Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Biotech and the Environment
Alex Steffen, 24 Nov 03

"Will Frankenfoods Save the Planet?" That's the question asked by a Jonathan Rauch in last month's Atlantic Monthly. It's an important article. Rauch argues that "genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly centuries..."

I agree, but for completely different reasons. Rauch is arguing, essentially, for transgenic agriculture - growing crops which mix the genes of two or more organisms. He argues that such crops can stabilize erosion-prone hillsides, desalinate salty soils, bioremediate polluted land and feed the world's exploding population. And he makes the point that with all the good biotechnology can do to help sustainably meet the needs of a much more crowded planet, environmentalists ought to be biotech's prime advocates. All of these things are true, to greater or lesser degrees.

What Rauch leaves out, what he completely misses, is that hacking the genes of crops in the fields is the crudest (and possibly most dangerous) technique in our tool chest.

There certainly will be uses for bioengineered crops in the coming decades, but much more important is the use of biotechnological industry: pools of hacked bacteria that spit out hydrogen, tanks of tweaked fungus that convert garbage into methane, vats of tame microbes that allow us to design machines and structures with natural materials resembling shells and spidersilk.

As Bruce Sterling puts it,

"Expressing DNA in the genomes of large organisms is slow and clumsy. ... All the real DNA action is in single cells. ... They turn raw cheap chemical feedstocks into almost anything that DNA can make: proteins, hormones, drugs, antibodies - and structural materials: skin, horn, bone, coral, bamboo, plastics even."

GMO crops are risky. The health effects of GMO crops is simply not known - it may be minimal, but we just don't know. The environmental risks are significant - you are, after all, releasing self-reproducing beings into the world, beings which haven't existed long enough to be much studied. Finally, the societal risks of our current structure for developing GMO crops are huge - they are mostly attempts by large corporations to add genetic monopolies to the practices of factory farming. They aren't plants carefully re-designed and freely given to the world's poorer farmers to use with caution, they are plants designed to prop up agrobusiness.

There are still risks with biotechnological industry, but they are much smarter risks.

Greens in the future will be way into hacking genes. They will sequence the genes of most life on Earth, and save those which seem in jeopardy. They will help build much more sustainable industry using biotechnology to help replicate nature's systems and designs. They will in certain circumstances use carefully-engineered plants to help feed people, stabilize soils and the like. But they still won't want their kids to eat contemporary franken-soy in their breakfast cereal.

Bookmark and Share


Well said!

BTW, what Rauch is missing, and what I think is a fundamental problem with current discussion of GMOs, is that the whole GMO field is being driven right now by companies for whom profit is the first priority. They're *not* thinking of feeding the planet -- they're working out how to optimally line their own pockets. Hence terminator genes, suing farmers, etc.

Posted by: Justin Mason on 24 Nov 03

Exactly, Justin. Opposing Big GMO Agrobiz is not the same opposing the sensible use of biotech innovations. Rauch doesn't seem to get that distinction, at all.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Nov 03

Hmm... I agree with you in the respect that these "mutated" crops aren't exactly the most useful or economical way to go about solving the problems farming has, however I disagree with your suggestion that it is dangerous. It is possible that the eco-balance could be tipped, and so that would have to be taken into account, but the method itself is perfectly safe.

I think the biggest fear people have when it comes to GM foods is that they'll mutate into poisonous monsters, however all genetic modification does is takes part of a genetic code which does a specific thing (for example, the bioluminescent property of a jellyfish), and adds it to another being such as a mouse... what you are left with is a glow-in-the-dark mouse. No more, no less. The mouse has no other jellyfish-like properties. I understand that the example I have used is rather flippant, but I think you get the idea.

I also don't understand what you mean by crude... It is very basic, but what is wrong with that?

I like the article though :), very informative.


Posted by: Morello on 25 Nov 03

(Note to Self: Read other comments before you open your big mouth)

*eats words*

Hehe... yeah, I see your point.

It's a shame so much is profit driven these days.



Posted by: Morello on 25 Nov 03

i'd even add to the above remarks about ag profit-making interests that the health fears are a damaging distraction. if the amount of ink spent on covering the now-unanswerable question of how gmo foods might affect our bodies in the long run were spent on the devasting economics of big ag's land grab -- devasting for small farmers, for developing countries -- we might be having more luck at pushing back against the trend. in an immediate sense, the one danger far outweighs the other.

Posted by: martha on 25 Nov 03

Interesting article, and interesting comments. But what do you say to a scientist in this field who says, "We have to apply the same principles to the rest of the organisms as we do to ourselves. We have improved our ability to survive viccisitudes. We should try to improve other organisms as well, for the greater common good."?

THe fundamental assumption behind capitalism seems to be that the profit motive turns out to be good to be for the greater common good in the long run. Industry and Business drive research, help pay for its costs, and in the end, its the ordinary farmer or earth dweller that gains. It takes time, that it does, but the word and the deeds, spread.

Have faith in science, says me.

Posted by: Carthik Sharma on 25 Nov 03

Just a clarification. The scientist I quoted isn't me. I am a lowly computer engineer :D
I am still trying to decide my stand vis-a-vis genetically modified crops.

Posted by: Carthik on 25 Nov 03

Its easier to "decide a stand" if you avoid absolute, binary choices and think in a risk management context. All technologies or products have risks. Some are so bad they must be managed agressively, or outright banned, to reduce very serious harm Examples are asbestos insulation in ships, tobacco, or lead as anti-knock additive for gasoline. Some technologies/products can be used safely "as recommended" on labels. Examples are tylenol (take only as directed), guns (keep away from kids and unloaded), cars (wear seatbelts). The above risk management examples all involve some elements of "learning the hard way". We no longer have to make those kinds of mistakes if we: avoid living in denial; let all viewpoints into decision making (not yet done for GM issues; and think out of the box about hazards. Caution is definitely called for here! JL

Posted by: John Laumer on 3 Jan 04



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg