The wondrous promise of biotechnology

August 14, 2004

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If we can protect if from the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of radical activists
by Paul K. Driessen
Environment & Climate News
August 2004

Two June 2004 reports document the exciting potential for genetic engineering in industrial processes to reduce air and water pollution, expand the production of new fuels, reduce the amounts of energy and raw materials required in manufacturing, and provide a host of other benefits.

The new reports answer a call from the May 2003 issue of The Economist for humans to investigate the industrial benefits possible through genetic engineering. The magazine’s editorial stated: “What is needed is an industry that delivers the benefits, without the costs. And the glimmerings of just such an industry can now be discerned. That industry is based on biotechnology. At the moment, biotech’s main uses are in medicine and agriculture. But its biggest long-term impact may be industrial.”

“New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment,” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), echoes “Plants for the Future,” by the European Commission’s office of Community Research. Both underscore the technology’s potential. However, both bring to mind Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked what kind of government the American Constitutional Convention had established. “A republic,” he said, “if you can keep it.”

 

“These new tools cannot help us move toward a more sustainable future,” BIO warned, “unless government policymakers, corporate leaders and NGOs comprehend their value, support their adoption and take proactive steps to incorporate them in a wide array of manufacturing processes.” The EC report cautioned that Europe’s scientific and economic “position is declining as a consequence of the political inertia caused by the polarized and increasingly heated debate between opponents and advocates” of biotechnology. In fact, 27% of European research projects in plant genomics and biotech (and 63% of industrial projects) have been aborted in recent years, the EC pointed out.
Biotech already improves the production of paper, textiles, plastics, chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals – speeding the process and reducing water, energy and raw material inputs, as well as pollution. Bleaching pulp for paper via biotech processes can reduce the use of chlorine-based chemicals by up to 15% and energy use by a third or more.

Replacing petrochemicals with feedstocks made from organic material like corn stalks can reduce demand for petrochemicals by 20% to 80% – and produce biodegradable plastics that eliminate up to 80% of the plastics in community waste streams. The technology also makes it easier to produce medicines like riboflavin (vitamin B2), the BIO report states.

Chemists hate carbohydrates, which are complex and hard to work with – but bugs love them, Ghent University research scientist Dr. Wim Soetaert points out. “So why make a chemical, when a bug can do the job for you?”

Industrial biotech researchers examine bacteria, microbes and other natural material with DNA probes to identify enzymes with certain capabilities – like the ability to bleach paper or break down plant matter, thereby enabling or speeding biochemical reactions. In some cases, they genetically engineer enzymes to further improve their performance.

The processes are “more robust, adaptable and inherently cleaner than old-line manufacturing methods,” noted BIO’s Brent Erickson, in a June 7 Greenwire article. These advantages, often coupled with significant cost savings, should encourage industries to adopt the new technologies.

Plants for the Future also cites the “moral imperative” of making agricultural biotechnology available to developing countries. With “more mouths to feed” and “less arable land with which to do it,” farming must become more productive and diversified, the report states, and European consumers and policy makers must discern better between real and hypothetical risks.

Gene-spliced crops could greatly improve nutrition and food security, reduce soil erosion, cut fertilizer and pesticide use, require less water, produce more food from less land (thus saving habitats and wildlife), prevent spoilage and increase shelf-life for foods (even without refrigeration), eliminate allergens, and decrease contamination from fungal mycotoxins.

Fumonisin has been clearly linked to neural tube defects like spinal bifida in Hispanic babies in Texas and Guatemala, where women consume large amounts of corn that is grown using “organic” or subsistence farming methods. Recent studies have also found fumonisin levels in organic corn nine to 40 times higher than allowed by the UK Food Safety Agency, while levels in biotech Bt corn were close to zero.

Some environmental activist groups distinguish between agricultural and industrial biotechnology. Enzymes modified for industrial use are designed to thrive in very specific contained environments, usually under high heat and pressure, so their ability to survive in the natural environment is greatly curtailed, says senior Natural Resources Defense Council policy analyst Nathanael Greene.

Most environmental groups, however, campaign against all forms of biotechnology. The animosity and investor uncertainty stirred up by these organizations has resulted in numerous projects being abandoned.

Though there is no actual evidence to support their assertions, notes Hoover Institution fellow Henry Miller, Greenpeace claims on its website that gene-spliced crops “have the potential to threaten biodiversity, wildlife and sustainable forms of agriculture.” In a biotechnology policy statement adopted in May 2000, the board of directors of the Sierra Club calls for a moratorium on all such plants – “including those already approved.” Even Greene claims that biotech foods present immediate threats to the environment.

Some 740 million people go to bed every night on empty stomachs – and nearly 30,000 (half of them children) die every day from malnutrition. Meanwhile, activists are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to battle biotechnology.

Their misguided position underscores “their intellectual and moral bankruptcy,” says Greenpeace co-founder Dr. Patrick Moore, who has voiced his support for biotechnology in speeches and in a March 2004 article for the IPA Review (Australia), “Battle for Biotech Progress.” They voice concern for poor people, he observes, but their policies perpetuate poverty and misery. They say they want to save wildlife habitats, but oppose technologies that could make this goal a reality.

What if biotechnology were more widely used? the reports ask. The benefits for industry, farmers, consumers, the world’s poor, wildlife and sustainable development are significant and increasingly obvious. The risks, meanwhile, are manageable and on par with those associated with the many other technologies that make our lives better, healthier and longer than any previous generation has enjoyed.

We have indeed created a technology with amazing promise – if we can keep it.
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Paul Driessen is senior fellow for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power · Black Death.



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