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MAY 2009



Biotech Advances Could Help Achieve Sustainability Goals

Lynn Welch,
Wisconsin Technology Network,
April 27, 2009

Science acting in concert with ethics could help generate a better crop of second generation of genetically modified crops, according to Paul B. Thompson, who argues that biotechnology has made some considerable contributions to the growing discussion about sustainability.

"It's useful to think of sustainability as a moral ideal because it shows that we really need science and ethics to think it through," Thompson said. "If we can flush through it, we can anticipate some of the problems we saw in first generation of biotech crops and design delivery methods in line with broader ethical goals."

A self-described theologian wannabe, Thompson spoke Thursday as part of the eighth annual Bioethics Forum at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Centeron the Promega Corp. campus in Fitchburg. He is Michigan State University's W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics and a member of the Agricultural Economics and Resource Development Departments. The event drew a diverse crowd from monks and academics to entrepreneurs and clergy.

Madison chaplain Anne Edwardson called Thompson's observation that large dairy farms are in part the result of cheap oil and farm subsidies creating inexpensive grain insightful. "It comes back to sustainability and public policy," Edwardson said.

This year's forum focused on the issues of sustainability and how ethical debates surrounding this sometimes broad topic are playing out in the scientific community. Thompson, who has published on environmental ethics in biotechnology, summarized how science and ethics are intertwined, and have been throughout the years.

Take, for example, the case of integrated biosensors, a technology that can detect, record and transmit various substances in commercial products or animals. It could be used in bagged produce to detect contaminants like e coli, or in animals to warn of disease requiring antibiotics eliminating some of today's most pressing food system issues. "If you could come up with technology that eliminates some of the costs of our current system, that's a good thing," Thompson explained.

Thompson framed sustainability as discussions that consider issues of resource sufficiency, functional integrity and as a social movement. From a resource sufficiency standpoint sustainability is a complex accounting process. The desirability of goods produced is weighed with negative byproducts of production, resources used and the ability to regenerate these resources. Scientists developed herbicides, for example, to control erosion by eliminating farmers' need to till, Thompson said, producing a good outcome.

The functional integrity idea, which gauges whether a system can sustain itself, has scientists debating whether current systems are working well. It has spawned technologies such as microbes that break down a plant's wall.

When sustainability is though of as a social movement, there is a question of justice and fairness built in the debate. Relationships and power systems that determine resource allocation are called into question.
"For farmers, all the emphasis on science has entrenched power movements," he said.