Synthetic biology: An emperor with no clothes? – By Allison Domicone

Reposted from Policy Matters Journal

9-11shiva-fromaudienceallisonDomicone2284206On September 11, I had the great pleasure of attending a public conversation with one of my heroes, Dr. Vandana Shiva, at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley. Shiva is a highly respected Indian physicist and activist who has for decades been speaking truth to power with an eloquence and moral courage that I only wish more global leaders would aspire to attain. Shiva is a particularly vocal critic of synthetic biology — the design and construction of artificial biological organisms or the redesign of existing natural biological systems — and biotechnology, any technological application that uses biological systems to make or modify products or processes for specific use.

Shiva was in conversation with Gopal Dayaneni of Movement Generation, a justice and ecology project. Dayaneni and Shiva discussed the controversial hype and hope surrounding the escalating use of biotechnology. They were specifically calling out the pitfalls of projects like the East Bay “Green Corridor” – whose mission is to “create a thriving region of green technology innovation, commercialization and economic development that generates high quality jobs and meets environmental and social goals.” Founding partners of the project include UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Another point of contention during the evening’s discussion was the “National Bioeconomy Blueprint” – released by the U.S. government earlier this year. It heralds a “commitment to strengthening bioscience research as a major driver of American innovation and economic growth.” Among the proponents of the Blueprint is Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley and Chief Executive Officer of the Joint BioEnergy Institute. In early 2013, Keasling uttered the bold battle cry that “Synthetic Biology is the field of the future.”

Dr. Shiva would beg to differ.

There’s a difference, she explained, between “good science” and “bad science.” The science behind the bioeconomy is fueled by the West and by a desire to maximize output and profitability – but for only a few. This kind of science has been compromised by greed. “Good science,” on the other hand, is driven not by the desire to increase profit, but by a deep appreciation for knowledge and an understanding of science as a public service. Good science draws on a reverence for existing natural systems, rather than an obsession with manipulating them or creating them anew.

Bad science, Shiva argued, is shooting at a target that it doesn’t even know whether it exists at all – and leaving a trail of violence and destruction in its wake.

The effects of this brand of science, according to Shiva, are questionable at best and catastrophic at worst. Dr. Shiva pointed to the mass desertification of the Punjab state of India and the steep rise of cancer there, following the “Green Revolution” of the 60s and 70s. She also spoke of the estimated 284,000 farmer suicides (a low-ball figure), which she believes are closely linked to crop failure and to predatory lending practices resulting from the high cost of genetically-modified, patented seeds distributed by global behemoth Monsanto.

As a good student of public policy, I naturally question any claim of causation, even where there is irrefutable correlation. But as a thinking, reasoning human being, I agree with Shiva’s ultimate claim – that we have allowed scientific and technological advances to go unquestioned and unchecked to disastrous effect. We have put too much faith in their promise of silver bullets and miracle cures.

To our own discredit and shame, Shiva claims, we are standing in the presence of a proverbial emperor wearing no clothes and doing absolutely nothing to call him out. We’re cheering on more and more advances in biotechnology, clapping and pretending like we don’t see the evidence directly before our eyes that perhaps this is not the best way to go.

If we stopped our incessant cheering long enough to take a critical look at the situation, many of us would likely find – as Shiva and so many others have also found – that we cannot in good conscience or good economic sense continue along the same path we have been.

In the United States in particular, we cannot continue to construct myopic policies that do not consider – or worse, boldly disregard – the ripple effect they create in places and on people who did not have a say in the plan in the first place. We also cannot continue to expect our pursuits to be sustainable. We laude biotech feats of wonder, such as pest-resistant crops, but then scratch our heads when they lead to biotech messes like pesticide-resistant insects. We then head back to the laboratory drawing board and begin the vicious cycle again. How have we overlooked the fact that the common denominator here is our blind faith that science will always save us, every time?

Shiva argues that we need to put not growth and profit at the center of our pursuit of science, but survival. “Survival,” she coolly and pointedly states, “is not such a bad idea.”

We need to center a “green economy” on understanding, sustaining, and caring for the resources that we already have – and learning to co-exist with them. Part of that process will involve finding the courage and humility to admit that as humans we do not have all the answers, much as we would like to think we do.

Dr. Shiva argues that the answers to issues like food security and energy are already in nature. Take for example the case of farmers in Bihar, a village in India’s poorest state, who are growing world record amounts of rice with no genetically modified seeds and no herbicide.

At this point in human evolution, I believe it is no longer acceptable to engage in the kind of selfish and destructive behavior that we have justified for so long in our pursuit of science and technology. It is no longer acceptable to unquestionably worship the free market and the institutions of the Global North.

There is a massive opportunity at this moment in time for the United States in particular to show some decency, if we have any left (and I believe we do), and bring more diverse voices into the conversation about biotechnology, food security, and global welfare.

What can we learn from the tiny country of Bhutan, which has chosen to measure prosperity in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP)?

What can we learn from the everyday heroes – the farmers in Bihar, low-income communities engaging in urban gardening, and scientists like Vandana Shiva who are looking within ecosystems to find answers to the toughest questions humanity faces today?

I recognize that this is a complex conversation and I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I for one am tired of hearing from the same voices – mostly male, mostly white, and mostly from the United States or Europe – saying that they do. This is our future survival at stake. We cannot afford to get this one wrong. We cannot afford to be blind. We cannot afford to have a one-sided conversation. So let’s start by listening to those of us who are not cheering on the emperor.

You can see a video from the event here.

Allison Domicone is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy