It is our environment that largely determines the quality of our lives. Unfortunately, technology had an adverse impact on the environment. Biotechnology is promising a change to this trend.
Why do we care for environment? Well, let us start by looking at two scenarios:
- In a developing country with less than effective regulations for control of environmental impact, the pesticide labelled Endosulfan is used to spray cashew farms from the air. Many children born in the locality have deformed links, something not common elsewhere and Endosulfan is blamed for the problem. Despite strong lobbying, public resistance ultimately leads to banning the use of the pesticide.
- Electronic devices like personal computers and smartphones are becoming more and more powerful. And many consumers want to buy the latest. What happens to the older devices they discard? They become e-waste, non-biodegradable, and containing toxic elements like lead and mercury. The replaced devices are in addition to devices which become dysfunctional, and could not be repaired owing to the high labor costs involved. Where will all these e-waste go? Their volume is only going to increase.
What these scenarios point to is the "unintended" consequences of technological progress and the damage it can cause to the environment. As the impact become serious and widely visible, increasing attention is being paid to environmental protection. And one focus area is using biotechnology to mitigate the impact.
How is Biotechnology Helping Environmental Protection?
Let us consider the scenarios outlined at the beginning:
- By working on the cashew crops at genetic level, biotechnology might be able to develop a variety of crop that is able to resist the pests formerly eliminated by the hazardous chemical Endosulfan. Other biotech alternatives include working with the pests themselves to develop a variety that cannot reproduce and seeding vulnerable area with this variety.
- In the case of accumulating e-waste, the core solution is to develop devices using biodegradable materials. For example, the wikipedia article on biological computing discusses the development of computers that use DNA molecules etc for input, processing and output (even capable of generating binary of 0's and 1's of conventional computing).
Going beyond these specific cases, how in general could biotechnology help with environmental protection?
- Let us start with the pest-resistant crops example above. We saw that biotech can do some genetic engineering and develop crop varieties that can resist pests. However, pesticide lobby is not likely to welcome that prospect. Instead, they are more likely to encourage development of varieties that tolerate herbicides, so that herbicides continue to be used (to kill the weeds but not the main crop). The practical solution could be development of safer biotech pesticides that do not pollute soil, water and air.
- While looking at the pesticides issue, we should also look at the issue of sustainable agriculture. Pesticides, while they could harm the environment, could actually increase crop yields. However, by upsetting the environmental balance, they could do more harm than good in the longer term. Chemicals intensive agriculture cannot be considered sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is based on renewable inputs that can be replenished, and biotechnology is a good option for developing such an alternative.
- Another important environmental issue is biodiversity, i.e. the variety of living organisms including microorganisms, plant, animal and human. The different species exist in close interdependence, e.g. humans derive food, clothing and medicines from plants and animals, and microorganisms help help us in digesting food. Plant and animal varieties also provide us aesthetic pleasure. If we damage biodiversity say, through heavy use of pesticides and destroying the habitats of different species, it can upset the balance and lead to unintended consequences, such as an uncontrollable increase in the numbers of harmful organisms.
- Biotechnology is also helping use reduce our dependence on environment-damaging fossil fuels. Biofuels derived from plants can provide the energy that fossil-fuels provide. In addition to reducing environment damage, biofuels are renewable unlike fossil fuels. However, there is the issue that if farmers focus on cultivating fuel crops instead of food crops, it can lead of food scarcity. An ideal solution could be to grow the fuel crops in land presently unfit for food crops. Biotechnology can help us with this task.
What we find is great potential for environmental biotechnology along with the need for extreme care in evaluating the implications of each alternative solution.