, oil price hikes, and rising interest rates, plus the inadequacy of the aid programmes that were meant to provide relief;

3. repeated drought, crop failure, and widespread famine;

4. the failure of agricultural production to contribute significantly to growth and the increased dependence on imported food. (Morgan 1996: 48)

Poverty, which contributes so much to the environmental degradation of Africa, can in the long run be overcome only by improving economic sustainability, which will be achieved not only through economic reforms but by more appropriate investments, including industrial activities and expanding trade.


It has become clear that many of our conventional models of development and the policy framework now in place have to be challenged. Much has been learned about how ecosystems at various scales function. We now have to translate that understanding into actions that will help us to integrate the technosphere and the sociosphere with the biosphere.

This growing understanding has led to the emergence of concepts such as vulnerability, resilience, flexibility, thresholds, and non linearity's. These are important guides in the management of our interactions with the biosphere. Equally, we are beginning to take lessons from nature that are applicable both in the parameterization of management tasks and in respect to specific aspects of interaction (see Kasperson et al. 1995).

With respect to parameterization, for example, we have to question our established notions about competition (leading to a debate over the roles of and the balance between competition and collaboration as modes of interaction). We also have to look into the need for institutional arrangements at the global level that will facilitate rather than preclude sustainable solutions at local and regional scales. The search for such a framework leads us to question existing institutional arrangements. This could lead toward defining an agenda for international negotiations over setting in place appropriate governance structures. With regard to the specifics of humans' direct interaction with the biosphere, one can think of the lessons we have learned about capturing solar energy, using it efficiently, increasing materials productivities, developing multi-functional materials, closing the materials cycle, etc. This is the rationale for exploring technological options as represented by biotechnology, photovoltaics, and so on.

In conclusion: on a per capita basis the world's growing number of inhabitants expect year after year a growing share both of the finite nonrenewable resources as well as of the only slowly growing renewable resources. An increasing conflict between these expectations and the ability of the biophysical environment to fulfil them is obvious. Although science can try to find some answers for this predicament, the final solutions must be political.


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3. Ecological process engineering: The potential of bio-processing

Editor's note
The current situation: The status of biotechnologies
Potential and promises
Market penetration by biotechnology
Barriers to penetration
Final remarks

Anton Moser

Editor's note

The best introduction to this chapter is a book written over 20 years ago by Lewis Thomas (1974). Thomas, writing about medicine, makes the important point that current medical technologies are either "non-technologies" or "halfway technologies" (1974, p. 32). In the medical case, Thomas defines "non-technologies" as supportive therapy, or "caring for" a person with a disease whose underlying causes and mechanisms are not really understood. As examples, he mentions cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and advanced cirrhosis. Today one would certainly add AIDS and Alzheimer's disease to that list. Although most of the diseases on his list are now better understood than when Thomas wrote, it is doubtful that any of them, except some types of cancer, have moved even to the next (half-way) level.

It is fairly natural to suggest that other technologies can be characterized along the same axis as medical technologies. A non-technology in the production sphere is perhaps one in which nature does essentially all the work. The current technologies of forestry, ranching, and dairy farming (for instance) are virtually non-technologies. Nature does everything. The human contribution is largely limited to culling and harvesting (with a bit of tree planting, animal breeding, and veterinary medicine).

"Half-way technologies" are the ones that dominate current practice. In the medical sphere, Thomas defines them as "the kinds of things that must be done after the fact, in efforts to compensate for the incapacitating effects of certain diseases that one is unable to do very much about" (1974, p. 33). His examples include organ transplants, most types of surgery, wheelchairs, and the "iron lung" that was used to assist victims of infantile paralysis to breathe. Technologies that assist detection and diagnosis (but not cure) are also surely in this category.

Conventional agriculture may be characterized as a half-way technology. In the case of agriculture, the state of conventional technology can be summarized as breeding, tilling, fertilizing, seeding, weeding, and harvesting. Machines utilizing fossil fuels have been developed to do a lot of the tilling, seeding, weeding, and harvesting, while chemicals (also based largely on fossil fuels) do the fertilizing and pest control. Yet this combination is wasteful, harmful to wildlife and soil, and unsustainable in the long run. This would seem to be "half-way" technology. Moser argues that knowledge based biotechnologies can potentially do a lot more, reducing the need for machines and chemicals on the one hand, and reducing harmful side-effects on the other.

