The genetic bubble
It sensibly emphasises the neeed to preserve genetic diversity and draws an interesting parallel between the causes of the current financial crisis and the hidden risks entailed by the alarming loss of biodiversity.
This should be the basis for extreme concern about GM crops, as the massive loss of biodiversity has been overwhelmingly driven by industrial agriculture, and GM crops, which encourage the monocropping of just a few crop strains, are only intensifying this process, as is all too clear from the environmental disaster caused by GM soya in Latin America.
But note the article's approving reference to "sophisticated direct manipulations of genetic materials", when the author is talking about deploying "genetic resources". The author is, in fact, the assistant director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies - the leading organization for transhumanists. Transhumanists seek a "posthuman" future through the transformation of human beings via genetic engineering, cybernetics, nanotechnologies etc. And a number of GM crop proponents are also transhumanists, ie they're techno-utopians who believe there's an extreme techno fix to solve pretty much any problem.
The genetic bubble
By Marcelo Rinesi
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, January 20 2009
We are repeating some of the systematic errors behind the financial crisis in how we exploit plants and animals. The end results won't be any better.
One of the most basic techniques to reduce financial risk is to diversify. Properly done, this allows safer and more extensive investment. But the appearance of diversification without its reality Ëœ as it was the case with securitized subprime mortages Ëœ leads to increased hidden risks, and eventually a systemic crisis as the "one in a million years" event turns out to be have been much more likely than that.
The same is true about genetic diversity in industrially exploited species. Our hunting and fishing by themselves have been proved to affect physiological characteristics at a much faster rate than other evolutionary drivers, and our frequent engaging in selective breeding (not to mention, increasingly, direct genetic modification) has an even stronger impact.
The comparison between financial and genetic portfolios isn't spurious. The economic output of many industries depend on the physiological limits of the organisms involved, and those are to a large degree influenced by their genetics. Risk is also a similar concern. Just as seemingly diversified portfolios have been wiped out by hidden exposure to a common risk, there have been many cases of commercially important organisms, like the type of bananas that used to be sold decades ago, that were quickly extinguished by their shared vulnerability to some pathogen.
A study on commercially exploited chickens has shown that their genetic diversity is far lower than that of wild breeds. There are entire sets of genetic possibilities that are missing from their "portfolios."
This is a natural result of industry practices. First, very few breeds of chicken have been selected for commercial use, favoring individuals with extreme performance in laying eggs, growing meat, or some combination of both traits. Then those individuals are reproduced as much as possible in a pyramidal pattern, influencing an outsized segment of the resulting population.
The pattern will look familiar to anybody who has been following the mechanisms behind the financial crisis, and entails some of the same dangers. Lack of genetic diversity makes existing breeds more vulnerable to diseases, and, perhaps even more importantly in the long term, it stifles biological innovation. There's a reason why endogamy is a bad reproductive strategy: genetic diversity is a form of long-term wealth.
It's also one we are currently losing, with the number of distinct species falling drastically every year, constantly reducing the available alternatives for further improvements in crops and animals. We would say that the loss of biodiversity is an economic problem as much as an ecological one, except that the distinction is a fallacy.
Technologies to analyze, catalog, and deploy genetic resources are already existing and constantly improving. Some of them are as old as vineyards and horse breeding, while more recent ones involve sophisticated direct manipulations of genetic materials. Falling costs are also, as usual, resulting in qualitative change, as cheap and quick genetic analysis makes possible the sort of wide, systematic research that would be impossible otherwise.
The gap that remains is an strategic one. Biodiversity, both in the wild and in industrial contexts, is an asset for countries and business, but it's one that it's being at best managed in a unfocused way, with the risks and missed opportunities that this implies. The ability to understand, steward, and exploit this resource will be a very important one in a wide range of fields, from agriculture to medical research to novel applications that will undoubtedly be developed.
Coypright: Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies