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Published: February 24, 2009


William Haseltine: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B: What are the implications for food production?
Earth’s population is projected to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050. So the need for freshwater and land is acute; we must use our agricultural land more intensively. Genetically modified organisms can help with that. They can produce higher yields and more nutritious foods. They can obviate the need for plowing. Most people don’t understand what plowing is for. It’s really just a weed control technology. You plow over and under the previous year’s crop. But if you have the right combinations of environment-friendly herbicides and the agricultural crops that are resistant to those herbicides, you don’t need to plow. No-plow agriculture saves topsoil and energy. Once you don’t need so much nitrogen fertilizer or complex pesticides, you can get to an agriculture that is much more en­ergy efficient. You can also breed in drought resistance.

People will be healthier as a result. And it will allow us to restore many habitats, because we’ll be using less land to grow food.

S+B: What about the fears about genetically modified foods?
The technology is rapidly spreading, despite the European opposition. It’s spreading in many parts of the world because of its obvious advantages. For example, meat is a highly inefficient source of protein; over the next 20 to 30 years, people will move from meat to plants as a source of protein. I’ve been in Chinese restaurants that serve something that looks like a fish with skin and scales, but it’s entirely made out of soy protein, which is a plant product. You see a chicken that looks like a chicken, it’s carved like a chicken, but it’s not a chicken. You can make foods look and taste very attractive with manipulation, which, in this case, involves a process to spin soy proteins into fibers.

Investment and Infrastructure

S+B: Do you think the bioenergy industry will move ahead faster than the pharmaceutical industry has in the last 20 years in its commercialization of genomic discoveries?
The technology that might justify this amount of investment is finally emerging. Breakthroughs in the last few years have rapidly attracted large sums of investment capital. The Center for Synthetic Biology received its first half-billion-dollar grant less than a year and a half after showing proof of feasibility for the petroleum substitutes. Of course, that’s not how it usually happens. People don’t usu­ally make huge breakthroughs and all of a sudden have a venture capitalist say, “OK, let’s go.” But the volatility of oil prices has made investors realize that this can be very important.

I guarantee you that there are similar programs in constructive biology (though they may not use that name) at all the major chemical and energy companies. They too are looking at making petroleum substitutes. This type of activity doesn’t happen in isolation. When a group puts $1 billion into research, it gets people’s attention.

We also see the rise of very strong scientific communities in this field in other parts of the world. I have been working very closely with the leadership of the government of India. India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which is one of its major funding agencies, has fostered an alliance between a large group of Indian scientists and our group at Berkeley. We’re planning to [form similar alliances] with scientists in South America and China.

S+B: How challenging will it be to create the infrastructures for producing and distributing bioenergy?
HASELTINE: Constructive biology has the opportunity to produce power and transportation fuels that are fully compatible with our existing infrastructure or system. We might not need as many re­fineries, but we will still need the tankers, pipelines, and transport system.

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