The third type of medical technology, according to Thomas, is "the kind that is so effective that it attracts the least public notice; it has come to be taken for granted." Vaccines, antibiotics, and hormone treatments of endocrine disorders are examples. The ability to clone and grow replacement organs in vitro would be a big step forward over the current techniques, but the ability to regrow organs in vivo would, of course, be the ultimate substitute for surgical transplants. The discovery of the Salk vaccine, which essentially made "iron lungs" obsolete and eliminated infantile paralysis as a threat (and forced the "March of Dimes" to find another target for fund-raising), perfectly exemplifies the transition from "half-way" technology to truly advanced technology. An important and perceptive observation by Thomas is that what we often think of as "high-tech" medicine is, more often than not, actually the expensive and complicated "half-way" variety rather than the truly effective variety.

Indeed, most other conventional production technologies are undoubtedly very primitive when compared with the technologies utilized by nature. Is there any fundamental reason why complex metal, ceramic, or plastic structures could not be "grown" as an organism grows? In the very long run, I see no fundamental barrier. In fact, current developments in semi-conductor manufacturing and advanced ceramics technology seem to point in that direction.

Moser's principal contribution, in this chapter, is to lay out some of the next intermediate steps in this possible evolutionary development. His notion of "eco-technology" corresponds to a considerably more advanced stage of this possible evolution, but one that can be plausibly envisioned in general terms at least by a technological optimist - within the next half-century.

I have to say, here, that Moser's original paper contained a great deal of interesting material, including a considerable discussion of measures of and criteria for eco-sustainability. Because much of this seemed to be beyond the scope of his assignment, or was essentially covered in chapter 1, the editors were forced to prune it rather drastically for lack of space. It is to be hoped that, as a biologist, Professor Moser will recall that roses, too, must be pruned to make them bloom more abundantly. I have also added some parenthetical remarks in a few places in Professor Moser's text.


Technologies cannot be assessed in isolation. Sustainable technologies must satisfy a number of requirements and constraints. These include (i) the limited capacity of the biosphere to absorb wastes and recover from injury, both globally and on a regional level, (ii) the limits of cultural and social acceptance, (iii) economic feasibility, and (iv) technical feasibility. In addition, it is obvious that technological "fixes" alone will not suffice to assure long-term sustainability, although technology plays an essential role. The main aim of this paper is to evaluate the potential of bio-processing and to clarify its likely contribution to long-term sustainability.

The current situation: The status of biotechnologies

Four main fields of technical application (apart from food and beverages) are well known. These are health care, agriculture, environmental remediation, and industrial materials processing. These are discussed briefly in the following pages.

Health care (pharmacology and medicine)

The health-care field of biotechnology includes the production of vaccines, hormones (such as insulin), therapeutics, diagnostics, and antibiotics via conventional process routes, such as cell cultures, using natural organisms. Antibiotics are normally made in this way. For instance, penicillin, the first antibiotic, is produced by a fungus. Increasingly, however, "modern" pathways are being exploited, based on genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). These GEOs either lack certain genes or contain genes from other organism.1 As a result they have properties not found in the natural versions of those organisms.

Editor's note: Most of the early applications of genetic engineering technology have been in this field, owing to the high value of some pharmaceutical products.2 For example, Eli Lilly began producing human insulin by recombinant DNA techniques in 1982. Interferon, human and animal growth hormones, and monoclonal antibodies are examples of early applications. Public attention is usually drawn to the advertised benefits of these innovations for society, especially the possibility of sharply cutting the costs of important categories of drugs. Most of these short-term benefits have been consistently overestimated, and the length of time needed to take a new drug or diagnostic technique through the tedious and complex approval process is consistently underestimated. Nevertheless, by the late 1980s several biotechnology firms - especially Amgen - had developed successful and profitable products and a number of others had been sold to international pharmaceutical giants.

Agriculture and food technology

Older agriculture shaped natural plants and animals to human uses by means of breeding techniques. The modern branch of agriculture uses chemicals derived from biological materials (such as hormones and plant growth regulators, single cell protein, vaccines), microbial cultures, and new plants and animals created deliberately by genetic engineering modifications of existing organisms by recombinant DNA methods. Potential and obviously desirable future applications of genetic engineering are to introduce nitrogen fixation capability and/or disease resistance into important crops, such as potatoes, corn, or rice.

