Could Biotech Help the Environment? ; Genetically Engineered Corn and Tomatoes May Reduce Both Pollution and Cost - but Some Are Still Wary

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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 say.

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. …