The following is a conversation between Alex Dehgan, CEO and Co-founder of Conservation ExLabs, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: In so many different arenas, the problems we face are exponential but the solutions are linear. One area for which this holds true is conservation. And my next guest has set out to do something about it. He is Dr. Alex Dehgan, the former Chief Scientist at the US Agency for International Development, USAID, and now the CEO of Conservation ExLabs.
Good evening, Alex, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Alex: Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver: Let’s start with the problem that Conservation ExLabs is addressing. We have protected more land as a result of conservation but we are in the midst of what has been termed the sixth mass extinction. Describe for us what is going on here.
Alex: So we have had five other major extinction events in the planet’s history, but this is a unique one. We are in the middle of the sixth extinction, and this is where literally, the loss of species around the world literally disappearing from our planet is at a thousand to 10,000 times that of what’s called the background extinction rate. So normally, when we’re not in the mass extinction, we’d lose a few species per time. But we are now at a pace where this rate has increased incredibly fast and in particular, in the last couple of 100 years.
The other thing that is unique about this extinction event is it’s the first that’s created by a single species and that happens to be our own.
By 2050, we’re going to have 9.6 billion people. So, that’s about 2.5 more billion people in addition to what the planet currently has now. But perhaps, even more importantly is we’re going to have surely, those billions of people emerging in some middle class. And that potentially means that the earth is going to have to produce 70% more food.
Denver: And as we look ahead, this is very much a supply and demand issue. So, let’s fast forward if we can, Alex, to 2050. What do you estimate the demand that the world’s population will place on the planet then?
Alex: By 2050, we’re going to have 9.6 billion people. So, that’s about 2.5 more billion people in addition to what the planet currently has now. But perhaps, even more importantly is we’re going to have surely, those billions of people emerging in some middle class, and that potentially means that the earth is going to have to produce 70% more food. And given where we are where sort of we hit peak productivity in terms of our ability to get food out of plants in ideal conditions and many places are in the world are not in those ideal conditions. That means we’re going to have to clear more area, and that area is approximately equal to about a billion hectares more of farmland that we need.
Just to give you a comparison, the United States has 950 million hectares. So that is clearing an area equal to that of the United States and that essentially means the Amazon basin and the Congo basin, sort of the lungs of the planet and our last reservoirs of biodiversity on earth.
Denver: Yeah. I think one of the frustrating things about all this is that the field of conservation, despite these huge challenges, has been pretty slow to embrace exponential technologies and methods. Why has that been the case and how does this field of conservation differ from some of the other fields of endeavor that you’ve been engaged with?
Alex: Just one thing is how we’ve been approaching the problem is we’ve been doing things such as building national parks and I think national parks are phenomenal because they slowed the loss of extinction, which probably would have been much faster than we would have known. We also have another effect, which is that we are still seeing the effects of contraction. So as large parcels of land have turned into fragments, a lot of those fragments are actually overpopulated with species. So we may lose many more species. We may have underestimated the extinction effect. And we tend to study species that are actually well distributed, adaptable in many different areas, but we actually have very little information of those species that might be locally specified. So first, I think we got a bigger challenge ahead of us and it’s complicated by fact of we’re going to have billions of people who want meat and dairy and refrigeration and air conditioning and what impact that has on the planet.
The second is that these national parks are actually symptoms of the problem, but we’re not addressing these underlying drivers. And those drivers include things like food. It includes things like novel diseases that we’ve had some part in terms of our own degradation of the planet in helping accelerate. But the challenge in conservation in itself is it has been really limited by a couple of things. One is that it is technophobic. It’s backwards looking. I like to describe it as the society of professional mourners where we lament and describe the passing of species. And the field is a little over 30 years old. The first big national academy meeting on biodiversity was about 30-something years ago. And in this time, even though we have been unbelievably successful in increasing protected areas around the world, we still haven’t been able to have an impact on the decline of species. And I think that’s because of the sort of technophobia, the fear of using the private sector, and the lack of diversity in conservation itself. And in some ways, I would say, the problem of conservation is that’s still with people like me. Conservationist.
Denver: Right, where you need a most disciplinary approach with people from all fields of endeavor coming together and I think that is part of why you started Conservation ExLabs, is to rethink this conservation model and adopt the different approach. Speak a little bit more about what that approach is going to be.
Alex: We focus on three things: Entrepreneurship, open innovation, and exponential technologies. Entrepreneurship is how do we actually ensure that–there’s not enough land to be in the world to solve these problems, so how do we ensure that we have both sustainability not just in terms of ecological sustainability, but economic sustainability in terms of our solutions? We tend to focus on pilot and we tend to focus on really small-scale efforts. But those aren’t really big enough to match the scale of the problem, which is scaling exponentially as you mentioned with population.
The second is we also need to make sure that we get to scale. For some reason, it’s really hard for us, and even in development, to make sure that our innovations get the scale. USAID in its 50 years, has probably had 10 or 20 things that have gone into global scale in terms of [affecting] international development, and that is 50 years and a lot of money that we put into it. With conservation, I think, the challenge, outside of protected areas and endangered species list, there are few things we’ve been able to kind of bring to scale that are solutions that are out there. And that’s why the private sector is important.
Open innovation is how we can use both prices and challenges and mass collaboration and elements like physics and science to diversify who’s in conservation itself. And then exponential technology is just the fact that we’re at a place in time on this planet where the thing that is scaling exponentially is the power of technology, and it is also exponentially decreasing in cost, where people are giving something like storage away for free. Your ability to store photos and information on the web through multiple companies is actually is something that is subsidized because the cost of that storage is so low compared to 20, 30 years ago.
So, the power process, there’s the maker movement that is out there. The fact that we have access to sensors now for hundreds of dollars or tens of dollars or single dollar that literally cost us $50,000 a couple of decades ago. And those tools can now be used for conservation. And this is part of the reason that we’re focused on: How do we actually develop the tools that help us improve the speed, scale, and efficacy of conservation efforts around the world and help those tools get to scale?
The challenge with aquaculture is a couple of things. But first and foremost, it’s just the feed. Right? What we actually feed to the fish is we do this crazy thing where we capture wild fish, wild pelagic fish and we grind it up and feed it to farm fish. And the way that we capture that wild fish is not sustainable. In the least, it’s actually destructive of the environment. It’s destructive of those wild fish population that the rest of the fishery actually depends on.
Denver: Let’s turn to an example where a different approach could lead to a better outcome. And that example would be aquaculture — fish farming. Why is that non-sustainable as it is currently designed and what can be done about it?
Alex: The challenge with aquaculture is a couple of things. But first and foremost, it’s just the feed. Right? What we actually feed to the fish is we do this crazy thing where we capture wild fish — wild, pelagic fish — and we grind it up and feed it to farm fish. And the way that we capture that wild fish is not sustainable in the least. It’s actually destructive of the environment. It’s destructive of those wild fish population that the rest of the fishery actually depends on.
So, one of the ways that we’ve been thinking about this is we ran a large global conservation challenge. It was modeled on the grand challenges for development program I developed as Chief Scientist at USAID with the Gates Foundation of how do we actually replace aquaculture feeding with a sustainable alternative. And some of those alternatives include things such as insects, particularly black soldier fly, capturing CO2 from smokestacks and turning it into a protein source, using algae, which is this incredibly fast-growing product that can actually take pollutants out of the environment and then turn it into protein that we can feed the fish. Black soldier fly could do the same thing with agricultural ways. And then other forms of yeast and bacteria that can provide protein sources, and then seaweed.One of the main things that we’re seeing about seaweed is not only is this a great product that we can turn into protein for feeds, some of that feed actually may be useful in terms of livestock as well and there’s been some reports that suggest that it might reduce methane production in cows, in their digestive process, which is another greenhouse gas emission source.
So, this is a way that we can actually start. One of the other issues with how we grow fish on land, for instance, is that it can be highly polluting. So, people have been looking at how you integrate using algae to actually take sort of the high productivity waste flows, the effluents that are coming off the aquaculture [ponds] actually grow the algae on that, clean the water naturally, and then turn it into a protein source. So it’s a closed-loop system. It’s price competitive. So this isn’t something that is costing more than the underlying wild feed that we would use. This is something that competes on the market and can get to scale.
Denver: Yeah. That is an absolutely great example. And I think as far as the wild feed is concerned, I believe we feed four pounds of wild fish for every pound of farm fish that we harvest, so it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Finally, Alex, what are a few of the other things that you find, particularly exciting at the moment and where we’re beginning to address these issues in a more systemic fashion?
Alex: Yeah. Just to [lay out], I think one of the things that we can think about, for instance, is in our coral reef. And one example of that is the ability to use nanosatellites, which are super low-cost satellites that have the ability to cover the earth with utmost precision. A new technology is something called fluid lensing technology, developed at NASA Ames that allow us to actually parse through waves and see deeper into the ocean and the ability to monitor coral for identifying ocean bright spots. And then tools like DNA analysis to actually, from these bright spots, accelerate the ability of coral to adapt. And this is one of the areas that I think are really promising.
One of the other ones is we’ve just been able — through our own work and a partnership with the University of Washington where we set up a joint lab — to create $100 DNA barcoder, which uses short segments of DNA, sort of an initiative called the Barcode for Life Initiative, which has created a library of 500,000 species in the short segments of DNA that define those species. This works really well in invertebrates. And we’ve created the reader for that for $100 for the device and $10 to test. We can actually make it. It’s battery powered. It doesn’t involve radiant. It’s set up for someone with a ninth-grade education. It allows us to actually empower a customs official to look at a bile of powder and determine whether that’s coming from a tiger. It allows us to work in a lumber yard and determine whether the tree species that are actually being used are endangered or not. It allows us to detect for invasive species and allows us to trace fish. And there are new Department of Commerce rules that go into effect January 1 that makes it a $450,000 fine, five years of imprisonment per import for a fish fraud. Because 30% of fish in this country are mislabeled and when you have coral-eating species of fish, they can actually become toxic. But generally, people are ripping off consumers and fishing unsustainable population. This is one of the ways to guarantee it.
So, there’s a lot of things from artificial intelligence to machine vision, to robotics, to new tools in microbiology to bring back 20% of the earth’s land, to DNA analysis that are empowering conservation. And I think the future of conservation will be a lot like the future of global health, which evolved out of single discipline field of tropical medicine and turned into something that harnesses technology and entrepreneurship and many different fields of science including social sciences such as anthropology and design thinking into its approach. For me, I am optimistic. Despite these real big challenges that we talked about, there’s a lot of things out there that I think we can do.
Denver: Very exciting stuff. Well, Alex Dehgan, the Founder and CEO of Conservation ExLabs, thanks so much for being here this evening. If people want to learn more about Conservation Exlabs, your website would be?
Alex: conservationexlabs.com. Just go there and we’d love to see you.
Denver: Thanks, Alex. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Alex: Thank you, Denver.
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