Protesters call biotechnology a ticking time bomb for the
environment. In fact, researchers are finding the technology may
help the environment if it's judiciously used.
Already, it's saving energy in factories, reducing pesticide use
in some crops, and replacing petroleum-based products, such as
polyester, with renewable ones, like so-called "green plastics."
Whether such benefits outweigh the potential risks remains a
question. But after more than a year of missteps and mounting
investor skepticism, the fledgling industry is beginning to put
forward solid evidence that biotechnology can reduce pollution.
By itself, such evidence looks unlikely to convince companies or
farmers to use the new technology. Coupled with projected savings,
however, lagging interest in biotechnology could be revived.
"It's a more environmental-friendly process," says Michael
Griffiths, author of a coming report for the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on biotechnology. "It's
also resulted in cheaper processes."
"The question is not whether we should embrace biotechnology or
global sustainability, but whether we can afford not to," adds Eric
Mathur, senior director of molecular diversity at Diversa Corp.,
speaking here in San Diego at the annual convention of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Take genetically modified food, one of biotech's most
controversial uses. Critics have long contended that bioengineering
crops to tolerate pesticides would increase pesticide use. In fact,
there's some evidence the opposite is true, according to
preliminary results of a 30-crop study funded by the Rockefeller
Foundation, Monsanto, and various industry groups.
Crops that protect themselves
For example, researchers have field-tested an herbicide-tolerant
tomato that lets farmers use one general-purpose herbicide, rather
than a cocktail of several chemicals, to control weeds. If
California farmers adopt the bioengineered tomato, they could cut
pesticide use by 4.2 million pounds a year, estimates the National
Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, which wrote the report.
Increasingly, researchers can engineer crops so they carry the
pesticide, dramatically reducing or even eliminating the need for
spraying. Less spraying means less unintended destruction of
noninvasive insects - a net plus for the environment, researchers
If crop protection represents a $10 billion opportunity for
bioengineering, replacing raw materials for industry offers a market
at least 10 times as large, says Tom Tillett, president of RHeoGene
Inc. in Charlottesville, Va. And it makes increasing economic
sense. "Anyone who looks at the long-term cost of a bushel cost of
corn versus the long-term cost of a barrel of oil can see they are
going in opposite directions," he says. "Clearly, for the chemical
industry, sustainable development is the future."
DuPont, for example, is using a genetically engineered process to
create a polyester-like material called Sorona. Compared to
polyester, it's far more resilient to stretching and, more
importantly, it's not 100-percent petroleum-based. Part of it comes
from corn. …