biotechnology has moved from the lab to the marketplace, it has
aroused a wasps nest of cultural conflict. One need only scan
the news to see a dizzying array of high-stakes battles pitting
nation against nation, consumers against producers, the Third World
against industrialized powers, scientists against naturalists, and
new technologies against traditional cultures.
In just the recent past we have seen growing discord between Mexico
and the United States over the safety of GM corn . . . DuPont and
Monsanto in court over GMO seeds . . . trade ministers exchanging
more ill will than consumer goods . . . and Zambia refusing an offer
of 500 metric tons of GM cornmeal.
Even longtime trading partners, the United States and the European
Union, squared-off over genetically modified products, with the
U.S. threatening to sue the EU over its refusal to approve new GMO
goods. Meanwhile, prominent opinion leaders such as Thomas Friedman
of The New York Times have made the conflict a cultural clash, calling
Europes biotech position quaint, a romantic
rebellion against America and high technology . . . even though
there is no scientific evidence that [GMOs] are harmful.
The Ethical Dilemma of Biotechnology
Though questions and conflicting opinions abound in the biotech
debate, the cultural conflicts over GMOs are sending a very clear
signal: People and nations want to be able to freely choose what
they eat, grow and produce. As with any global issue, the people
of the world are looking at biotechnology through a variety of cultural
lenses. And yet we share a common desire. We all want the freedom
to celebrate our own particular culture; we all want to be able
to make choices that are in harmony with deep, strongly felt beliefs.
Friedman likes his GM beef. Zambia prefers trading with nations
that do not grow genetically engineered crops. For the worlds
one billion Hindus, most of whom believe in the transmigration of
souls, mixing the genetic material of animal species raises fundamental
spiritual questions. Many of us may wonder at what point the introduction
of human genetic material into animal species raised for food makes
our dinner the diet of cannibals. Whether our choices arise from
religious faith or political philosophy or personal conviction,
most of us want the freedom to choose and to celebrate our culture.
And we may want to give our children the opportunity to celebrate
their choices too.
At this point in history we cannot wholeheartedly celebrate biotechnology
or the choices it is offering the worlds cultures. Certainly,
new technologies can offer great benefits to humankind, and it might
be possible that GMOs will live up to their designers promises.
Pest-resistant GMO crops, for instance, may indeed help farmers
build a bridge between todays pesticide-ridden farmlands to
tomorrows resurgent, organic soils.
Perhaps. But we dont know. And thats the fundamental
ethical dilemma of biotechnology. We do not know enough about biotechnology
to know what accidental harm it may cause or what choices are foreclosed
by its use. We do know, however, that genetic engineering produces
irreversible change and, therefore, the possibility of irreversible
ecological damage. Even the possibility of irreversible damage strongly
suggests that we need to be sure to give future generations the
option of changing course and choosing differently.
Genetic engineering produces irreversible change by redefining the
genetic make-up of organisms in ways that depart radically from
the traditional breeding of hybrid roses or horses or pigs. Genetic
engineering alters traits by manipulating the genetic material of
an organism outside of its cells and adding it to the genetic material
of another, building hybridstransgenic organismsthat
defy the laws of nature. Traditional breeding, which aims to select
valuable traits from species that naturally mate, does not add the
genes of a spider to the genes of a goat, or the genes of a mouse
to the genes of a man. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has
said, Only genetic engineering can accomplish such transfers
because only genetic engineering transfers genes by artificial means
that disregard natural boundaries.
At that point, freedom of choice is lost. You can still tinker and
try to perfect the next generation of GMOs, but you cannot go back
and fix what you have genetically altered. Ecological equilibriums
have been disturbed and the nature of the disturbance can only be
fully known as it plays out over time.
This presents a fundamental challenge to democracy: If new technologies
create irreversible ecological effects, future generations are denied
the right to make a different choice. As Thomas Jefferson said,
Life belongs to the living. In other words, democracy
is built on the idea of changing course. If our actions today rob
our children of their right to choose, we are practicing intergenerational
tyranny, an affront to democratic traditions.
A New Framework
Why not develop some rules of the road for the biotechnology industry?
Why not give the world, and our children, a choice?
We might begin by looking at the rules of the road that create the
context of all of our lives: The enduring laws of nature. Ultimately,
thats the overarching context of everything we do. As both
global and local citizens our lives depend on the abundance of the
natural world. On a local level, the celebration of the fruits of
the nearby biological world generates the rich diversity of the
worlds cultures. On a global scale, we are all sustained by
the commons, the natural systems that make the earth a beautiful,
green, oxygen-rich planet.
