What if scientists could code DNA as easily as engineers code software? If everything from veggie burgers to opiates could be made and synthesized completely in a lab? If data could be uploaded and stored on a strand of DNA?
With the advent of new genetic technologies, these questions are no longer hypothetical.
A conference hosted by the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches that ran from November 2-4 in Toronto, Ont., aimed to address new technologies and examine the ethics of the field of “synthetic biology.”
A panel discussion, entitled “Redesigning Life: Synthetic Biology, New Genetic Engineering and Ethics,” took place Friday evening, November 3, as part of the conference, “Redesigning the Tree of Life: Synthetic Biology and the Future of Food.”
“I encountered biology as a builder…[biology] is the most beautiful, powerful manufacturing power on the planet,” said Drew Endy, bioengineering professor at Stanford University and BioBricks Foundation president, who gave an introductory talk alongside technology critic Jim Thomas, before participating in the panel response.
Researchers like Endy have been exploring ways to manipulate the genes of living organisms in a laboratory setting, raising the possibility that any product that can be naturally derived from a plant can now be created artificially, which would have an enormous effect on the food industry, agriculture and medicine.
Conversely, Thomas, a former Greenpeace activist, expressed a greater concern for the effects of this genetic manipulation. “Is life something here for humans to engineer? Is that a morally OK thing to do?”
The effect of these technologies on the world is yet unknown, and could potentially create serious problems, according to Thomas. He said the artificial production of flavouring agents has the ability to cripple the economies of countries that rely on exports of those food products, for example. Other projects, like the creation of “gene drives”—genetic modifications that can wipe out traits in entire animal populations—have bred controversy in environmental circles.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who participated on a conference panel concerning the ethics and faith response to synthetic biology, voiced support of regulation, but cautioned that “regulation, in itself, is not enough.” In an email to the Anglican Journal, MacDonald noted, “Indigenous people…have raised questions regarding the commodification of knowledge and life, with a special concern for the objectification of life in Western science…as in synthetic biology.” These technologies, he said, raise questions about “our spiritual formation in the dominant culture—the culture of money.”
The influence of commerce was a common theme. “The largest influx of capital in this space is private,” said Endy, opining that “as private capital increases, public leverage decreases.” Both he and Thomas pointed to the influence of venture capitalists such as Bill Gates, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, which is one of the largest backers of research in the field of synthetic biology.
Nnimmo Bassey, director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation in Nigeria, called this information worrying, especially because of the potential impact these technologies may have on Africa. “I believe that this technology will open the door to a very vicious form of colonialism.
“Scientists have a right to do things in the laboratory,” said Bassey. “But before those things leave the laboratory, there should be full, prior, informed consent by everyone who is affected.”
Thomas, whose watchdog organization ETC Group supports a “line at the lab door” to prevent corporate interests from driving research, shared this view. “Where are these powerful, all-changing, evolution-changing technologies coming from?…They give specific powers to small numbers of people, and I think it’s a question of justice.”
Panelists Lucy Sharratt (co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network) and Nettie Wiebe (a Saskatchewan-based organic farmer) drew parallels to the genetic engineering of crops such as canola that, they said, have left Canadian agriculture open to problems like herbicide-resistant weeds and decreasing biodiversity.
Wiebe questioned the source of the push for these technological developments. “I will say, I was never at a farm meeting where one farmer got up and said, ‘You know what we need? Genetically modified canola.’ ”
“Injustice is the real reason people don’t have food,” said Sharratt. “We can have access, all of us, to these synthetic biology products. But in reality, the politics, the economics—our society is not going to limit the role of technology unless we control the technology within our society.”
“Food is culture, food is life, food is ritual,” said Bassey, adding that food plays an important role in many of the world’s religions. “Why are we not investing in supporting family farmers, supporting organic farmers, looking at ecology? Why do we have to look for something in the sky when we have something on the ground already?”