Industrial Biotech & the Environment

Is biotech the best thing, or the worst thing, that’s ever happened to the environment?

Check out this article from the Times, which points to biotech as a source of environmentally-friendly products: Industrial biotechnology sales soar

The demand for plant-based chemicals, which are used in everything from skin cream to car tyres, is growing so fast that the industry could generate sales of as much as £12 billion in the UK and £360 billion globally by 2025, according to research.

Industrial biotechnology — manipulating the cells of plants and other biological resources to create chemicals — is increasingly used to make ingredients that have traditionally been generated using oil and other fossil fuels.

Goodyear is working on a bio-based alternative to isoprene, a chemical compound derived from petrol that it uses in the production of synthetic rubber for its tyres.

Boots teamed up with the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York last year and created a hand cream that incorporates fatty acids from hemp plant oil….

Many opponents of biotech object on environmental grounds. Those objections come in 2 main flavours: a consequence-based objection that suggests that something bad (e.g., ecological disaster) will result from the use of GM crops, and a principle-based objection that suggests that it’s “just not right” to fiddle with nature, to ‘play God’, etc., independent of the consequences of doing so.

Those environmental objections are normally pitted against other kinds of values — things like economic development, the convenience of pesticide-resistant plants for farmers, etc. But the article above suggests significant environmental benefits from biotech. Advocates of GM foods also point to the idea that at least some GM food crops may bring environmental benefits. For example, crops engineered to be pest-resistant should reduce usage of chemical pesticides, and crops engineered to be drought-tolerant stand to reduce water usage. Those whose objections to biotech are rooted in the potential negative consequences will have to consider whether the pros outweigh the cons. Those whose objections are rooted in non-consequentialist principles will need to consider whether, and how, those principles are to be balanced against consequences both good & bad.

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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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