Human endeavors can support and celebrate the earths intricate
webs of biological and cultural diversity when we recognize the
laws of nature as the model for intelligent human designs. In essence,
natural systems operate on the free energy of the sun, which interacts
with the geochemistry of the earths surface to sustain productive,
regenerative biological systems. Human systems designed to operate
by the same laws can approach the effectiveness of natural systems,
in which the cycles of birth, decay and rebirthcradle-to-cradle
cycles rather than cradle-to-grave cyclesgenerate healthy
Applied to industry, cradle-to-cradle thinking allows us to design
everything we make as a nutrient, a product or material with regenerative
qualities. Just as in the natural world, in which one organisms
waste cycles through an ecosystem to provide nourishment for other
living things, cradle-to-cradle materials circulate in closed loop
cycles, or metabolisms, providing nutrients for nature or industry.
The cradle-to-cradle model recognizes two discrete metabolisms in
which materials flow as healthy nutrients. Natures nutrient
cycles comprise the biological metabolism. Materials designed to
flow optimally in the biological metabolism, biological nutrients,
can be safely returned to the environment after use to nourish the
soil and new growth. The beneficial flow of biological nutrition
is a local phenomenon; its celebration is a key element of a healthy
The technical metabolism is designed to mirror the earths
cradle-to-cradle cycles; its a closed loop system in which
valuable, high-tech synthetics and mineral resourcestechnical
nutrientssafely circulate in a perpetual cycle of production,
recovery and remanufacture. The technical metabolism requires global
standards, so that, for example, the chemistry of polymers is such
that they can be recycled anywhere.
Each material, each product, ideally exists in one or the other
of these metabolisms. When you mix the technical with the biological
you get what we call a monstrous hybrid, a material that cannot
be safely and effectively managed within either metabolism. Monstrous
hybrids, such as a biodegradable carpet with a PVC backing, create
liabilities and waste, rather than the truly regenerative qualities
of either a biological nutrient carpet that can be safely returned
to the soil or a technical nutrient carpet that can be perpetually
rematerialized into high quality carpet.
From a cradle-to-cradle perspective, GMOs represent a kind of monstrous
hybrid, a cross not only of different animal or plant species, but
of the biological and the technical mingling in ways that we have
never seen before and that we do not yet fully understand. We have
never been here before, and so this moment in human history requires
great care and great humility. That, finally, is what the laws of
If we want to honor the laws of nature, and thereby honor cultural
diversity and freedom of choice, we might consider the principle
of Vorsorge, the German word for forecaring, and begin
working together to develop international standards for the making
and marketing of biotech products. Vorsorgeprinzipthe forecaring
or precautionary principlewhich naturalist and biotech writer
Michael Pollan introduced to a wide American audience in an article
in The New York Times, suggests that in the absence of scientific
certainty we should act to protect ecological and cultural health
against the possibility of future harm.
In Germany in the 1970s, when it was not yet scientifically proven
that acid rain was killing the nations forests, the government
took the precautionary measure of cutting sulfur dioxide emissions.
It proved to be a wise choice. Not only did it preserve Germanys
forests, it also allowed industry to develop new ways to manage
manufacturing processes and develop a better understanding of material
Forecaring in the realm of biotechnology would give citizens, scientists
and the GMO industry an opportunity to deeply assess the future
impacts of genetic engineering. Such a change would shift
the burden of proof, wrote Pollan. Scientific uncertainty
would no longer argue for freedom of action but for precaution and
alternatives. In that context, we might begin to develop a
framework of standards governing the use of GMOs. Only then can
we sanely discuss if biotechnology can truly contribute to a safe,
A Close Look at a Biotech Product
The future standards for the biotech industry might profit from
exposure to cradle-to-cradle thinking. Forecaring does not mean
freezing up and doing nothing; it simply suggests designing with
the future in mind, or, translated from Japanese, designing
with love for the future. From the cradle-to-cradle perspective,
that means designing products that celebrate ecological health,
freedom of choice, cultural diversity and sustaining economic growth100
percent positive effects. Over the past decade we have been privileged
to see cradle-to-cradle ideas change the discourse of sustainable
design and we are hopeful that they might also generate a new dialogue
in the biotech industry.
