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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2003 : New Perspectives

New Perspectives

Between Biology, Technology and Culture
Building a cradle-to-cradle framework for the biotech debate.

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

As biotechnology has moved from the lab to the marketplace, it has aroused a wasp’s 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 Europe’s 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 world’s 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 world’s 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 today’s pesticide-ridden farmlands to tomorrow’s resurgent, organic soils.

Perhaps. But we don’t know. And that’s 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 hybrids—transgenic organisms—that 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, that’s 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 world’s 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 earth’s 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 earth’s 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 rebirth—cradle-to-cradle cycles rather than cradle-to-grave cycles—generate healthy growth.

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 organism’s 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. Nature’s 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 local culture.

The technical metabolism is designed to mirror the earth’s cradle-to-cradle cycles; it’s a closed loop system in which valuable, high-tech synthetics and mineral resources—technical nutrients—safely 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 nature teach.

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. Vorsorgeprinzip—the forecaring or precautionary principle—which 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 nation’s forests, the government took the precautionary measure of cutting sulfur dioxide emissions. It proved to be a wise choice. Not only did it preserve Germany’s forests, it also allowed industry to develop new ways to manage manufacturing processes and develop a better understanding of material flows.

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, healthy future.

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 growth—100 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 customer’s 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 applications—from packaging to fiber—and 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 doesn’t 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 field.

To further clarify product ingredients and ensure biodegradability—for manufacturers as well as those who buy goods made with PLA—Cargill 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 material’s 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 for all.

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 all time.

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

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