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10 November 2021

Life as We Made It by Beth Shapiro asks: is “natural” always best?

We might be scared of biotechnology – but this compelling book argues that it’s nothing new, and could help save the planet.

By Philippa Nuttall

Foods sold as “organic” or “free from preservatives” tumble easily into my shopping basket. The more natural-sounding the better. Such labels convince me that the products I’m buying are healthier and better for the environment. Life as We Made It by Beth Shapiro, an exploration of biotechnology, human evolution and our significant and often unwelcome impact on the planet, casts doubt on whether “natural” is always best, or indeed whether there is such a thing as “natural” – understood as a pristine sphere untouched by human activity.

People often baulk at the idea of deliberately intervening in nature, but biotechnology is nothing new, argues Shapiro, an evolutionary paleobiologist at the University of California. Humans have “been in this role for some time”: within the last 50,000 years, we’ve “turned wolves into Boston terriers, teosinte into popcorn, and wild cabbage into kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and collard greens”.

For many people, biotechnology means genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – organisms whose DNA has been edited so that changes appear in the next generation rather than over decades, as would happen with selective breeding. The very mention of GMOs – sometimes disparaged as “Frankenfoods” –  can cause “mistrust, anger, even violence”. Scare stories abound, and in the UK and the rest of Europe few GM crops are grown or products containing them sold.

[See also: How Brexit is already changing what we eat]

Shapiro acknowledges that the technology at our disposal today is more powerful than anything that has gone before, and argues that this necessitates caution – “we must recognise, accept, and learn to check these powers”. But she insists that biotechnology may be a crucial part of the solution to the world’s environmental problems – from damaging agricultural practices, to food shortages, to endangered species. “Given the growing number of people alive on the planet, all of whom need to eat, a faster and more efficient approach to refining our crops and domesticated animals is welcome.”

Ensuring a livable future – for flora and fauna, as well as humans – is not a matter of retreating from nature, Shapiro suggests, but of shaping it intelligently and deliberately with our “increasingly advanced technologies”. “We cannot step back and allow species to evolve along their prehuman trajectories,” writes Shapiro. “We are too embedded, our technologies too advanced, our population too large to disentangle ourselves.”

“Playing God” has already led to some interesting experiments. The “Enviropig”, for example, was a pig to whose DNA scientists added a gene from a microbe and one from a mouse. These two extra genes expressed a protein in pig saliva that breaks down phosphorus – a nutrient farmers add to pig feed, but which becomes a pollutant when excreted. The project, which could have eradicated phosphorus pollution, was halted by regulatory and funding issues.

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For Shapiro the question is not whether to modify nature, but how far to go. “Shall we allow ourselves to alter a species’ DNA directly in order to save it or another species from becoming extinct?” (Shapiro’s previous book, How to Clone a Mammoth, explored the science of “de-extinction” – resurrecting extinct species). New technologies offer opportunities, at a time when “the world is changing, and people and animals and ecosystems are suffering”.

Biotechnologies give us the power to help. We can change the evolutionary trajectories of species destined to become extinct. We can clean up our trash and make our farms more efficient. We can cure diseases that afflict us and other species. We can create and sustain a world in which wild species thrive in natural spaces and where people are healthy and happy and decidedly in charge.

Shapiro does not moralise or pretend that she – or biotechnology – holds all the answers. But she is clear that humanity, the climate and biodiversity are facing unprecedented challenges and that we need to think clearly and critically about potential solutions, and not reject them reflexively out of fear or revulsion at the prospect of meddling with nature. Life as We Made It presents a compelling vision that encourages us to be more open-minded – though I will probably, for the moment at least, keep trusting those “natural” labels.

Life as We Made It
Beth Shapiro
Oneworld, 352pp, £18.99

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks