hey sugar time for a new world order

I confess I was surprised to learn that neither you nor Andrew has heard of synthetic biology, considering Andrew’s job is at Berkeley, where a…

I confess I was surprised to learn that neither you nor Andrew has heard of synthetic biology, considering Andrew’s job is at Berkeley, where a lot of the science is happening. Philosophy professors and scientists don’t sit at the same table in the cafeteria?

Actually, most people don’t know of it, yet it is going to save the world and our brilliant, destructive species.

Synthetic biologists promise a green, clean post-petroleum future where the production of important economic compounds does not depend on fossil fuels but on biological manufacturing platforms fueled by plant sugars.

A sugar-based economy. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?

This new economy will rely on “extreme –” a suite of technologies still in the early stages of development. Technologies sounding like the stuff of science fiction; biotech, nanotech and synthetic biology — all involving the engineering of living organisms.

It’s the building and redesigning of biological systems, changing the way they develop in nature.

The possibilities are mind bending.

For instance, we are talking made-to-order body parts! Heart gives out? You can get one guaranteed not to be rejected, nor to need a cocktail of daily meds to keep it working in your body.

No more dialysis for people whose kidneys are failing.

Malaria, begone!

Eyeglasses and contact lenses? Who needs ‘em?

So you have a butt large enough to colonize? Is the only cleavage you can claim the one you sit on? Simply order up the bits and pieces you require to make you more symmetrical.

Already high-dollar deals are being made, like the $500-million alliance between BP and University of California.

These corporate alliances don’t just involve Big Oil: pharmaceutical, agribusiness, chemical firms, automobile manufacturers, forest product companies, and more are all putting out for synthetic biology start-ups.

Amyris Biotechnology recently signed a deal with Brazil’s largest sugar producer to turn sugar into commercial diesel within two years. No more stench of natural diesel insulting the nose; the highways and byways will smell like a carnival.

DuPont’s Tennessee bio-refinery can take six million bushels of corn and produce 100 million pounds of the key ingredient in a fibre that they say will replace nylon.

Not enough food at the picnic? Roast your clothes!

According to industry estimates, it takes a minimum of 200,000 hectares to provide the crop residues, or “wastes” to sustain a moderately sized refinery.

That’s a lot of land to be growing stuff that is not food, but advocates say there will be no “food versus fuel” conflict because feedstocks will come from cheap and plentiful cellular biomass such as straw, corn stalks, wood chips and dedicated “energy crops,” such as switchgrass, fast-growing trees, algae, etc.

If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it likely is too good to be true.

It could all happen, but there would be costs and given our human characteristic of greed, those costs would, as usual, be borne by the masses.

You know the masses; those of us who are not particularly greedy or have failed in being greedy on a large scale.

It is in the interests of those people that, internationally, scientists involved in synthetic biology are calling for more to be done to advance the field but at the same time asking for some ground rules to be put in place concerning the use of this science.

At least, there are 17 scientists who feel that way; the rest are holed up in their labs, funded by those really greedy folks who run things like BP, Chevron, Microsoft, Dupont and other Fortune 500 corporations, busy with the business of commodifying nature to the nth degree.

The 17 have issued a statement, saying, “The early 21st century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril. We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources”.

The rest of their statement promises to rain all over the synthetic biology parade.

Synthetic biology’s grand vision depends on biomass and if the sugar economy advances, all plant matter becomes potential feedstock and then — who decides what qualifies as agricultural waste or residue?

Whose land will grow the feedstocks?

Not surprisingly, it is the Third World countries, like Latin America and Sub-Sahara Africa, being regarded as places best suited for biomass generation, and which would naturally welcome this new prosperity.

However, some of those people in the developing world just don’t seem to recognize a good thing when it is coming their way. Camila Moreno, of Terra de Diretos in Brazil has this to say:

“Haven’t we learned anything from the disaster of first-generation agrofuels? Industrial agrofuels are driving the poorest farmers and indigenous peoples off their lands. Agrofuels are the single greatest factor contributing to soaring food prices.”

And Neth Dano, of Third World Network, says, “Once again, land, labour and biological resources in the global South are in danger of being exploited to satisfy the North’s voracious consumption and reckless waste.”

Where do they get such notions?

Can massive quantities of biomass be harvested sustainably without eroding and degrading soils and without destroying biodiversity? Can synthetic microbes be safely contained, controlled, and work predictably?

People at the top of the human food chain, the ones who kissed a lot of the bottom, will be fine; immortally beautiful in a land custom-made to suit their every whim and desire. No more of nature’s messiness to deal with; every living thing programmed to look and behave in a way pleasing to human beings.

That messiness could very well include the aforementioned masses; no real need for them once the world is organized to the specifications of the money men.

Of course, there is that wee question about containment and control….

Though many of us cannot imagine how grotesque and terrifying the results could be of something going awry, artists, writers and movie makers have had a stab at doing so, keeping us pleasurably horrified with their efforts.

If those “ground rules” the 17 scientists are asking for come into stern existence, synthetic biology could save our sorry asses.

It could lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

It could end hunger and death by disease.

It could dramatically cut fuel prices and decentralize energy production.

It could make everyone pretty. And that’s just for starters.

I sometimes wonder about secret labs with secret experiments, scattered secretly around the First World.

There has to be some explanation for sharks giving virgin birth, celebrities giving birth to twins, and a man giving birth.

What happened to Harper’s paunch? Did it go to the same place as Sarah Jessica Parker’s mole?

The giant fish that are attacking people in the southern US, the new violence of our Yukon moose, the spruce beetle — are these successes or living examples of uncontained, uncontrolled and unpredictable experiments of synthetic biology?

Andrew should think of infiltrating the labs of Berkeley and getting the skinny on this whole thing. There is not enough information out here for us to get a grasp on the implications of this science. I suspect the scientists haven’t got a grasp on the implications.

Above all, let us be ready to support the 17 in their desire for ground rules. Let us hope their numbers increase.

Then we can start our own wish lists for a world that is kinder for everyone.

Love,

Heather

Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Togo member Katie Moen sits in a sled behind a snowmobile for the ride from the airport to Chief Zzeh Gittlit School. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Coming together: How Old Crow became one of the first communities in the world to be fully vaccinated

Team Togo and Team Balto assembled with a mission to not waste a single dose of vaccine

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. If council moves forward with bylaw changes, eating and drinking establishments could set up pop-up patios in on-street parking spaces. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Patios may be popping up in Whitehorse this summer

City considers program for downtown restaurants and bars

The Yukon Coroner's Service has confirmed the death of a skateboarder found injured on Hamilton Boulevard on May 2. Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News
Whitehorse man dies in skateboarding accident

Coroner urges the use of helmets, protective gear, while skateboarding.

The new Yukon Liberal caucus poses for a photo during the swearing-in ceremony held on May 3. (Yukon Government/Submitted)
Liberal cabinet sworn in at legislature before house resumes on May 11

Newly elected MLA Jeremy Harper has been nominated as speaker.

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve’s baby bison, born April 22, mingles with the herd on April 29. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Yukon Wildlife Preserves welcomes two bison calves

A bison calf was the first 2021 baby born at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve

A map provided by the Yukon government shows the location of unpermitted logging leading to a $2,500 fine. (Courtesy/Yukon government)
Man fined $2,500 for felling trees near Beaver Creek

The incident was investigated by natural resource officers and brought to court.

The site of the Old Crow solar project photographed on Feb. 20. The Vuntut Gwitchin solar project was planned for completion last summer, but delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Old Crow is switching to solar

The first phase of the community’s solar array is already generating power.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
One new case of COVID-19 in the Yukon

Case number 82 is the territory’s only active case

Flood and fire risk and potential were discussed April 29. Yukoners were told to be prepared in the event of either a flood or a fire. Submitted Photo/B.C. Wildfire Service
Yukoners told to be prepared for floods and wildland fire season

Floods and fire personelle spoke to the current risks of both weather events in the coming months.

From left to right, Pascale Marceau and Eva Capozzola departed for Kluane National Park on April 12. The duo is the first all-woman expedition to summit Mt. Lucania. (Michael Schmidt/Icefield Discovery)
First all-woman team summits Mt. Lucania

“You have gifted us with a magical journey that we will forever treasure.”

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

Whitehorse goings-on for the week of April 26

The Yukon Department of Education in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. The department has announced new dates for the 2021/2022 school year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Yukon school dates set for 2021/22

The schedule shows classes starting on Aug. 23, 2021 for all Whitehorse schools and in some communities.

Most Read