"The Data Show that Currently Approved GM Crops Have no Detectable Impact on Health"
Lee Silver, author of "Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life", reviews for Scitizen the trends in the research field of Biotechnology.
Can you define biotechnology?
Biotechnology is the controlled manipulation and use of cells, plants, or animals to enhance the production of chemical substances or physical entities, or to carry out processes with value of some kind to people.
What are the major trends in the research field of biotechnology?
Modern biologists view living organisms as dynamic systems of targeted energy utilization and information processing. Researchers have made enormous progress using automated, high-throughput detection machines and computer simulation to identify the molecular components of living cells, and the interactions that molecules have with each other.
Transgenic animals and plants, like GMOs, are not wildly accepted. What are the risks for human health?
Modern lab-based genetic engineering is based first on rationale design of a genetic modification to achieve a particular goal, followed by an actual targeted DNA change. This is different from the traditional approach to creating and manipulating crop genomes (used over the last 10,000 years), which is based on selecting individual organisms that have accumulated random mutations. Modern genetic modification is no more dangerous, in theory, than traditional mutation selection. If new crops are evaluated on a case-by-case basis (required for modern technology but not traditional technology), potential problems can be ascertained and used in the decision to approve or not approve their commercialization. The data show that currently approved GM crops (eaten by over 300 million Americans over the past ten years) have no detectable impact on health. On the other hand, soy grown by organic farmers has caused the deaths of dozens, if not hundreds, of children.
The promise of miracle drugs is being evoked by pharmaceutical companies. Is there such a drug to date? Do pharmaceutical companies exaggerate the expected results?
Actually, antibiotics were miracle drugs that have saved hundreds of millions of lives since the middle of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, anti-hypertensive and anti-hypercholesterol drugs were developed that have saved a hundred million people from pre-mature death. Of course, pharmaceutical companies are like all companies -- they exaggerate their progress and further benefits to human health (which will be more minor in comparison to previous breakthroughs).
Can green biotechnology help to develop environmentally friendly alternative fuels?
The benefit of biofuels is still contested as an alternative energy source. The advantage is that biofuels are based on the extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere, so that when the fuel is burned, no new greenhouse gases are emitted. The big problem is that large areas of land would have to be used to grow plants for biofuel, and this is not good for biodiversity or the larger environment. Hopefully, new technology will allow solutions to these problems and we will get a satisfactory alternative fuel source from biological material.
The bioinformatics, or computational biology, is field is not well-known. What can be the major applications?
Bioinformatics is used to identify the components and the interactions among component parts of biological systems. It is a fundamental tool of modern molecular biology and biotechnology. None of the recent advances in understanding could have been made without it.
Are if green biotech products are more environmentally friendly than traditional agricultural products?
I am not sure what you mean by a green biotech product. If you mean the products of genetically engineered plants (the way I would define green biotech), then the answer is yes. This technology uses the renewable resource of the sun, it is self-replicating, it is non-polluting, and it could provide a range of sustainable products from medicines to fuel.
Do we know the future health and environmental implications of biotechnological practices?
Biotechnology has been practiced for 10,000 years in the form of agriculture. Today, agriculture occupies 38% of the landmass of the earth. This means that humankind is responsible for destroying 38% of the natural above-ground ecosystems. The only way to reverse this destruction is with the use of environmentally-friendly biotech applications to reduce the amount of land required to grow crops and to reduce the pollution that emits from farm animals.
There are ethical questions posed by the application of biotechnology. Can you discuss some of the major issues that we are currently dealing with?
Biotechnology can be used for good purposes or bad purposes, for profit or for humanity, for the environment or in a way that is indifferent to the environment.
(These are quotes from my book):
The decision to accept or reject many biotech applications will involve difficult tradeoffs among ethical values like human autonomy, preservation of cultural traditions, societal well being, and environmental protection. But a clear understanding that tradeoffs are, indeed, involved is essential for good policy-making in a democratic society. It makes no sense to sustain a blind faith in the integrity of what occurs naturally if what we really care about is the wellbeing of humanity and the environment in which we live.
The earth is a finite place already altered drastically (although unconsciously, until recently) through direct or indirect exploitation by billions of human beings. Continued exploitive growth with increases in human population is unsustainable. "Traditional" methods of plant and animal farming will consume more land to feed more people, at the cost of more lost forests, more environmental degradation, and greater species extinction. The only hope for preserving and protecting wilderness and wildlife -- while feeding humankind -- will come not from banning biotechnology, but from embracing it, and guiding it.
Interview by: Thanh-Tam Candice Vu
Lee M. Silver is Professor of Molecular Biology & Public Affairs at Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. He's author of "Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life", Ecco (May 30, 2006), 464 pages