Public debate reflects serious safety concerns here, too.

Environmental biotechnology

Environmental biotechnology is understood in a broad sense as the application of biotechnologies - mainly micro-organisms - to the solution of existing environmental problems, including the treatment of sewage, waste water, and even soil decontamination. Early applications include biogas systems. Genetically engineered organisms are also increasingly used in this field, resulting in the same public concerns about safety mentioned above.

Industrial biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology is an established field, including cheese-making, winemaking, the brewing of beer, and the production of baker's yeast, vinegar, alcohol, acetone, acetic acid, citric acid, etc. from carbohydrates and sugars, mainly by fermentation. GEOs are not yet being applied in this area, although it would seem to be an inevitable evolutionary development.

It is quite important for the evaluation of biotechnologies to consider the normal life cycle of technologies. The different stages of development are marked by the production of molecules of increasing complexity (e.g. bulk chemicals, single cell protein, drugs).

A rather visionary, more distant future stage can be denoted "eco-technology," or simply "eco-tech." The name is intended to convey the idea that biotechnology eventually begins to substitute for more conventional technologies in a wide range of applications, resulting in significant environmental benefits and a much closer approach to long-term sustainability.

Scientifically the advantages of bio-processing over chemical processing can generally be characterized as follows:

- big-catalysts are highly active, specific, and selective; their regeneration is easier than in the case of chemical catalysts; there are no environmental problems as with heavy metals;

- reaction conditions are mild (temperature, pressure, and also concentrations);

- internal energy is supplied by energy-enriched compounds, e.g. ATP, which are formed during metabolism;

- impure, diluted, and inactive raw materials can be used, owing to the high specificity and selectivity of big-catalysts;

- big-products are biodegradable in natural cycles.

The competitiveness of biotechnologies in comparison with chemical technologies is discussed later in this chapter. The most competitive opportunities for biotechnology, at present, lie in the domain of high-price/low volume "specialty" products. However, increasing success in this domain, together with rising prices for petroleum and other fossil hydrocarbons, suggests that opportunities will gradually increase over coming decades in the domain of low-price/high-volume "commodity" products.

Two observations apply to biotechnologies in general. In the first place, to produce highly complex and specific products such as pharmaceuticals, or to degrade toxic substances in the environment, the biological path is already clearly superior to the chemical path in many cases. A similar competitive break-point can be expected in the near future in several other cases, where bio-processing becomes yearly more competitive. To be more specific, the most successful current applications of big-processes are as follows:

- the production of foods (e.g. cheese, yogurt, soya sauce) and beverages (wine, beer);

- the production of complex molecules on the industrial scale for use in health care for humans, animals, and plants (pharmaceuticals and therapeutics, antibiotics, proteins, steroids, etc.);

- the degradation/purification of wastes and toxic substances in the environment (sewage, industrial wastes, water treatment, etc.);

- sequential reactions in one-step processes (e.g. the production of steroids), highly selective stereo-specific conversions, etc.

There are other domains where the advantages of "biologicals" compared with "chemicals" are likely to be established soon. These include the reclamation of soil, the recycling or sequestration of carbon dioxide, the production of biofuels from waste agricultural or forest biomass, the creation of new and more productive plants capable of surviving in different climates, resisting diseases, etc. The beneficial products of bio-processing will surely increase in the next decade.

A second observation is that process economics for biotechnological products (thus far) suffer generally from the fact that they depend on growth cultures. The latter involve lower concentrations, higher water content, and, consequently, higher energy requirements for separation and purification than does chemical processing, in general. The need for more sophisticated equipment, and more highly educated technicians, also contributes to the current competitive disadvantage of biotechnologies as compared with chemical processing.

Thus, despite their potential benefits in terms of long-term sustainability, most big-processes are not yet economically competitive. Biotechnology is not expected to become competitive on a wide range of fronts before the year 2030 (OECD 1989). Even this forecast will prove overoptimistic unless efforts toward commercialization are accelerated, especially by strengthening process engineering sciences (Moser 1994). Research programmes in big process engineering have been recently stepped up in Japan (1992), the United States (1992), and Europe (1993).

In the following section, the status of the various biotechnologies is considered in more detail.

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