How? When companies adopt a cradle-to-cradle strategy, they are
making a commitment to designing products that can circulate in
safe, regenerative closed-loop cycles. Choosing only healthful product
ingredients, cradle-to-cradle companies generate environmental health
and invest in a relationship of trust with their customers. If scientific
analysis reveals that a product contains a material with questionable
attributes, it is phased out. This represents a celebration of free
choice. Nothing in the product mortgages the future, and so our
children still have their options open. And because the design process
is ultimately transparent and healthful, a customers choice
is not tinged by fear. This attention to protecting the rights and
health of future generations is a practice of democracy and responsibility
to the future.
Consider the cradle-to-cradle strategy applied to an existing bio-tech
product, PLA. A corn-derived biopolymer developed by Cargill Dow,
PLA (polylactide) is an annually renewable source, suitable for
a wide range of applicationsfrom packaging to fiberand
is biodegradable and recyclable.
But there may be concerns to PLA. While PLA itself is not petroleum-based,
the production of the biopolymer, from fertilizing and harvesting
corn to converting it to plastic, burns a considerable amount of
fossil fuel, which, according to a study published in Scientific
American (Gerngross and Slater), makes the production of PLA significantly
more energy intensive than most petrochemical processes are.
In addition, once PLA fiber leaves the Cargill Dow plant for processing
into carpets or clothing by textile manufacturers, there is no guarantee
that the dyes and auxiliary chemicals used by these manufacturers
are safe or suitable for recycling. Concerns have also been raised
about using food for non-food products while millions of people
are without adequate nutrition. And with genetically modified corn
as its building block, PLA raises ethical and environmental questions
that, as we have seen, currently have no clear answers.
These drawbacks are not inevitable. Cargill Dow is already looking
for ways to produce PLA from corn stalks and husks, rather than
from the edible part of the corn plant. The company has also started
a GMO off-set program in which it puts into the production pipeline
infusions of non-GMO corn equal to the amount specified by PLA purchasers.
The purchaser doesnt necessarily get organic PLA, but its
specification assures that non-GMO corn remains a part of the mix,
keeping organic fields in production.
We have supported and encouraged these steps and respectfully suggest
that PLA customers ask, as we have, that Cargill Dow make a commitment
to giving customers a clear choice about whether or not they are
buying a material derived from GMOs. The off-set program is a start;
the next step would be to provide customers with specific information
about product ingredients. Farmers with fields neighboring those
planted with GMO corn might also want a choice: They may want to
choose whether or not to grow GMO crops, which is nearly impossible
to guarantee given the natural migration of seeds from field to
To further clarify product ingredients and ensure biodegradabilityfor
manufacturers as well as those who buy goods made with PLACargill
Dow could develop a positive list to send out with its product.
The positive list would let textile manufacturers know that all
the PLA inputs are safe, healthful and suitable for composting and
it would also identify what dyes and finishing chemicals can be
used without sacrificing the materials biodegradability. This
is a key step in the development of cradle-to-cradle material flows.
We hope it is the future of PLA.
A Cradle to Cradle Dialogue
All of these changes, of course, could only emerge from an ongoing
dialogue about GMOs and cradle-to-cradle design, which we believe
could shift the public discussion on genetic engineering, changing
the relationship between customer and producer, easing tensions
between trading nations, and re-focusing the scientific agenda of
the biotech industry.
If the industry were to enter a cradle-to-cradle dialogue on biotechnology
and begin to develop new standards, citizens could feel assured
that biotech products were being optimized with rigorous research,
forecaring and a design process devoted to producing positive effects
Nations would not be forced to accept GMO products because they
lacked conclusive evidence of their harmful effects to environmental
and public health. Farmers worldwide would not need to worry about
the content of their seeds, nor would customers need to worry about
the genetic make-up of their food or the cultural or religious boundaries
they might be unknowingly crossing.
Instead, industry and the scientific community could pursue research
that addresses the scientific uncertainties surrounding genetic
engineering. They would develop sound rules-of-the-road
for all biotechnology. Celebrating cultural diversity and freedom
of choice could become part of the biotech dialogue. Following the
laws of nature and practicing intergenerational responsibility would
become the norm.
If this should come to pass, we all might rest assured that our
options are still open, and we could say with confidence that our
work is truly celebrating all of the children of all species for
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart are founders of
McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy that works with
a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective design and
commerce strategies. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.