Fun Facts to Know
And Tell About Biotechnology

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
Copyright 1999 Wall Street Journal
November 17, 1999

If mankind rejects the benefits of gene splicing, there will be a better reason than one company's public relations miscues. Monsanto was on a promising track when it turned itself into a "life sciences" company. Biotechnology would be the pinion of an agricultural, pharmaceutical and food complex. Until European consumers began going AWOL, Wall Street loved the idea.

Now the stock has revived slightly, but only on hopes the company will be taken over and broken up. So much for "life sciences." Novartis took the same path, and now the Swiss company is a rumored Monsanto suitor. The idea would be to make a package of their ag products divisions, sell it, and be free of a political liability.

Though genetically engineered bacteria today produce virtually all insulin for diabetics, nobody has taken to the streets in protest. When a genetically engineered tomato puree landed on the shelves in 1996, the most gene-averse public in Europe, the Brits, lapped it up because it tasted good.

Things only began going wrong with the delivery of crop technology whose benefits were murky to the average consumer. Biotechnology won't be going away, so we better get used to thinking intelligently about it.

Are we taking chances by tinkering with nature? Yes.

Yield-enhancing innovations by definition increase the survivability of the plant. The sexual life of the pollen being what it is, these innovations stand a chance of being spread to the gene pool of related wild plants.

It would be surprising if introducing gene-altered species into the environment didn't have some unintended consequences. This upsets people who believe nature is a "delicate balance."

The average human comes into daily contact with a million species of bacteria and about 5,000 viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These have short lifespans and high evolutionary rates. If you want to lie awake worrying about something, worry about a mutation popping out of this natural laboratory to wipe out mankind.

In fact, the microbial species capable of creating a deadly, easily spread plague can be counted on one hand. Bubonic plague wasn't evolved to kill humans, but to live peaceably inside a rat flea. The ability to kill humans is an evolutionary fluke with no survival value. Pathogens don't fare well if they kill their hosts.

All this suggests that biotechnology might go awry in 105 unexpected ways, but the result would be a nuisance rather than a catastrophe.

Does biotechnology mean the end of the farm economy as we know it? Yes, thank goodness.

Part of the alarm arises from how quickly gene foods have spread through the food system. European consumers feel unconsulted. Supermarket chains have sought to appease them by declaring their shelves free of gene food. Politicians are checking the polls hourly to decide where they stand.

But the reason biotechnology has been taken up so rapidly in the crop sectors is because of the relentless pressure on farmers to cut costs and keep their heads above water. Thus it always has been, and one of biotechnology's unsung benefits will be to end the boom-and-bust roller coaster of farm life.

Commodities will no longer be commodities, but differentiated goods. Experimental crops in the ground are already producing vaccines and anti-cancer agents. Genes have been introduced into plants to produce a biodegradable plastic. In the backlog at the U.S. patent office are plans to engineer cows to produce a host of medicinal enzymes, acids and proteins in their milk.

Growing numbers of farmers are already acting as subcontractors for agribusiness, producing genetically engineered grains for poultry and livestock feeds. They earn $1 more a bushel than producers of commodity crops.

This is a phenomenon seen everywhere these days. As the old commodity sectors encounter the global marketplace, their biggest customers decide it no longer makes sense to rely on volatile market prices. Cost-of-capital makes a better discipline, so they strike long-term contracts with suppliers with incentives built-in for sharing efficiency gains.

Farmers will no longer have to battle the market, their livelihoods determined by the Chicago Board of Trade. They will become more like Detroit's auto-parts makers, who are increasingly becoming integrated into every phase of design and manufacturing.

Most of the gene innovations coming in the next wave are already aimed at customizing products rather than boosting yields. And these won't pose "outcrossing" risks like the first-generation herbicide- and bug-resistant crops. It may take only a few hundred acres of corn to produce the world supply of a vaccine antibody, or a few hundred cows to produce a therapeutic protein. We're not talking a big assault on the gene pool.

Even so, the massive crop technologies already being employed on the farm are probably worth the risk. To feed itself over the next four decades, mankind will have to produce a larger quantity of food than all the food produced since the beginning of time. We're still waiting for Greenpeace's answer to that one.

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