Part 2: Issues in Sustainable Development

To the Instructor 

The theme of this block is technical solutions to problems of sustainability. While technical solutions may exist, the major challenge is in aiming the research and development investment in the right directions. Students need to be literate about the technology behind genetically modified crops, alternative energy technologies, and environmentally sound technologies in order to recognize how they can be used to create more sustainable societies.

During classes in this block, it would be a good idea to encourage students studying in the scientific and engineering fields to relate the material in this block to what they are working on in their courses of study, and to share the connections they see with their classmates.


Many people have very strong opinions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of biotechnology, especially the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa. In this module, it is very important for the students to understand clearly the scientific and health issues involved as well as the economic trade-offs. The Core Readings and Sustainability Strategies clarify these issues. Have the students discuss the areas in which GMO use appears to be reasonable and where it does not.

Biotechnology Assignment Questions

  1. Biotechnology: What is bioengineering? How does the process differ from traditional agricultural research?

    • (from Biotechnology Factsheet) Modern biotechnology generally refers to the manipulation of living organisms through the manipulation of genes. Marker-assisted selection is similar to traditional agricultural research, involving cross-breeding and testing, but speeds up the process. A genetically modified organism (GMO) has had genetic material modified to create a new organism, for example, inserting bacteria genes into a fish.

  2. Interconnections: Biotechnology & Agriculture: Evaluate the potential of GM crops to increase food security on the African continent.

    • (from AEO) Genetic modification may increase crop yields through creating hardier varieties that are resistant to pests and drought. There is also the possibility of creating varieties such as golden rice that have greater nutritional value. However there is question as to whether GM crops are the best way to improve nutrition. Overall dietary deficiencies reduce the ability of people to benefit from the beta carotene in golden rice for example, and alternative sources of vitamin A have not been explored. Another problem is that GM seeds are protected by patent and GURTs (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies), which prevent farmers from saving seed year to year. This means that poor farmers have less access to the technology, and this source of inequality contributes to greater poverty and food insecurity.

  3. Interconnections: Biotechnology & Biodiversity: Summarize the debate on the environmental impacts that may be associated with GM crops.

    • (from AEO) On one hand, GM crops have the potential to reduce chemical use, reducing negative effects such as eutrophication from fertilizer run-off. Whether or not the GM crops actually reduce chemical use is a contested question. For example, Bt cotton (which produces its own pesticide against caterpillars) should reduce the amount of pesticide spraying, but in practice farmers still spray large amounts of pesticide to fight other pests. Another argument in favor of GM crops is that herbicide resistant crops can be planted in relatively undisturbed soil, reducing soil erosion. On the other hand, environmental scientists are concerned about the biodiversity impacts of GM crops. Cross pollination with wild plants and GM crops may produce “superweeds” that are invulnerable to herbicides. Or GM crops may have harmful effects on native species.


The discussion of energy in Africa includes three main topics; non-renewable fossil fuels (typically used for industry and transportation), traditional renewable biofuels like wood and charcoal (primarily used by households), and renewable energy sources (such as hydro, solar, and wind power). It is important that the students understand the fundamental differences among energy sources, their relative strengths (such as cost or health advantages) and their weaknesses (such as environmental pollution and health costs). The Sustainability Strategies provide examples of newer, cleaner alternatives.

Energy Assignment Questions

  1. Interconnections: Energy, Forests, & Health: In Sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of rural households depend on woodfuel (firewood and charcoal) as their primary energy source. Summarize some of the disadvantages—for both human wellbeing and the environment—associated with the use of woodfuel.

    • (from Indoor Air Pollution from Solid Fuels and The Energy Challenge) The use of firewood and charcoal is unsustainable when it leads to land degradation from firewood gathering. Women and girls spend a significant amount of time gathering firewood, leading to girls being held home from school to help with this chore. Also, worldwide an estimated 1.6 million women and children die annually as a result of indoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution is the result of burning traditional biofuels such as wood and coal for household energy. Particulates and toxins in the smoke are also responsible for health effects including acute respiratory infection, lung cancer, and chronic bronchitis.

  2. Energy: Summarize the availability of renewable and non-renewable energy sources in Africa.

    • (from AEO) Non-renewable energy sources include oil, gas reserves in Northern and Western Africa, and coal deposits in Southern Africa. Renewable sources include wind and solar power. There is good potential to develop wind energy on 24% of Africa’s land, but it will require investment in local technological capacity to construct and run a large number of small plants. Solar energy is likewise abundant. The technology for transforming solar energy into electricity is currently expensive and inefficient, but the concentration of solar energy for heat has high potential in arid regions. Better technology could also improve the efficiency of using solar energy for drying and heating.

Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs)

“Environmentally Sound Technologies” refers to a very wide range of technologies that improve environmental outcomes. They include technologies for agriculture, water conservation, communication, consumer and industrial product design, transportation, waste handling, and less toxic “green chemistry”. Almost any field can incorporate ESTs. In this module, get your students thinking about potential ESTs that would improve lives in their communities. The sustainability strategies provide some examples to get them started. See how many other strategies your students can propose.

Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs) Assignment Questions

  1. ESTs: Find three examples in the readings of technological innovations that have had major impacts on human well-being or environmental sustainability.

    • (from Human Development Report) Examples may include: antibiotics and vaccines improving health in the 1930s, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides doubling agricultural yields in the 1960s, the role of modern communications technology in organizing citizens to demand accountability from governments.

  2. ESTs: What factors influence the focus of scientific research globally?

    • (from Making New Technologies Work for Human Development) According to this Human Development Report selection, “technology is created in response to market forces,” following the demands of high income consumers rather than the larger mass of low income consumers. This effect is clearly seen in health research, where only a fraction of research and development spending is directed towards AIDS and tropical diseases. Potential innovators in developing countries lack access to venture capital and to intellectual property protection to ensure that they are able to profit from their innovation. Innovation also relies on open markets and competition, rather than government-protected monopolies with little incentive to innovate. International partnerships such as the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative represent one alternative for redirecting scientific research to the world’s most pressing needs.

  3. ESTs: What particular problems with encouraging technological innovation are relevant in Africa?

    • (from Africa’s Response) Most agricultural research focuses on cash crops rather than indigenous food crops and animals and there is very little industrial agricultural research and development. Because of low training capacity, a large proportion of scientists are trained outside Africa and often remain abroad, contributing to the “brain drain” phenomenon. Research also requires a level of resources that is not available in most individual countries, suggesting that the way forward may lie in regional approaches.

Innovation and Technology Discussion Questions

  1. On the balance, do you support actively pursuing biotechnology? Why or why not?
  2. How is and should science be directed? Who or what determines the focus of scientific research globally? Locally? Would you change this situation? How?
  3. Can you identify unsolved problems in your community that call for a technology-based solution?
  4. Choose an example of a new technology that was developed in the last 20 years and could benefit your community. Considering economic, social, and environmental dimensions, analyze its impact—positive, negative, or mixed—on advancing sustainability.