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Biotechnology Advocates Look to a Brighter Future through Genetic Engineering

  • Robert Wildeboer

Biotechnology can eradicate disease, provide renewable energy, solve the problem of world hunger and help the local economy. That was the message at this month's Biotechnology Industry Organization conference in Chicago.

In this crowd of 20,000 conference attendees, there doesn't seem to be a single pessimist. Almost everyone here thinks biotechnology - a fledgling industry that manipulates living cells to create useful products - has the potential to solve the world's most pressing problems, from disease and hunger to poverty and pollution.

Lois Fergusson is standing in an exhibit that looks like an upscale American kitchen. She points to the products used to make this 'green' kitchen. "Our countertop is made from hemp and then here we have our cupboards, [they] are made from wheat straw, very strong and it's a renewable resource." She says this type of manufacturing will allow Americans to maintain their high standard of living without putting so much pressure on the environment. Fergusson then shows off plastic forks, knives and cups all made from corn starch. They can be used once, thrown out and they'll biodegrade in thirty days.

A few booths down, Steen Riisgaard stands next to a racecar. He's the president of Novozymes, a Danish company that produces ethanol, a corn-based substitute for gasoline. "Last year, [160 billion liters] of fuel ethanol were produced here in the United States," he says. "The expectation is that this number will grow by 25 percent this year and another 25 percent next year and so on." Riisgaard says that's good for the environment because ethanol doesn't emit harmful emissions like gasoline engines do. And it's good for politics because the U.S. won't have to rely on foreign sources of oil.

And it's good for business. Indeed, biotechnology's business potential is something more and more countries are showing an interest in… countries like Ireland, which has a popular exhibit booth here. There's a long line of conventioneers waiting to get a free pint of Guinness while they listen to live music and maybe get a pitch from Samara McCarthy. She's here to convince biotech companies to locate in Ireland. "We're actually putting together sites that are ready for companies to move straight into," she explains, "so we have a pre-approved planning permission for all the different aspects that will be needed for developing a biotech site." McCarthy says pharmaceutical and biotech giant Wyeth recently opened a manufacturing plant outside Dublin. That brought 1,100 jobs to the area.

Lots of countries have exhibits at the convention because they're hoping to get a piece of the biotech pie. Looking around the huge room, attendee Michelle Hon says the growing interest in biotechnology is the most surprising thing about this year's convention. "We're standing right in front of Argentina['s booth], you can see Germany, there's France, Canada, Holland, New Zealand, Australia. All the Asian countries are here, Japan, China, Malaysia's here…"

Biotech's a young industry, but it's growing. In 1993 this conference attracted 1,400 people. This year? 20,000.

Clive James is the chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. ISAAA is a non-profit group that works to eliminate hunger by helping developing countries gain access to biotechnology. James says the industry is about more than just kitchen cabinets, biodegradable spoons, and cars powered by corn.

"We today have a global population of 6.5 billion people that will increase to 9.2 billion in 2050. The big question, how do you feed them?" he asks. James thinks part of the answer is genetically engineered crops. These are crops that have been modified to produce a higher yield, or grow in cold weather or dry climates, or resist herbicides.

Critics caution that the young biotech industry doesn't really know how Mother Nature will respond to such manipulation. Many environmental groups believe genetically altered crops pose a risk to both the environment and public health.

But James says the American public has already been safely participating in a genetically modified crop experiment for the last ten years. "They have eaten this food, they've eaten meat from animals that have been fed GM crops and [there has been] not even a single suggestion that there is anything wrong."

Ravindar Brar grows genetically modified cotton on her 25-hectare farm in Punjab, India. She says pesticides and fertilizers are destroying the soil in India, so she grows cotton that requires little of either. But pesticides and fertilizers were once touted for the same reasons that biotech farming is now being pushed.

Brar concedes that no one really knows what the long-term effects of biotech farming will be. But farmers, she says, must grow what the market wants. "We have to be in stride with the other people. Only time will tell."

The biotech industry has its sights set on farmers like Brar. As the western world becomes saturated with biotech crops, the markets in developing countries are increasingly attractive. Especially big markets like China and India.

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