Two awards were granted in 2020 that may seem unrelated, but for me are deeply intertwined.
The first was the Blue Planet Prize awarded to scientist Simon Stewart. Stewart helped to create the IUCN Red List, which conservationists use to identify species threatened with extinction. The other award was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for developing CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. Worlds apart, yet the product of one may help render the other obsolete. CRISPR could very well be a key tool in reducing the number of species on the Red List.
One of the many pressing issues the United Nations will confront in 2021 is whether the arsenal of new biotechnologies should be deployed for conservation and environmental protection, or whether they’re anathema to nature itself. The global community is scheduled to debate this, along with the next 30 years of policy towards biodiversity, at the UN Biodiversity Conference in May in Kunming, China.
I’ve spent more than a decade negotiating with international experts in conservation, ecology, risk assessment, technology development, indigenous communities, and governments about how best to protect the planet and its species in a biotech century. And sometimes I find myself in a state of disbelief.
How did we get to a point where we are contemplating whether to alter the DNA of coral reefs to save them from the impacts of human induced climate change? Or use gene drives to eliminate invasive rodents from islands to save the native bird species? How drastically can we alter a species before it’s a simulacrum of something already lost?
The time for philosophical debates has passed: 33 percent of reef corals, 14 percent of birds, and 26 percent of mammals are threatened with extinction, according to the Red List. Despite society’s seeming unwillingness to change behaviors to mitigate the environmental crisis, action must be taken now. Policymakers may have no other choice but to activate drastic technological interventions like CRISPR to “fix” the damage.
I ascribe the origins of my environmental awareness to my first reading of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac . I’ve read it many times since. Leopold stressed that care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. He believed that direct interaction with the natural environment allows people to expand their ethics beyond self-interest. “We can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in,” he wrote. I bring Leopold up because those interactions with raw nature have on many occasions informed my beliefs, as they continue to do now.
Case in point: In 2017 I had the opportunity to sit with the mountain gorillas of Bwindi National Forest in Uganda. The gorillas were acclimated to humans after years of tracking and interactions with tourists like myself. As we sat with a family, watching the young gorillas play with each other, the 350-pound silverback stirred and began to maneuver closer to us, then closer still, until I was face to face with him. Much like a linebacker dismisses a defensive end, he knocked me out of his way with his broad, powerful shoulder. I placed my hand on his back to brace myself.
As our tracker helped me up it was not the fear that played in my mind—that would come later—but the warmth and softness of the silverback’s fur. The day before, I stood at a podium in a nondescript conference room across the border in Rwanda presenting a report I co-authored about synthetic biology’s potential impact on agriculture and the environment. This technology’s stated goal is to engineer, if not control, biology. Yet in that forest, human control was an illusion. The gorillas were in control. We were their guests.
It is not lost on me that the global debates about using biotech for environmental protection had to be postponed in 2020 because of a global pandemic, which itself was a result of humanity’s lack of respect for nature and false sense of dominion. Simultaneously, it’s that same biotechnology that’s enabling the Covid vaccine to get us out of this mess.
I’ll share one last story about humanity’s hand in nature. This is a story of teosinte, the ancestor of modern corn. Teosinte has small hard kernels. There are maybe 10 grains per stalk—no one’s idea of a meal. But over centuries of breeding, what was once the hardy teosinte has become corn—with large cobs and several hundred kernels per plant. Modern day corn is one of the most abundantly grown crops in the United States. Yet it is delicate: it’s thirsty, requiring an inch of water a week; it needs nitrogen fertilizer. Farmers use pesticides and herbicides just to keep it from succumbing to wilder nature. But humanity depends on corn for survival. Corn is so out of turn with nature, so pampered, that without constant tending, annual sowing and 30 years of genetic engineering, it would cease to exist as we know and need it.
In 2019, as part of an art exhibit called Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology, a group of artists, curators, and scientists (myself included), grew a corn maze in the sculpture park outside the North Carolina Museum of Art [2, 3]. At the center of the maze grew a patch of teosinte. One among many false paths would lead back to corn’s ancestor for a moment of recognition and of meditation before exiting the maze.
Many times I found myself in that maze with corn stalks high above my head, silky leaves brushing sweat on my brow—lost. Lost looking for corn’s origins, lost looking for a way out.
Despite biotechnology’s enormous potential, I am conflicted. Biotech today is rife with hubris and contradiction. Action must be taken, yes. But do we really understand the complexities and power of nature deeply enough to think we can control it? We are so quick to alter and engineer nature, but so slow and unwilling to alter ourselves to protect and live in harmony with it.
 Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, 1949.
 Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping Our Genetic Futures. North Carolina State University, 2019. https://research.ncsu.edu/ges/arts-work-in-biotech/artwork/
 Renda, Molly and William H. Dodge, Teosinte to Tomorrow. 2019.
TODD KUIKEN IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTIST AND SENIOR RESEARCH SCHOLAR WITH THE GENETIC ENGINEERING AND SOCIETY CENTER AT NORTH CAROLINA STATE UNIVERSITY. HE EVALUATES AND DESIGNS RESEARCH AND GOVERNANCE STRATEGIES FOR EMERGING GENETIC TECHNOLOGIES WITH A PARTICULAR FOCUS ON BIOSAFETY, BIOSECURITY, AND ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES.
Kuiken, Todd. Biotech: An Environmentalist’s Dilemna. Biodesigned, January 21, 2021. Online at https://www.biodesigned.org/todd-kuiken/biotech-an-environmentalists-dilemma