Sam Judd
Comment on the environment from columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: Genetic modification to the rescue?

Researchers have genetically modified one of the most common bacteria on earth to create a synthetic biofuel. Photo / Thinkstock
Researchers have genetically modified one of the most common bacteria on earth to create a synthetic biofuel. Photo / Thinkstock

Last week I wrote about international seed and chemical companies wanting to patent genetically modified foods and it caused such a stir that debate was closed after only half a day.

Understandably, people are passionate about their food - it is one of the essential things we need to survive and the idea that multinational companies wanting to own the rights to vegetables causes an outrage.

Romantic ideas of tough-skinned market gardeners giving way to laboratories and monoculture with diesel-hungry mega-harvesters is hard for us to accept. The fact that even the Obama administration supports patenting food (the US economy relies heavily on intellectual property law as inventions are sent overseas to exploit cheap labour) means that we should probably get used to it or find a way to adapt like contributing to seed banks or growing organically - which I fully support.

Most of you out there will recall genetic modification being bitterly protested. Indeed, it has become demonised due to the problems it can cause in food, but ironically, the same technology applied differently could be our savior when it comes to another important area of environmental debate: fossil fuels.

Many a climate-change skeptic has told me in the past "don't worry mate, if this ever becomes a real problem, science will come up with a solution."

Researchers from the University of Exeter may be on track to such a solution by genetically modifying one of the most common bacteria on earth - E. Coli (yes- the same bug that we test for to determine fecal contamination in our waterways) to create a synthetic biofuel.

The major advantage is that this fuel is an exact replica of the fossil fuels we use at the pump today, so it can be put into modern engines without dilution (usually the case with plant-derived biofuels).

So even if you don't believe in climate change (or if you like the idea of a more tropical New Zealand) many Kiwis would say that we need fuel to survive. The way we currently grow, transport and package food relies on fossil fuels, as does our health industry. In fact almost our entire economy requires the use of fuel in some way to exist.

Considering how car and fuel dependent we are here in little isolated New Zealand, the idea of "Peak Oil" sounds to many like a real threat to the way of life that almost all of us have become used to.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), more than 95 percent of all oil in the world has already been found and half of this has already been burned.

So will genetic modification be the technology that the Western world needs to repair all the damage we have done and maintain the comfortable lifestyle that most of us are used to? Surely it is not fair to ask developing countries not to burn oil and have the benefits that their richer neighbours have had so as development continues we can expect demand for fuel will increase, but is it risking fate to mess around with genetics too much?

The E. Coli fuel is not going to be any kind of quick fix - something I am used to with these amazing breakthroughs: I was hoping that science would create some kind of magic bullet to cure hereditary baldness, but as you can see from my photo, it has let me down dreadfully and I am doomed to having a shiny head.

They currently need over 100 litres of bacteria to produce just one teaspoon of fuel so are working hard to try and make the process more efficient. Added to this, Shell oil has funded the research and it is not outside the realms of possibility that they might crack the formula and then cast it into a vault using intellectual property law and save it for when we do actually run out of oil. This has happened before.

But if you can forget my cynicism here about technology controlled by multinational interests that are solely profit-driven: do you think that in situations like this, genetic modification is a good idea? What kind of parameters, if any, should be set to make sure the research is ethical?

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