Farming's Biotech Future

Today's economy needs agriculture--not just to grow food but also to provide inputs for the biotech industry.
by | April 2003

William Fulton

William is a Governing columnist, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

The premature death of Dolly, the cloned sheep, hit me in an unexpected way. Most people reacted with a moral judgment. I found myself thinking about the way Dolly seemed to embody the emerging link between the economic past and the economic future.

Whatever our moral view, it is undeniable that Dolly represented the marriage of the barnyard economy of the 19th century and the biologically engineered economy of the 21st century. Once we decide what the moral boundaries of the emerging economy ought to be, the likes of Dolly could provide a link to help us to reconcile our often- conflicting desires to live in the past and the future at the same time.

It is a paradox of America that we want to speed our prosperity and quality of life forward. We like to enjoy the benefits of new products, new medicine and so forth, while at the same time, we hang on to the romantic ideal of a pastoral history in which these products and medicines simply didn't exist. In shaping our physical landscapes, we seek to do both of these things simultaneously, even at the risk of disconnecting the one from the other.

A recent study by two researchers from the New Economy Observatory at Portland State University found that most of the biotech activity in the United States is located in just nine metropolitan areas--the four biggest metros in the Northeast, the four biggest metros on the West Coast, and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. What the authors pointed out in their study is that the one thing that all these metropolitan areas have in common is that they are surrounded by agricultural areas threatened by urbanization. That threat, in turn, has fostered a desire by the prosperous urbanites to protect the farmland from the very forces of prosperity that benefit those urbanites.

I live in one of these places. The California county where I reside has gone to extraordinary measures to protect its farmland from urbanization. At the same time, our principal economic development "play" is to exploit the presence of our dominant private company, Amgen, which is by far the largest biotech company in America. (A Fortune 500 company, Amgen is not in the business of genetic alteration, as some other companies are. Rather, it develops and produces cellular and molecular medications.) It is not too much of an oversimplification to say that our farmland is protected against urbanization by the aesthetic preferences of biotech engineers earning six-figure salaries who commute to work by driving past farmland where immigrants pick strawberries for less than the minimum wage.

Herein lies an economic disconnect that is simply too vast for the field of economic development to ignore. The biotech economy creates great wealth because it produces extremely high-value-added products such as heart medication, whereas farmland is traditionally used to manufacture inexpensive and low-value-added commodities such as food.

These two industries simply cannot coexist side by side forever if they are not attached one to the other in some way. Somehow or other, we must find a way to create a middle class out of the extremes of this dichotomy.

Fortunately, there doesn't have to be a split, as the experience of Dolly revealed, although in a morally questionable way. The 21st- century economy needs agriculture--not just to grow the food as inexpensively as possible but also to provide inputs into the process of creating higher value-added products and to support higher-paid workers in different ways.

Sometimes this process can seem really weird, as when an entrepreneur genetically alters a goat with a spider's cells so that silk emerges from the goat's teat along with milk. But sometimes it can be a very simple and logical economic process, as when lettuce is bundled and sold in expensive, ready-to-eat packets. Rather than putting on grocery shelves heads of lettuce that can be priced cheaply--on the assumption that housewives have plenty of time to cut it up--the packets cater to the lifestyles of busy two-career families. But in all these kinds of cases, more profit flows toward the agricultural economy, creating more and higher-paying jobs and providing opportunities for upward mobility.

The integration of the 19th- and 21st-century economies won't always be perfect, of course. In many cases, our society will simply have to find the best way to produce and distribute basic agricultural commodities in order to provide food security to the nation. But in the specialized farmbelts surrounding our coastal biotech centers, there are many other opportunities.

So far Amgen hasn't quite figured out how to create heart medication by using strawberries as an input. But surely something similar is in the pipeline somewhere. And maybe that will help to re-integrate our futuristic and pastoral desires in a way that helps re-establish America's long-established tradition of upward mobility.


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