Chapter 1. Revolutionizing the Conversation on Biotechnology
New technologies inevitably meet resistance. Canning, refrigeration, and pasteurization all took some time to get off the ground due to consumer mistrust. It goes beyond food—there was also resistance to both anesthesia and organ transplantation. These technologies all share one thing: they change the common understanding of our limitations.
In the 1800s, everyone knew that you couldn’t eat vegetables stored at room temperature that were months or years old, until canning came along and you could. Up until the twentieth century, surgery was a last resort, until anesthesia made it possible to bear. Up until the twenty-first century, everyone knew that agricultural breeding was a function of skill, a keen eye, and good luck. You couldn’t design a plant to do what you wanted, until you could, with modern bioengineering tools.
The first plant genomic transformation took place in 1983. Due to the expense and complexity of the technology at that time, further genetically modified organism (GMO) development was primarily a tool of large corporations. These corporations developed crops to benefit their customers (farmers) with increased yields in commodity crops. Farmers got to spray less, till less, and reap higher yields with these enhanced crops. Farm productivity increased, consumers had more food at lower prices, and everybody won.
Except, consumers have had no idea they are benefiting from this technology.
Here’s part of the problem: farmers—the people buying GMO seeds, the people who see the benefits firsthand—make up just 2% of the United States population. The proportion of people involved in farming has steadily dropped year after year as techniques, transportation, storage, and every other kind of agricultural technology that goes into growing food and delivering it to the end user improved. Plows made from steel, refrigerated trucking, the Haber-Bosch process, and countless other innovations have steadily made the net productivity from a single acre better and made farming many acres possible with fewer personnel.
The US is now at a point where 94% of Americans have no connection to farming or farmers, and GMOs are perceived as corporate arrogance writ large. GMOs entered the food system without consumer engagement. When consumers became aware of the technology and asked questions, they were met with the corporate equivalent of “Don’t worry about it; you wouldn’t understand.” This approach did not inspire confidence, and today our discussions about GMOs often devolve into trite repetition of bumper-sticker opinions.
How Do We Change the Conversation About Biotechnology? We Make It Beautiful!
Computer science got its first taste of popularity through gaming, translating a string of zeroes and ones into a virtual ping-pong game. Personal computing took off when Apple took the computer from the programmers and used great design and easy user experience to bring mothers and art students on board. Technology must be made personal and beautiful before it becomes ubiquitous.
Beautiful biotechnology gives people a new palette of experiences to associate with GMO technology: appreciation, wonder, and delight. Some 80 million US households garden, making it the most popular hobby. A color-changing flower, like the one being developed by our company, Revolution Bioengineering, is a consumer biotechnology accessible to everyone who gardens, allowing gardeners to speak about GMOs from their own experience.
Others have dabbled in this game—Suntory debuted a “blue” rose Applause several years ago. It was a major technological achievement, but it remains illusory—a quick look at the flower shows that it is lavender at best. Glowing Plant got crowds excited about a future in which street lights are replaced by plants, but that ambitious future is still distant.
Plant biotechnology has been the subject of a lot of broken promises, and so we have set our sights on a goal that is both amazing and achievable. The flower that we are crowd funding this spring changes color on demand from white to purple over the course of a day when you spritz it with a dilute ethanol solution. We have a prototype that works now (and has a video) and have partnered with a technical team with over 25 years of petunia pigment research experience to bring it to the world.
In all other regards, this is just like any other petunia: it needs water, it makes beautiful blooms, and it dies off in the fall just like every other petunia. Color-changing flowers will bring home the potential and possibility of this technology in a way that hasn’t been possible before.
We have more-ambitious goals of course: a flower that changes color throughout the day from pink to blue and back again, flowers that are scented with vanilla, and flowers that have polka dots. But these flowers are, once again, far in the future. We have a responsibility, right now, to achieve a result that lives up to expectations and demonstrates that we can use biotechnology to make beautiful things. By embracing the beautiful, we can change the way we talk about biotechnology. We can remove biotechnology from its current context of corporate control and its unassailable savior complex. We can expand beyond the limitations imposed by misinformation and fear to discuss how this technology can be used most effectively to develop a healthier, more sustainable society.
All of these actions are necessary for us to build the trust and respect that will support the next century of biological innovations. Without that mutual understanding, we risk trapping ourselves in this fearful conversation permanently, in a frustrating regulatory environment that neither accurately reflects risk nor provides assurance for the public.
Discussions of technologies that have failed to live up to their promise routinely include GMOs. It’s time to change that.