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Who Needs Nature?

by Joan Hamilton

For most people, recent advances in biotechnology are charged with hope. We hear tales of more nutritious food, hardier crops, healthier economies. We view maps of the human genome, which could lead to healthier people. It's too early to say whether these dreams are realistic, but we do know that the heady ease with which we can now tinker with life in a laboratory will transform our world.

Biologist Craig Holdrege has been following these developments since the dawning of the biotech age in the early 1970s. He too is excited about the new knowledge. But he's felt a growing wariness as a whole generation of scientists has moved from the field to the lab. Though it might seem inconceivable, Holdrege warns, "Biology is losing its connection with nature."

Holdrege himself still has dirt on his boots. Post-graduate work in Europe helped set his intellectual course. While studying a drab little plant called the groundsel, he was struck by the fact that plants of the same genetic variety could look very different in different environments. Leaves not only differed in size, but their shape and structure changed. Likewise, plants of different varieties grew to resemble each other under similar growing conditions. These observations reminded him that genes tell only part of the story of what makes life tick. The father of genetics, Gregor Johann Mendel, and his successors created simplified models of nature so they could gain understanding of and power over it--but scientists are far from having discovered all of nature's secrets. "Genes don't mean anything by themselves," Holdrege says. "You've got to look at the whole system."

In this special issue of Sierra, we examine biotechnology's impact on some of the "whole systems" we commonly call nature. In "Sowing Technology," Holdrege and his colleague Steve Talbott explore the effects of the biotech revolution in agriculture. In "A Nation of Lab Rats," we assess what that revolution might mean for your health. In "Against the Grain," Ethiopia's environment minister gauges its impact on developing countries. And finally, in "Spinning Science Into Gold," we step inside universities and onto Capitol Hill, where glib public-relations experts are trying to heighten industry profits and hush biotech skeptics.

Yet skepticism is essential to scientific progress. Holdrege believes it's the thing we need most in this dazzling age. "Socrates is my hero," he says. "He was trying to wake people up. We are trying to wake them up, too, and show them alternatives to oversimplified solutions."

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