Between Technology and Culture (2003)

Building a Framework for the Biotech Debate

By William McDonough & Michael Braungart


Biotechnology has aroused a wasp’s nest of cultural conflict. Scanning the news on the biotech front one sees 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 the recent past we have seen growing discord between Mexico and the United States over the safety of GM corn. DuPont and Monsanto went to court over GMO seeds. Trade ministers are exchanging more ill will than they do consumer goods. And Zambia, fearing the economic and health effects of introducing genetically altered corn into its food supply, recently refused 500 metric tons of GM cornmeal, even as its citizens starved.

There are wars of words and courtroom quarrels. The United States and the European Union have squared-off over genetically modified crops, with the U.S. threatening to sue the EU over its refusal to approve new GMO goods. 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.”


Freedom of Choice and Cultural Diversity

Regardless of who is right or wrong in any of these disputes, the level of conflict over genetically engineered products sends strong signals. Widespread public concern over the safety of GMOs does not prove that biotechnology is “bad.” But it does suggest that genetic designers, and the biotech industry in general, have not yet optimized their products. How optimal, after all, is a product that people fear?

The biotech battles also signal that 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 though many may not share Mr. Friedman’s lens, nor his taste for GM beef, we can be pretty sure that most people are just as strongly attached to their own world-view.

Indeed, we all want our personal choices to be in harmony with deep, strongly felt beliefs. If a Muslim woman wants to celebrate her cultural traditions, she may have a deep interest in knowing if there is pork in the food she’s eating. If her son is to receive an organ transplant, she will probably want to know if it came from a cloned pig. If the people of Zambia fear GM corn, they may prefer trading with nations that support the renewal of local agriculture. 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. And 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; we want to be able to celebrate what we eat, wear, use and create. And we may want to give our children the opportunity to celebrate their choices too.


Biotech, Ecology and Irreversible Change

At this point in history we cannot yet 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 precisely the point. 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 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 one organism outside of cells and adding it to the genetic material of another, building hybrids—transgenic organisms—that defy the laws of nature. Traditional plant breeding does not add the genes of a maple tree to the genes of a potato, 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.

Why not develop some rules of the road for the biotechnology industry? Why not give the world, and our children, a choice?


If we want to honor cultural diversity and freedom of choice we might adopt 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—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 their 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 naturalist and biotech writer Michael Pollan in The New York Times. “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.


C2C Thinking & Biotech

The future standards for the biotech industry might profit from exposure to cradle-to-cradle thinking. From the cradle-to-cradle perspective, good design yields 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.

A few examples: When client companies assess the material chemistry of their products with MBDC they are making a commitment to the future. Choosing only safe, healthful product ingredients, they are generating environmental health and investing 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, rather than intergenerational tyranny.

The scientific perspective of the cradle-to-cradle design process provides a foundation for celebrating diversity and creativity. Rather than offering one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore the differences between places and people—the monocultural landscape of the American lawn, the hydroelectric dam on the salmon run, the factory built to overcome the rules of the natural world—cradle-to-cradle designs are informed by the recognition that all sustainability is local.

Businesses attuned to this principle recognize that human designs are entwined with the surrounding natural world—they recognize local ecology as an inspiring standard. In this context, the scientific analysis of product ingredients is not done in the abstract but to ensure that materials and manufacturing processes support life, nourishing rather than contaminating local soils, streams, forests and human communities.

Suddenly, design begins to raise rich questions: How can we create meaningful occupations and life-supporting technologies? Generate more energy than we consume? Enhance the region’s economic and social health? Accrue biological and technological wealth for the future? Ultimately, cradle-to-cradle design builds a host of rich relationships that celebrate nature, culture and technology, all within the enduring laws of the natural world.


A New Dialouge

Applying cradle-to-cradle thinking to GMOs might 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.

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. Practicing intergenerational responsibility would become the norm.

And 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.


Between Technology and Culture © 2003 William McDonough & Michael Braungart