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Published: November 28, 2007


Best Business Books: Biotech

The proponents of GMOs assure us that this will not happen, but genetics is a complex study rife with unintended consequences. When you replace a gene or a set of genes, you can never tell exactly what effect you are going to have. In 2004, for instance, researchers at the University of California at Riverside reported on their success in developing a mosquito that could not carry or pass on malaria — but it was weak and uncompetitive. They were working to make it stronger, so that it could outcompete and replace wild mosquito populations. We are left to imagine what happens when a set of genes modified for super-fitness in insects is let loose into the wild, in a species that survives by sucking blood, in the process injecting some of its own DNA into its hosts.

Caruso asks: Can we say with certainty what would happen if these modified genes got passed on to humans and other mammals? Shall we inject them into you and find out? The question makes me squeamish, and the only honest answer is that we have no idea what would happen.

A number of projects focused on “biopharming” are intended to turn plants or animals into factories that would produce a drug or vaccine. Eat this banana, and you are vaccinated. Bite into this apple, and you’ve been given an antibiotic. None of these are supposed to be toxic in a single dose. But what if the wrong person eats one? What if the genes intended to produce a drug or vaccine enter a population of people who could be harmed? We will likely never know until some population accumulates crippling doses from their daily diet of manioc or millet. Imagine if major parts of the world’s food supply were filled with medicines with contami­nated genes?

The weight of Caruso’s book is not in the scary “what ifs” from the scientific community, but rather in the follow-on questions the scientific community has stirred her to ask: Why are we not recognizing these risks better and corralling them better with sound public policy? She gives numerous examples of experts making reassuring claims that the data does not support or putting numbers on personal judgments, as well as examples of governing bodies simply ignoring concerns that are common in the scientific community.

One solution she calls for is a new federal “Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)” in the U.S. specifically created to address biotech — a “BIOTA.” She advocates for this office and many other bodies to adopt a different kind of risk assessment that is open, collaborative, deliberative, and driven by value judgments as much as by data. But the solution seems thin and unmatched to the caliber of the problem. How do we even think about such risks?

The risk associated with biotech is one of several deeply disquieting “sustainability” problems — such as global warming and the threat of global pandemics — that share certain characteristics. They are caused or mediated by human practices. Their basic science is weak. For the extrapolations (the second- and third-order consequences) there is no real science; we are dealing in guesses. They are global in nature. They seem largely beyond the protective grasp of national governments. Their possible outcomes are unknown but po­tentially devastating to a frightening degree to all forms of life: human, plant, and animal.

It is very difficult, even for a well-informed ob­server, to judge the real risk of biotech. To the extent that we have any real scientific understanding, it can easily get lost in the smoke and mirrors generated by the enormous financial and political forces involved. The observation of Upton Sinclair, the great American writer whose work led to the reform of the meatpacking industry, that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” applies at least as much to scientists and expert analysts as it does to the rest of us.

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