Science Improving Nature

Big changes come on little cat feet to envelop us. Then we forget what life was like before. Polio, the scourge of childhood, disappeared like many other afflictions nobody much remembers. Most American kids don’t get cavities any more – amazing to those of us old enough to recall one cavity per dental visit was a great result. Change often comes in little packages, but it is compounding* and that makes a difference.

One recent great event that happened without our notice is biotechnology. If you are wondering whether you should use biotech products, forget it. I said happened, not happening. Almost all of you have eaten biotech foods, probably today. The cotton in your t-shirt was probably grown with the help of biotech. If you buy a new house you will be living in a partially bioengineered structure. Biotechnology will revolutionize the manufacture of medicines, the production of energy and the preservation of the environment.We have been cultivating biotech crops commercially for about ten years now. 400 million hectares (hectare = 2.47 acres) of genetically enhanced biotech crops have been grown. Farmers are adopting biotech crops faster than any crop varieties in the history of agriculture. Since their introduction in 1996, genetically enhanced biotech crop use has grown at a rate of more than 10% per year. In 2004 it was up to around 20%. The main crops carrying biotech genes are soybean (56%), maize (14%), cotton (28%), and canola (19%). Percentages are of the worldwide acreage for these crops. In the U.S., biotech soybean (herbicide resistant), maize (herbicide and insect resistant), and cotton (herbicide and insect resistant) account respectively for approximately 85%, 75%, and 45% of total acreage. 

Want renewable energy? We can talk about wind, solar AND biotech. Advances in biotechnology have enabled the production of large amounts of inexpensive cellulases that convert cellulose to simple sugars that that can be fermented into fuels such as ethanol. Biotechnology could enhance biomass yield density, improve processing of biomass feedstock and decrease the need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides. In other words, we can literally turn garbage into gasoline substitute.

This is really nothing new. We have been altering plants and animals since before we were fully evolved humans. But biotech can do it faster and with fewer unplanned side effects. We can use less fertilizer, less pesticide and we can do it with less work. Read the story of wheat.

A big innovation comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over our lives on silent haunches and then moves on (with apologies to Carl Sandburg). When it’s over we just think that is how it always was. But we are better off.

* Albert Einstein called compound interest the most powerful force in the universe.