Science and Technology, Part 4

Exploring the framework for a “Balanced Development” model

 

Ramses Rashidi

©2008 Center for Balanced Development (www.cbdus.org)

 

In the last three articles we talked about science and technology and its role in the development of civilizations and the evolution of society. Here, we’re going to explore the many facets of biotechnology from a balanced development perspective.

 

Biotechnology and Its Accelerated Growth

What is biotechnology? The “United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity” defines biotechnology as any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms to make or modify products or processes for specific use. Simply speaking, any technology that is based on biology is biotechnology. Going back as far as 10,000 years ago when mankind turned to agriculture as a way of life, in one form or another, biotechnology has been used in breeding plants, pest control, feed for animals and fermented products. However, in the recent years the applications of biotechnology in agriculture, medicine, waste treatment, bio-fuels, genetically modified Organisms (GMO) and even biological weapons have been developing at such a fast pace that there is need for much reflection and consultation.

 

The Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture

Clearly, major advances have been made in the field of agriculture through the utilization of biotechnology. Increasing crop yield, engineering crops that can withstand draught and can grow in salty soil, creating produce with high nutritional content, increasing the shelf life of fruit and vegetables, improving the appearance and the size of fruits, and genetically engineered bacteria for soil treatment, are among some of the major achievements that have been made through the use of technology. Currently, genetically engineered seeds to control crop traits are being developed in the industry. There is even research being done in creating genetically engineered food and dairy products.

 

With all that can be achieved through modern biotechnology, there is something to be said about the good old conventional agriculture, or even better yet, organically-grown produce. Actually, more and more people are becoming aware of the potential hazards of Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. Even though in the U.S. there is no need to label GMO’s, in Europe this has been done for a number of years. Critics argue that we simply do not know enough about the effects, or rather side-effects of GMOs. Some believe that there could be catastrophic effects in progressively altering the natural order of things and the ecological systems. Others believe that we need to proceed with greater caution and conduct lots of research. Aside from the potential ecological effects, GMOs could trigger health challenges that would be difficult to control. In fact, there is a growing movement towards the consumption of organic produce, and joining co-ops that have adopted organic agriculture practices. Research shows that organic and naturally grown produce without the use of man-made chemicals and genetic modification, is more nutritious and carries more of the much needed enzymes for nutritional balance and a healthy lifestyle.

 

 

 

Bio-fuels and Cleaning the Environment

The creation of bio-fuels is another area that is now being developed. Prevalent among bio-fuels is Ethanol which is made out of sugar cane in Brazil and corn in the U.S. An issue with this technology seems to be the massive amounts of crops needed to make fuel, which in turn, could create serious shortages in the food supply. Ethanol, while less polluting than various fossil fuels, does not address the problem of traffic congestion. The use of vegetable oil to create bio-diesel also encounters challenges in terms of the limited supply of used oil, and the difficulties with planting oil palms and other plants to be used as the raw material. Bio-diesel pollution is another concern since the roads and highways could turn into a gigantic kitchen on wheels.

 

Biotechnology also has applications in engineering micro-organisms that are used to eliminate pollutants and wastes from contaminated environments. This is a process where the micro-organisms are used to convert and degrade polluted compounds. Industrial waste, sewage and oil spills in the coastal areas and in the open seas could benefit from this technique. Again, as we had mentioned before, more research is needed in this area to ensure safety and balance, and to identify any mitigating negative factors.

 

Biomedicine and Genetic Engineering

The application of biotechnology in medicine and genetic engineering is quite extensive. It’s used to manufacture medicines with relative ease and at a fairly low cost. The use of plants and micro-organisms that have been genetically-engineered to produce insulin, antibiotics and vaccines are among the applications of this field. Genetic testing which is now used to predict disorders and estimate the risk of cancer, as well as forensic testing, is another area of achievement in biotechnology. Gene therapy, which is relatively new in medicine, may be used for treating genetic and acquired diseases like cancer and AIDS by using normal genes to supplement or replace defective genes. Gene therapy, however, faces many obstacles before it can become a practical approach for treating disease. The limited knowledge of the functions of genes, together with the high cost of therapy and gene delivery tools (viruses) are among the issues that need to be addressed before this technology can be properly utilized. Advances made in bioinformatics or computational biology has enabled scientists to analyze vast amounts of biological data that can be used for greater understanding and better treatments of disease. However, with all the breakthroughs in biomedicine and genetic engineering, there are major concerns about the potential long term side-effects. There is a great deal about the field that we simply do not know. Therefore, we should proceed with caution before implementing new medicine and therapies that could have devastating and irreversible effects.

 

Cloning

Here we are talking about making an identical copy of a plant, animal or a human being. The idea of cloning organisms has been around for a long time in horticulture. However, with the modern advances in biotechnology, it’s now possible to clone animals and potentially humans as well. Cloning is a process where the nucleus from one cell is removed and placed in an unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus has been removed. This can be done through the use of a human host where it’s developed into a fetus, or it can be done in a lab as it’s done in the development of stem cells which can also be used in the replacement of damaged tissues. In 1997 the successful cloning of a sheep, named Dolly, proved that the technique can one day be used to clone human beings.

 

Cloning is probably one of the most controversial issues facing humanity in the near future. While there is widespread support for therapeutic cloning and stem cells research, most scientists, governments and religious organizations oppose reproductive cloning of human beings. Aside from the safety issues, there are both ethical and spiritual concerns about the nature of human life. It’s hard to imagine growing up in the absence of parents, parental love or compassion. Cloning could throw the whole concept of human identity, linage, interpersonal relationships, and the cycle of life itself into confusion and chaos. Imagine seeing cloned copies of yourself, your family, friends and deceased people.

 

In the next articles we will further examine science and technology. Specifically, we will explore the nuclear technology and its impact on development process.

 

Ramses Rashidi (ramses@cbdus.org) is the founder and director of Center for Balanced Development.

The center is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources and services to foster global balance in social, personal, ecological and economic development.