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Biotechnology: the case for sustainability

John Elkington
19 August 2003

Yes, to show my cards from the outset, I believe there is a ‘sustainability case’ for many forms of biotechnology. But not all, and not in all circumstances. Used wisely, genetic modification technology could play a part in the development of a truly sustainable world, with environmental and social benefits as well as economic ones. But before I explain why, perhaps I should declare an interest – and explain where I’m coming from.

I first worked on biotechnology for the UK Department of the Environment in 1980. The department’s strategic planners wanted to know what the environmental impacts of these new technologies might be. Later, for fifteen years from 1983, I edited Biotechnology Bulletin, enabling me to visit over a hundred biotech companies worldwide. I wrote a book (The Gene Factory: Inside the Biotechnology Business, Century Publishing, 1985) and several reports, including Double Dividends: US Biotechnology and Third World Development (World Resources Institute, 1986).

Since we founded the business strategy and sustainable development consultancy SustainAbility in 1987, we have also worked for a number of companies that use modern biotechnology and genetic engineering. Our longest-standing relationship is with Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, but other companies that we work – or have worked – with in this area include Aventis, Cargill Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Unilever.

Because of the sensitivity of the issues, we developed a policy statement specifically on biotechnology in 1998 and posted it on our website. Our values had been severely tested late in 1997 when working with Monsanto, a relationship we unilaterally and publicly resigned early in 1998 (as described in our book The Chrysalis Economy).

We don’t like resigning from relationships with our clients, but the issue was fundamental: we had concluded that the way Monsanto planned to handle biotechnology in Europe, particularly genetically modified foods, was doomed to failure. Worse, it threatened to undermine public confidence in other types of biotechnology. And so it proved. But none of that has shaken our belief that biotechnology will play a central role in the achievement of more sustainable forms of development.

Three scenarios, three conditions

We do see three possible scenarios for the future of genetic modification (GM), however. We label them Nuclear, Antibiotic and Microchip. In the first scenario, GM technologies are seen as having great promise early on, but then being progressively restricted as major issues arise. In the second, the usefulness of the technologies ensures wide use, but resistance and other negative effects drive growing controls. The third scenario is the one in most GM scientists’ minds, in which modified genes become as ubiquitous in the modern world as microprocessors and chips.

Our interest in the longer-term potential of such technologies should be seen in the context of likely demographic trends and of the UN Millennium Development Goals. The UN’s goals range from reducing extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/Aids. No one should expect technology to solve all our fundamental socio-economic problems, which often have strong political roots. But I cannot see how the world will feed, service and support a population of 9-10 billion people in the latter half of this century without radically new technologies.

The concern is not simply the old population numbers issue, but the sheer speed of the innovation processes that will be needed to cope with the changes that growing human numbers and population densities bring. These range from Sars-like infections through to the agricultural and health knock-on effects of climate change.

So does that mean that the protestors were wrong to try to stop Monsanto’s promotion of GM crops in Europe? Or, as Kisan Mehta and Jyoti Fernandes have argued in openDemocracy, that farmers in the Indian sub-continent are wrong to resist attempts to impose solutions on them? No, absolutely not. Indeed the opposite is true. The implications of these technologies are so great that they need vigorous, open debate over many years, even decades.

The issue of who controls not only the technology but (in the case of GM crops) agriculture itself is central to the debate. If these technologies were being introduced by government-owned agencies, many have argued, there would be less concern. But control is only one of the issues that will need to be addressed head on.

Issues of traceability and consumer choice are going to be absolutely fundamental to the development and introduction of more sustainable technologies. And, whatever they may have argued, Monsanto and its US government backers were clearly trying to deny European consumers choice by resisting GM crop segregation and the labelling of foods based on GM crop products.

History suggests that any new technology will have a range of positive and negative impacts – economic, social and environmental. Modern biotechnology will follow the same pattern. If we are to introduce such technologies successfully in our increasingly complex world, we must ensure at least three basic conditions are met: (1) high levels of transparency and accountability; (2) small-scale piloting before large-scale introduction; and (3) a rapid response capacity to pull potentially problematic technologies or products off the market if and when significant problems begin to appear, even in the teeth of resistance from those pushing the technology.

Red, white, green - or black?

