Churchill Fellowship on Bioremediation: An Introduction

My Churchill fellowship will look at opportunities for bioremediation, that is to say, how we can use plants, fungi or bacteria to clean up pollution.

We know from statistics collected by organisations such as the Blacksmith Institute that pollution affects up to 100 million people every year. This can be from direct effects such as drinking water containing waste, breathing polluted air, or from eating crops grown in contaminated soil. There may be more indirect ones too, like damage to ecosystems which in turn affects food supply.

I know that everything: from the computer I use, to the clothes I wear to the chair I’m sitting on comes with a supply chain. Equally, when I am no longer want these items, their disposal comes with a chain too. As a consumer, I am somehow complicit in this process.

There are two aspects to waste, one is to prevent it, and the other is to clean it up. You could argue that the responsibility for both lies with the same people, and often that is correct. Sometimes there are a number of organisations in the chain and it becomes difficult to trace who should be liable. Sometimes ownerships change, court cases drag on, and in the meantime the people who live in the vicinity have no means to effect environmental justice. Sometimes there is the will to change things, but not the money to make it happen.

Scientific research often looks at how living organisms respond to pollutants such as metals, or chemicals. There may be bacteria out there that can convert arsenic from a harmful form into a safer one, or a fungus that can degrade a harmful carcinogen into a benign chemical. While they didn’t evolve these functions specifically to help us, it is these capabilities I am interested in using. These organisms may well exist already in the places which have elevated levels of pollution, or may thrive there if given the right nutrients. This project wants to understand if we can connect some of the great science out there with the places or people who could implement it for the purpose of restoring land or water supplies.

This project sets out with the following overarching research question:

Is bioremediation a useful technique for addressing problems of contaminated land and water?

From all of the visits and travels, these are the questions that I’ll be asking to help me understand the answer. I think it will be interesting to review these during the fellowship and after I’ve completed it.

  1. What are the most pressing issues related to contaminated water or land? Where are the effects of pollution most acutely felt?
  2. Is there a pattern of how remediation is/isn’t attempted? What works? Who advocates for this?
  3. Are there good examples of bioremediation being used as a technique? Can it work in places where other methods fail?
  4. What is the context that pollution exists in? For example, is it men or women who farm? What are the priorities of the people living close by?
  5. What is the most effective way of dealing with this particular pollutant? Is it at the level of individuals, businesses or government? If one is resistant, where next?

While I think these questions are useful to frame the project, I anticipate I’ll learn a whole lot more by listening. I don’t think that I’ll be spoiling anyone’s anticipation by saying I don’t expect a yes/no answer to my research question.

A final note is that this project is not intended as an exposé, or an attempt to reveal bad practice. There are many people out there doing a magnificent job of highlighting where and how we’re sacrificing ethics for economics. If it wasn’t for their voices or photographs we would carry on unaware.

I’m interested in the people who are finding solutions. The NGOs at ground level, the researchers at universities, or the CEOs in the company boardrooms who are attempting to try to resolve these issues. I want to understand how we can connect scientific research to what happens in the field, acknowledging all the time if there were easy or perfect answers they would have been tried by now.

I hope this explains some of the thinking behind the fellowship. There is much more to say about my motivations: why this interests me, and what my ideas are regarding solutions, and I’ll save that for later posts.

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