Could biotech help the environment?

Genetically engineered corn and tomatoes may reduce both pollution and cost - but some are still wary.

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. DuPont hopes to commercialize the technology by 2003.

Typically, companies adopt biotechnology because it cuts costs or improves quality, says Dr. Griffiths of the OECD. In six case studies, he found that the companies saved up to 54 percent of their operating costs by making the switch. The environment benefited too: Water-borne wastes fell, sometimes considerably, in all six cases. Airborne wastes were cut in four cases.

One German company in the mid-1990s came up with a bioengineered method of refining vegetable oils that reduced its wastewater stream and sludge to 1/8th the original levels. The real selling point, however, was a cost reduction of better than 40 percent. Only when companies are threatened with government legislation do they adopt biotechnology for purely environmental reasons, Griffiths argues.

But protests have slowed biotechnology's adoption.

"They definitely have an impact," says Robin Karol, director of innovation and technology at the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. "It makes companies afraid to go into areas like GMOs [genetically modified organisms].... Publicly traded companies are very hesitant. They may not stop what's going on, but they are slowing it down."

Many farmers are also uneasy about adopting the technology. For example, researchers have developed an insect-resistant sweet corn that would save Florida farmers an estimated $1.3 million and cut pesticide use by 80 percent. But since the corn is for people rather than cattle, and other such foods have come under attack, the farmers have proved skeptical.

Many environmentalists don't oppose the technology itself. But they argue the public ought to choose what foods it eats rather than having it dictated by profit-motivated corporations. And the foods should be more thoroughly tested by more truly independent scientists, they say.

Use first, research later?

Early research suggesting genetically modified corn was harming monarch butterflies now appears overstated. More recent work suggests most of the current varieties pose virtually no threat, says Rick Hellmich, a genetics researcher at Iowa State University in Ames. But the biotech industry went about the research backwards, environmentalists argue. Companies rushed their products to market and into the environment long before researchers could definitely say there was no harm.

"For us to be having it decided for us, as a society, that ... all our food is going to be genetically engineered, that our animals are going to be genetically engineered, and that within 20 years people are going to be genetically engineered - I think that's not only unwise but dangerous," says Luke Anderson, author of a book on genetic engineering and a speaker at the antibiotech protest here.

The first day of the convention on Sunday generated a smaller-than-expected crowd of demonstrators - fewer than 1,000. By Monday, that had dwindled to about three dozen who sat and listened to speakers under a tent. The protesters were vastly outnumbered by police officers in a determined show of force by the city.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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