There be no dragons

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 13 October 2006.

Biotechnology promises much, but it’s in everyone’s interest that we proceed with cautious optimism and not cut corners with research.

Debate surrounding the promises and pitfalls of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies is often polarised, with vested interests on both sides shouting each other down and clamouring for media attention. Scientists actively involved in the field are often reluctant to wade into the minefield of public discourse, given the potential for damage to their careers if they express concerns about how their research is exploited. They wish also to avoid being co-opted by anti-science factions that oppose biotechnology on principle.

David Suzuki is an award-winning Canadian geneticist who in the 1960s and 70s dominated the field in his own country. In the 1980s, Dr Suzuki, despite being passionate about the science, became disillusioned with genetic engineering research owing to the social, political and economic ramifications of the work he and others were doing, and how difficult it was for jobbing scientists to participate in public debate. He therefore stopped applying for research grants, terminated his career at the lab bench, and concentrates now on science and environmental advocacy through writing books, public speaking and directing the work of the David Suzuki Foundation.

In a recent New Scientist article (subscription required), David Suzuki relates how he felt a conflict of interest between being actively involved in research using genetic manipulation technologies and engaging in the ethical debate surrounding them. While such retrospective justification for career change may not do justice to researchers who speak publicly while declaring and managing their conflicts of interest, Suzuki has a point, and the work he has done since leaving the lab speaks for itself.

So what is it that concerns David Suzuki and others critically-supportive of genetic engineering and biotechnology as a whole?

Biotech is big business. Very big business. Worldwide, the industry has an annual turnover of over €50bn. Life sciences also dominate academia, as even a cursory glance at research job vacancy notices and official statistics will show. These are exciting times to be working as a biotech scientist, and progress in the field could have great benefits for humankind.

Biotechnology is a very broad field, covering everything from crop science to lifestyle pharmaceuticals, and to help us cope with the sheer immensity of it all, scientists have helpfully colour-coded the various sub-sectors. Red biotechnology applies to medical processes such as the use of organisms in the production of antibiotics, and the engineering of therapies through genetic manipulation. White (or grey) biotech concerns industrial processes such as the use of micro-organisms in catalysing chemical reactions (e.g., brewing better beer), while green is related to agriculture, and includes the design of transgenic plants suited to particular environmental conditions.

Among consumers, there is some concern over the introduction of genetically-modified (GM) foods, and many take an anti-GM line on foodstuffs for reasons that are more to do with consumer choice than concerns over safety. In North America, GM foods are widespread, and labelling rules are not as stringent as they are in Europe. Large biotechnology companies are lobbying governments to lift restrictions on GM foods, and pressure is being put on the European Union to harmonise its regulatory system with that of the US and Canada. Pressure on Europe to accept unlabelled GM foods should be resisted as free peoples should never be be forced into becoming experimental subjects against their will. The chances of harmful substances entering the food chain are tiny, and if people are fully informed, opposition to GM is likely to lessen, but consumer choice and support is essential.

Biotechnology is cutting edge science, but in all the excitement one can lose perspective, make unwarranted claims and fail to admit ignorance for fear of the commercial consequences of such lack of faith. It’s what we don’t understand that should concern us, and the erroneous assumption that genes exist in isolation is a case in point. For example, taking a gene for frost resistance from an animal and inserting it into a food crop may well have the desired effect, but one cannot ignore the fact that single genes are part of a complex organism – a whole genome – and we need to understand how genes function collectively in vivo. Reductionist and holistic approaches are both required for a full understanding, but it takes time to work these things out through theory, experiment and close observation.

Most biotechnology is unproblematic, but genetic engineering remains a crude science, and needs time to mature. But how does this fit in with a dynamic market? This is a difficult question, and one to which there are as yet very few answers. Legitimate environmental and ethical concerns mean that the industry must be subject to a degree of community oversight, but we should be wary of relying on statutory micro-regulation of the market in dealing with problems that arise, as this could act as a brake on innovation. There is a need for a constant stream of communication between biotech scientists, investors and the public, and this is in the long-term interests of all the parties concerned. After all, we want technologies that work and have no adverse consequences, and those financing the industry need to secure their investments and make a decent return on them.

We have to get this right, and cannot afford to cut corners in research. But on the other hand, we cannot allow the precautionary principle to arrest the development of promising technologies for fear of minor and controllable side effects. Mistakes have been made, and no doubt we will see more, but we have to keep our fears under control. If public consent can be secured, we should proceed with cautious optimism. Biotechnology will not lead to the creation of monsters, or a world covered in ‘grey goo‘, and we have much to lose if we reject biotechnology out of misplaced and ill-conceived concerns.

Keywords: science technology biology chemistry industry environment medicine health society economy human-rights world north-america europe