Biotech, Genetic Engineering and the Boy Who Cried Wolf
September 5, 2007 11:55 AM
Heart muscle repair using adult stems cells
(Source: National Institutes of Health)
Ignorance and fear threaten progress in science and technology's most promising areas
Imagine a new invention so important that it single-handedly revolutionizes our lifestyles, transforms society, and makes possible a lifestyle we could previously only dream about. But it has a dark side. It kills hundreds of thousands of people. Each year. Would it still be worth it?
Actually, the invention I'm thinking of already exists -- the automobile. Indispensable to modern life, but a major cause of accidental death around the world. When the internal combustion engine was first developed, some nations very nearly banned it outright. Wiser heads prevailed, and decided the advantages outweighed the risks. Luckily so, or we'd still be driving a horse and buggy.
Fast-forward to present day, where the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering (GE) are starting to develop. No other research has more potential to better our lives and protect the environment. Biotech isn't just a single advance or invention, but thousands of them -- many more Earth-shattering than the automobile. And while nothing in life is risk-free, biotech means a future society that is
, not more dangerous.
Countless medical cures depend on biotech ... but that's just the start. Imagine new organs grown directly from a patient's own stem cells. The end of genetic diseases and birth defects. Ultra high yield food crops that need no pesticides, or that can be grown in salt water. Bacteria engineered to purify water, or to destroy toxic waste, or to produce biofuels from sewage and other wastes. Grass engineered to never need cutting -- I'm personally rooting for this one myself. Protective levees built not with concrete, but with a packet of seeds. New fabrics, building materials, adhesives, detergents, plastics, dyes, that not only work better, but can be produced with fewer raw materials and less dangerous byproducts. A one-time treatment that stops tooth decay for life. Machines that "heal" themselves. Even the potential to extend life itself, slowing or even preventing the aging process. Name the problem, and the future of biotechnology has a solution for it.
But the same mindset that nearly blocked the automobile now threatens again. Groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have
dedicated to ban genetic engineering, and lawsuits by these groups have already slowed progress and drained billions of dollars away from future research. European Green Party members regularly lobby for legal bans, sometimes successfully.
The problem isn't limited to "liberal" special interest groups either; many conservatives consider it an ungodly "tampering with nature." Stem cell research in the U.S. has a rocky history, and scientists in Britain recently recently dodged an
on human-animal embryo research, considered critical to finding cures to a wide range of diseases.
Food safety is often used to engender these fears. But are natural foods safer? Created randomly by nature. that's exactly what these foods are -- a random mix of chemicals. Some good, some toxic. Potato skins contain the deadly poison
, known to cause birth defects, and in high doses, death. Apple seeds and almonds contain cyanide. Arsenic is widespread in many foods. Pepper, cinnamon, and many other spices contain known liver carcinogens. Celery contains carcinogenic
. But this is just the tip of the iceberg ... nearly all "natural" chemicals have never been tested for long-term effects. For instance, a single cup of coffee contains over 1000 different chemicals, 95% of which have never been the subject of even one scientific study. Roughly half are estimated to have at least some long-term carcinogenic potential.
Some believe natural foods are better because humans have "evolved" to them. But our modern staple foods were not in the diet of a hunter-gatherer; they've only been eaten for a few thousand years. Evolution works far slower than this. And since plants evolve also, many of these "natural" chemicals weren't even around a million years ago.
When we can tailor-design food species, they become safer, not more dangerous. Carcinogens, toxins, and allergens can be removed. Vitamin and nutrient content improved. Even meat can be tailored to be healthier, with less artery-clogging saturated fat. Food designed this way will be extensively tested, a safety check not required for "natural" foods.
Is it risk free? Of course not ... but it's less risky than eating what we already do. Our children will see a future of miracle cures, cleaner land, air, and water, safer foods and a lifestyle we can only dream about. That is, unless we deny them this by allowing ignorance and fear to guide our actions.
"My sex life is pretty good" -- Steve Jobs' random musings during the 2010 D8 conference
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