Designer Jeans from Designer Genes: Henry Miller National Post Op-Ed
Published February 12, 2001
The National Post (Canada)
Self-styled environmentalists have been virtually unanimous in opposing biotechnology, or gene-splicing, in agricultural and environmental applications. To obstruct the technology, they've demanded a ban of product testing and commercialization; some have even vandalized field trials.
But they are willing to settle for stultifying overregulation. Consumers International has lobbied for regulation that would make gene-splicing too expensive and uncertain (as to profitability) to be used widely. Greenpeace said in its 1999 federal tax filings that it seeks not the prudent, safe use of gene-spliced foods or even their labeling; rather it demands nothing less than these products' 'complete elimination [from] the food supply and the environment.'
Environmentalists' relentless antagonism belies the fact that gene-splicing is both extremely versatile and friendly to the environment. Consider the two-part example of the use of designer genes to make designer jeans. The two principal components of blue jeans are cotton fabric and indigo dye. Both can now be produced with environment-sparing biotech.
Gene-spliced cotton differs from other commercial varieties by the presence of a single protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The protein, made by a gene transferred to the cotton plant by gene-splicing techniques, is toxic to certain insects but not to humans or other mammals. Preparations of live Bt bacteria have for decades been sprayed on to plants by home gardeners and commercial farmers, with an admirable record of both safety and effectiveness.
The Bt cotton controls several major pests, the cotton and pink bollworm and the tobacco budworm, which account for a quarter of all pest infestation losses. In 1999, the US states favoring Bt cotton significantly reduced their chemical use, from an average of three treatments per acre to about one and a half. Bt cotton has eliminated the need for more than two million pounds of chemical pesticides since it was introduced in 1996.
In purely economic terms, Bt cotton benefits farmers both by reducing chemical pesticide costs and by increasing the cotton yields. Bt cotton provides the highest per acre monetary benefits to farmers of all the Bt-containing crops, which include corn and soybeans. The aggregate advantage to cotton farmers nationally -- the net value of crops not lost to pests, savings in pesticides and so on -- is in the range of US$100-million to US$150-million per year.
But the economic benefits pale beside the environmental advantages. Aquatic wildlife is threatened by three of the chemicals that must be used in much greater amounts on conventional, non-Bt cotton: endosulfan, methyl parathion and profenos. Environmental regulators have expressed concerns about these chemicals' effects on birds, fish and other aquatic organisms.
Bt cotton's lessened need for chemical pesticides also reduces occupational exposures to the toxic chemicals by workers who mix, load and apply the pesticides, and who perform other activities that require their presence in the field. Moreover, the less pesticide applied, the less runoff into waterways, a significant problem in many of the nation's agricultural regions.
Cotton is only half the blue jeans story, however. Without the right dye, you'll die in the marketplace. And the standard process for producing the indigo dye is an ecological and occupational monstrosity. Synthetic indigo production involves eight discrete operations involving highly toxic chemicals. The process requires special precautions and physical facilities to protect workers and the environment.
By contrast, making indigo with a gene-spliced bacterium involves only three operations, uses water instead of toxic organic solvents, employs corn syrup (which is safe and cheap) as the primary starting material, and yields byproducts (biomass and carbon dioxide) instead of waste products.
Biotech is, thus, a green way to produce blue jeans -- an example that is only a microcosm of what the technology could offer if only it weren't so beleaguered by excessive government regulation and the attacks of activists. Environmentalists acting in good faith should be demanding -- not obstructing -- biotech in agricultural and industrial applications.
Henry Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994 and is the author of To America's Health: A Proposal to Reform the Food and Drug Administration. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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