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close this bookEco-restructuring: Implications for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1998, 417 p.)
close this folderPart I: Restructuring resource use
close this folder3. Ecological process engineering: The potential of bio-processing
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEditor's note
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe current situation: The status of biotechnologies
View the documentPotential and promises
View the documentMarket penetration by biotechnology
View the documentBarriers to penetration
View the documentFinal remarks
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Barriers to penetration

To implement and accelerate these changes, a number of conditions must be met. Most of the points made in this section have already been made, but need emphasis. For one thing, it is vitally important to preserve biodiversity, not just for its own sake, but to preserve the genetic information embodied in living organisms. It is not just a question of finding whole organisms with valuable properties. It may be equally important to find organisms with just one valuable property that can be traced to a particular gene or group of genes. It is this possibility that raises hopes of giving food crops the ability to fix nitrogen, or to resist insects, or to tolerate saltier water or colder or hotter temperatures, or to metabolize and break down chlorinated aromatics, such as PCBs, and so on.

It is also important to focus more research on bio-processing. The potential for substituting organic enzymes for inorganic catalysts is worthy of far more attention than it has ever received. The same is true of the use of microorganisms for processing low-grade metal ores or purifying industrial wastes containing heavy metals.

Of course, it is important to develop and to use genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) in a sustainable way. This will require extensive and coordinated research in other sciences, including social and cultural factors. A series of open questions must be asked and answered concerning any application of GEOs.

There are scientific arguments for questioning the scientific validity of the basic premises of genetic engineering. A major assumption is that each specific feature of an organism is encoded in one or a few specific, stable genes so that transferring a gene results in the transfer of a discrete feature, and nothing else. This, however, represents an extreme form of genetic reductionism. It fails to take into account the complex interactions between genes and their cellular, extra-cellular, and external environments. Changing a gene's environment can produce a cascade of further unpredictable changes that could conceivably be harmful.

In the case of genetic transfer to an unrelated host it is literally impossible to predict the consequences: the stabilizing "buffering" control circuits for a gene are exposed to disruption and may be ineffective in new hosts. Owing to the high degree of complexity of any living organism, firm predictions of outcomes are nearly impossible because genomes are known to be "fluid." In other words, they are subject to a host of destabilizing processes such that the transferred gene may mutate, transpose, or recombine within the genome. It can even be transferred to a third organism or another species. In short, the evolutionary stability of organism and ecosystem may be disrupted and threatened. Like the genie in the bottle (in the tale of Aladdin's lamp), once a GEO is deliberately released, or inadvertently escapes from containment, it can never be recalled, even if adverse effects occur. GEOs may migrate, mutate, and multiply.

In addition, there are serious ethical issues concerning the patenting and ownership of life-forms, including implications for cultural values and for indigenous peoples and poor countries.

Editor's note: It is impractical to summarize these issues here, but it is clear that there are many legitimate concerns. Scientists and the business world tend to take the view that the general public should be excluded from the inner circles of decision-making, on grounds of inadequate technical knowledge. But this attitude is essentially undemocratic. It is also likely to backfire. It is worthwhile recalling that nuclear power technology has been discredited largely as a result of public distrust of what the so-called "experts" in government and industry were telling them. To overcome the public knowledge gap, some countries are organizing lay conferences (e.g. NEM 1996).

As an exemplary case, Norway's Gene Technology Act, section 10 (Norway 1993), includes four criteria for a GEO to be acceptable:

- safe to people

- safe to the environment, i.e. the entire ecosphere

- beneficial to the community

- contributing to sustainable development.

Of course, these criteria are quite general. There are endless arguments over how these criteria should be tested and measured. More specific criteria to qualify a micro-organism as "environmentally safe" have been put forward. For instance (Lelieveld et al. 1993):

- non-pathogenic for plants and animals

- unable to reproduce in the open environment (including by delayed reproduction of survival forms such as spores)

- unable to alter equilibria irreversibly between environmental microbial populations

- unable, in the open environment, to transfer genetic traits that would be noxious in other species.

Editor's note: The overriding concern will be safety. It is all too easy to envision GEOs escaping into the natural environment and causing irreversible changes in natural ecosystems. The damage that can be caused by species being introduced inadvertently into environments where they have no natural enemies are well known. A few reminders will help make the point. The rabbit, no problem in Europe, became a major pest when it was introduced into Australia. The sea lamprey, introduced into the Great Lakes via the Welland Canal, has caused great harm to the freshwater fishery there. Dutch elm disease, imported to North America from Europe, has virtually wiped out the most beautiful shade trees of the eastern part of the continent. Another disease of unknown origin has totally wiped out the American chestnut trees, which once dominated the eastern forests. The Japanese beetle also caused enormous damage to agriculture before it was brought under control by pesticides. If such damage can be caused by species that already exist, some sceptics will (and do) argue that the problem could be worse with deliberate genetic manipulation in the picture.

But even the foregoing criteria are ambiguous in a number of ways, because it is unclear how it is to be determined whether or not the criteria are satisfied. It is likely that, in practice, the process of testing and certification for GEOs will be no less rigorous (and possibly much more so) than the current process for drug testing in the United States. Moser takes the view that deliberate ecosystem modification (whether or not GEOs are involved) is wrong and should be prohibited on the grounds of being contra natural (owing to "invasiveness". In principle it is easy to agree, but in practice it seems unlikely that Moser's view will prevail.

Apart from safety and environmental security, there are a number of other questions to be asked and answered with respect to any proposed application. These include questions concerning costs, benefits, and secondary impacts (e.g. reduced need for extractable raw materials, reduced CO2 emissions, remediation of polluted rivers, lakes, or soil, and the maintenance of biodiversity). But, again, it is impossible to go further into detail here.