28.11.2012 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

Life as a technological project: the need for responsibility and social ecology

Young rice plants being grown using tissue culture © Flickr / IRRI

Under the heading « What is Life 2.0 Worth? », the conference organised on Friday 30 November 2012 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris by the French association Vivagora, UNESCO and about twenty partners – several of them from the media – will explore the ethical and social impact on everyday life of developments in biotechnology.

While human bioethical issues are well recognised, and genetic engineering and nanotechnologies are widely debated, the area of new life technologies – which combine biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology into one innovative synthesis – is rarely envisaged as a whole.

To consider them as a whole is the goal of the “Life Conference”, organised by Vivagora with the support of UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Programme, at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, on 30 November 2012.

Continuing on from the work of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), and echoing two recent draft reports by the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) on traditional medicine and on the new risks of discrimination linked to recent scientific progress *, this “Life Conference” will combine technology foresight and ethical consideration with an attempt to grasp the social effects of synthetic biology, biomimicry and the post-oil bioeconomy.

Of particular interest will be the question of cohabitation and solidarity between living beings, with one workshop being dedicated to the implications of mastering or owning living things. The core issue will be the power at stake and the challenges for the international community, faced with the extremely rapid development of biotechnologies and the possibilities they bring.

The use of technology to produce living beings is not, strictly speaking, something new. Since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, the selection of species has been profoundly transforming the environment and the dynamics of human life. Without living technologies there would be no wheat, no dogs, no cows’ milk and no roses.

Nevertheless, the acceleration of discoveries and new scientific and technological dynamics suggest the imminence not only of a change of scale and interventions of a totally new sort, but also of greater disparities in the distribution of power between rich and poor.

The “Life Conference” will open with a plenary session which will consider what common future there could be for ecosystems and biotechnology and will close on a profoundly political matter: what democratic regulations can we envision and build regarding the use of life?

One reason the new life sciences attract considerable investment is that they point to revolutionary applications which could – according to those who promote them – solve many of the environmental problems of the 21st century. The expression “Life 2.0” has even gained coinage to mean no longer simply life sciences but life itself as a technological project.

While non-renewable raw materials are becoming rarer and global warming could be greater than 2°C by the end of this century, nature’s ‘capital’ – ‘biomass’ – made up of forests, crops, the seas and, more generally, all living organisms, is becoming an essential resource which is, in theory, inexhaustible – just so long as we give it due consideration.

‘Biosourced’ agro-fuels, bioplastics and chemical products suggest a path which would be based on living organisms. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the world market for industrial biotechnology could reach 300 billion euros by the year 2030 – five to six times what it is today.

The pressure is growing to explore and extract the riches of biodiversity, increase the productivity of plants, produce various substances and materials using plants, animals and micro-organisms, make synthetic life, capable of new functions, create artificial meat, etc. We will have to feed 9 billion people by 2050 – and to meet their material and energy needs. And yet we still don’t know who will control all this, for whom and with what effects – including those that nobody could today predict.

The biomass race is already dominated by the big multinationals who intend to optimize the performance of organisms by genetic engineering, metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, green chemistry, etc. How can this dynamic be reconciled with a reasonable and sustainable use of ecosystems and marine and land life? How can we ensure a fair sharing of the benefits of this scientific and technological progress? How can we guarantee public and democratic control of its uses?

There is a considerable risk that we may be witnessing a concentration of power in the hands of ‘agro-info-energy’ consortiums. Just as big is the risk of seeing the food and energy security of entire populations and countries dwindle, as they are deprived of access to natural resources - which have, so far, been considered as public goods – as a result of monopolisation through property rights and patents. And yet, technical and scientific approaches which are based on respect for ecosystems and the rights of populations – such as agro-ecology, agro-forestry and the development of ‘bio-inspired’ products – demonstrate that a sustainable use of natural resources is indeed possible, and can be very productive.

By holding this “Life Conference”, VivAgora, UNESCO and their score of partners seek to question the pertinence and sustainability of the ways in which life is being used. They want to underline the challenge for ‘Life 2.0’, which is a responsible bioeconomy and a social ecology. The matter is crucial for democracies, which are confronted by huge ecological, health and ethical issues, when a strong and shared conception of sustainable development has yet to emerge.

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* Draft Report of IBC on Traditional Medicine and its Ethical Implications [PDF] and Initial Reflections on the Principle of Non-Discrimination and Non-Stigmatization [PDF], presented during the 19th session of the IBC and its Joint Session with the IGBC, UNESCO Paris, France, 11-14 September 2012




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