Ultimately, public confidence will be a make-or-break factor in innovating our way towards sustainability. And, as history also shows, public confidence is both hard to build and easy to erode. One necessary early step will be to help citizens understand what is involved – and what the implications of different technologies might be. The use of citizens’ juries and similar processes can be useful in this respect, but only if citizens are genuinely allowed to make up their own minds on what should happen.

In thinking about how to introduce novel biotechnologies, I find it helpful to consider the labels used by EuropaBio (the European Association for Bioindustries). It uses different colours to distinguish different application areas. So, for example, red biotechnology covers indicate such human health care applications as diagnostics, vaccines, medicines and, over the longer term, gene therapy; white biotechnology involves the use of living cells like bacteria, moulds and yeasts to produce antibiotics, vitamins and enzymes; and green biotechnology can boost the production of renewable materials and fuels – and cut environmental impacts.

All these forms of biotechnology, and others, will need to be developed in close consultation with a wide range of stakeholders if they are to be socially sustainable. Green biotechnology, for example sounds attractive, until you recall that GM crops raise a whole raft of control, intellectual property rights, resistance and cross-contamination issues. And this can be just as true for applications developed with social or environmental goals in mind.

Such issues will need to be handled with particular sensitivity in the developing world, although past experience and the likely socio-economic impacts of these technologies suggest that we will see a continuing succession of major controversies in such countries.

But so great is the pace of change, and so focused will the bioindustry be on getting products with real benefits to consumers that my hunch is that by 2020 many different forms of genetic modification will be widely accepted by the public that would currently seem almost unimaginable.

For this to happen Europe will need to build democratically accountable political institutions and regulatory agencies that help rebuild public trust. The scale of the challenge is enormous, particularly given the growing ‘spoiling’ power of the media. In this context, another necessary condition for sustainable innovation in Europe will be better education in science, technology and sustainable development. Europeans will also need more timely, credible and useful information on the characteristics of particular products.

But no one should use the very real innovation gap between Europe and the US as an alibi for force-feeding Europeans, or anyone else, with the products of biotechnology without their prior informed consent. Nor, despite the early failures of the coalition forces to find weapons of mass destruction (including germ warfare weapons) in Iraq, should we forget the very real long-term risks of what we might call aggressive biotechnology (or perhaps black biotechnology).

Anyone who wants to get a sense of where that might take us should read The White Plague by the late Frank Herbert. When he wrote the book, over twenty years ago, he did the costings for a lab in which genetic weapons could be developed to kill off the world’s women. When I talked to him soon afterwards he had reassessed the costings, because the first major recession to hit the biotech industry had left mountains of sophisticated equipment available at virtually bargain basement prices.

Bio-innovation for all?

In the face of this particular aspect of biotechnology’s potential, you might expect me to side with those who want to stuff the gene genie back into the bottle. Not so: even if we wanted to renounce GM technology now, we couldn’t. Indeed, I support further bio-innovation in line with the principles of sustainability and the three conditions outlined above.

But there is also something about the thinking of Richard Jefferson which I find deeply thought-provoking. He argues that biotechnology suffers because it is often pursued by giant corporations shifting from industrial chemistry to industrial biology, Monsanto among them. By contrast, he insists that we should radically democratise bio-innovation, to ensure both equity and food security. The idea of farmers setting up their own bio-labs, might raise hairs on many necks (how would we feel about North Korean GM farm labs?), but don’t dismiss Jefferson out of hand. By definition, managing radical challenges requires radical thinking.

In many ways, what people like Richard Jefferson have in mind is very much akin to what happened with computers. To begin with, they were the preserve of very large producers and very large users. Then with the invention of the personal computer they escaped from their air-conditioned habitats out into the real world, mutating that world as they went. The early internet, in turn, was cross-fertilised with these new technologies to put amazing tools in the hands of ordinary citizens.

In the US, similarly, there are those who see the same thing happening with technologies like fuel cells, on the road to the much-vaunted ‘hydrogen economy’, and with space travel, with super-wealthy people like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos intent on prizing space travel out of the bureaucratic claws of Nasa.

However much we may feel that the GM-in-everyman’s-hands future is a profoundly uncomfortable vision of the future, history suggests this is the way things will go. So do we wait for the future to run us off the road, or do we try to jump aboard and grab the steering wheel?

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