Technology and Nature: Protecting Biodiversity for Public Good with Aditi Jha

Aditi Jha is a 2023 Sloan Fellows MBA at MIT Sloan. She has worked with the World Bank, the UN and large conglomerates on integrating sustainability (ESG) across high environmental impact sectors like transport, energy, and agriculture.

Technology and Nature:  Protecting Biodiversity for Public Good with Aditi Jha

Aditi Jha is a 2023 Sloan Fellows MBA at MIT Sloan. She has worked with the World Bank, the UN and large conglomerates on integrating sustainability (ESG) across high environmental impact sectors like transport, energy, and agriculture. She has developed and implemented some of South Asia’s largest natural climate solutions projects. She holds an MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge, UK. Aditi is passionate about using her public sector and policy expertise to slow the rate of biodiversity loss and extinction.

QUESTION 1: What technology or technologies are the focus of your research, teaching, and action?

We're presently living in an age that’s being called the Anthropocene, a period where human activities are influencing every element of our planet. From damming our rivers, which affects the movement of freshwater species and sediment; to the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture that has reduced natural pollination processes and soil microbes. Anthropocentric development that has led to enhanced productivity and economic growth, has also massively impacted the natural world. My career has been devoted to biodiversity conservation, with substantial focus on merging biodiversity and extinction concerns into our developmental path decision-making. Numerous countries have experienced significant reductions in their natural biodiversity, and currently, much of the remaining biodiversity is in the Global South.

Technology plays three key roles in addressing biodiversity extinction.

The first role is its use to build awareness on the state of nature to conserve it. Assessments that were undertaken periodically through field observations by zoologists and botanists can now be sped up and done in real time through geospatial data, drones, and camera traps. The most comprehensive database on the status of species in the natural world is IUCNs Red List. There are over 42000 species on this list threatened with extinction. One revolutionary advancement in technology is Environmental DNA (eDNA), which allows for DNA assessments rather than having to physically locate the species to ascertain their presence in an area. Companies, such as NatureMetrics, are implementing this technology, which can assist in decision-making around avoiding habitats of endangered species. Tools to bring transparency in supply chains and help avoid sourcing from regions of high deforestation or illegal fishing also fall into this bracket.

A second role technology plays is in building a use case for biodiversity. An example of this is Bioprospecting, or research and development of species and genetic material found in nature for applications in pharmaceutical, agricultural, or cosmetic industries. For instance, the horseshoe crab was instrumental in ensuring Covid-19 vaccine safety because its blue blood reacts visibly to toxins and so was used to test and verify the absence of harmful substances in vaccines. In various ways, we remain highly dependent on nature. Increasingly, Artificial Intelligence is being used to connect bioactive ingredients found in nature with health and cosmetic benefits. Another area is that of Biomimicry, or using processes found in nature to solve human problems – for instance mimicking natures ability to break down materials. For instance, start-ups are using mycelium to repurpose waste textiles or nutrients in wastewater into useful materials.

Finally, technology is going to play increasingly play a role in reversing the damage done. The spread of invasive species and excessive eutrophication leading to algal blooms requires technology to eradicate weeds and seaweed and restore ecosystems. Companies are also enabling the use of soil microbes over chemicals and ensuring their survival during storage and transportation using protective coatings. A company is also experimenting with CRISPR genome sequencing for the de-extinction and re-introduce species like the Wooly Mammoth into ecosystems. Yet another company is looking at producing synthetic palm oil, that if successfully scaled up could reduce deforestation in South East Asia, habitat of the Orangutans.

In most cases, as there is no immediate perceivable economic upside to biodiversity, robust regulation, governance, and institutions are crucial. Ecosystem, species, and genetic diversity have evolved over billions of years, and keeping this intact contributes to our evolutionary resilience.  Using technology, we can attempt to reverse some damage or gain a better understanding before we lose species, but it takes strong local governance and institutions on the ground to make the decisions that will safeguard our natural history.

QUESTION 2: What are the ways in which these technologies are and could be used to advance the public interest?

Biodiversity needs to play more of a role in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG). While there is a noticeable emphasis on emissions, biodiversity does not receive the attention it deserves. Industries with high impacts on nature – agriculture, linear infrastructure like roads and transmission lines and mining (which we will be seeing more of for so-called climate tech EVs, batteries etc) should use the available tools and technology in decision-making to ensure no net-loss of biodiversity.

An issue I find concerning is the relentless push to assign economic value to biodiversity to make a case for its preservation. We often overlook the intrinsic value that indigenous communities assign to nature, who have preserved these unique ecosystems and species precisely because they value them beyond the economics. Currently, many suggest establishing biodiversity markets, but this approach, rooted in neoliberal economics, is probably not going to be an effective solution to our biodiversity crisis.

Viewing biodiversity from purely an anthropogenic lens also sometimes leads to highlight species such as lions, polar bears, or orangutans. These charismatic creatures attract much-needed attention, yet they represent merely the tip of the iceberg, there being myriad other species within these ecosystems.

More needs to be done to raise awareness and increase curiosity about our natural history, not just in museums, but as it exists in regions that continue to harbor it. Instead of re-wilding and de-extinction, we really need to invest more in our ecosystems and communities that have preserved an incredible amount of our natural history.

QUESTION 3: What more could be done to ensure that these technologies are designed, used, or regulated to better address the needs of those at the margins of society?

One overlooked approach is the implementation of mechanisms such as the Access and Benefit sharing (ABS) system proposed in the Nagoya Protocol at the Conference of Parties on Biodiversity. It recommends that when unique genetic resources are accessed from locations where they exist, local communities responsible for their preservation should receive the benefits. Sadly, this has not materialized. Numerous distinctive species have been utilized and replicated for medicinal, cosmetic, or agricultural purposes without any benefits trickling down to the communities that conserved them. I conducted a study on Himalayan medicinal plants that are integral to many Ayurvedic medicines. Some of these herbs have unfortunately gone extinct, with museums in the Himalayas preserving the legacy of these once-common species.

To rectify these imbalances, we need to foster a greater appreciation for the indigenous peoples' intrinsic conservation values. This could potentially be achieved through responsible ecotourism, improved institutional mechanisms like empowering cooperatives around unique ecosystems and species, and ensuring supply chains acknowledge these communities' role in conserving biodiversity. This is a far more equitable alternative to relying solely on market mechanisms, which often results in benefits being captured by those who measure and monitor carbon or biodiversity, rather than it reaching communities.

However, frontline communities also do face substantial opportunity costs and increased vulnerability living in natural ecosystems. For instance, converting a mangrove ecosystem into a shrimp farm is much more economically lucrative in the medium term, as is killing wildlife that may harm crops or cattle. In these cases, financial incentives, and mechanisms like payments for ecosystem services and wildlife insurance can go a long way in ensuring that ecosystems and species are preserved. Establishing elephant corridors might lead to crop losses, but these corridors play a crucial role in maintaining ecosystems. Monitoring elephant movements can ensure both human safety and the elephants' ability to traverse their habitats.

The design, use, and regulation of technology to address the needs of those at society's margins could involve mechanisms for access and benefit-sharing, greater recognition and support for indigenous conservation efforts and technological solutions to improve safety for communities living in wildlife habitats.