new bits on biotech, hacked bacteria

Justin Mason jm at
Mon Nov 24 22:50:41 PST 2003

Interesting bits from

  Biotech and the Environment

  "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 using 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.

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