Synthetic Biology and Stem Cells Combined to Make the World’s First “BioTractor”

Readers of Climate Connections are well-versed in some of our most enduring themes, such as the nightmarish genetic technologies of synthetic biology, the twisted crisis-of-capital logic of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, and that ballyhooed and benighted corporate citizen, Monsanto, as well as the yawningly dull but quietly persistent issue of corporate control of science, government, and education. But, the earth as my witness, I doubt that you have found these chilling themes worked into a single news article, such as they are in this gem about Monsanto’s devilish, dubious, and wildly unbelievable bio-tractor. The last bit pretty much says it all.    – GJEP

By Bob Parrott, for Independent Science News.

Washington, DC: Is the much-anticipated new bio-economyfinally here? After years of false starts and dashed hopes that question might just have been answered at a joint press conference today. In the presence of celebrated sequencer of the human genome, Craig Venter and Agriculture secretary Vilsack representing the Federal Government, Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, announced what he called the end of the hype and the beginning of a new reality.

Their presence together marked the unveiling of a revolutionary new technology called BioTractor™. BioTractor™  is a product of manipulating advanced stem cell lineages and what the presenters called “astonishing” progress in synthetic biology. Nevertheless, citing commercial reasons, they declined to go into precise details of how the BioTractor™ was made. They did, however, go into some detail in describing its capabilities. “This revolutionary product shows exactly what cross-disciplinary biotech research can achieve” said secretary Vilsack. The BioTractor is, he said, nothing less than a “living machine”.

“BioTractor technology will revolutionize the farming industry” said Monsanto CEO Grant. In the first case, its power source is unique. Unlike conventional tractors it is powered directly by carbon biofuels. Suitable biofuels, which can be produced on almost any farm, are fed into the machine, which crushes them using powerful grinders, treats them with acidic liquids, and then rapidly ferments them, said Grant. There will no longer be a need to grow soybeans and wastefully convert them to biodiesel he said. Instead, the BioTractor will be powered simply by grass pellets and water, or even fresh organic matter. And remarkably, Monsanto’s BioTractor is so advanced it can even collect the biofuels itself. It merely needs to be left in a field overnight and by morning it will have refueled. Prof Hilary Spode producer of a rival technology called EcoBot claimed she was “blown away” by the Biotractor’s capabilities.

Another advantage, of particular interest to USDA, said secretary Vilsack, is that, unlike conventional wheeled tractors, the Biotractor doesn’t compact the soil and so can be used under diverse weather and soil conditions, and even on steep slopes.

And that is by no means all, said CEO Grant, our BioTractor produces fully 80% fewer polluting emissions than a conventional metal tractor. Whereas factory-produced tractors require massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions simply to produce them, and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide per mile traveled, the Monsanto BioTractor produces only harmless and small “solid lumps of carbon waste” that can be stored until needed or left to biodegrade.

This carbon waste has been the subject of intensive study by a team of researchers at Cornell University. The Cornell researchers were given exclusive access to Monsanto’s research program but up to now have been sworn to secrecy. “We discovered that these small lumps are, biologically-speaking, solid gold.” Among their many properties is that they can be used to boost crop growth and even increase soil water storage, said scientist Peter Dawkins. “They are almost miraculous and we refer to them as Amendz™ carbon capsules. When it comes to combating climate change and feeding 9 billion people, these capsules will be absolutely indispensable”, he pointed out.

In return for its exclusive access Cornell has won an endowed chair to be named after Ron Herring (pictured on the left, oddly), one of its most celebrated social science researchers. The Ron Herring Chair of impartial social science research has yet to be formally awarded but Cornell Dean Sascha Henry has said that the new chair fits firmly with the prevailing spirit of Cornell.

The new BioTractors should prove attractive to farmers of every kind, believes Monsanto. Because they are carbon-neutral Monsanto has requested that US farmers be eligible for substantial REDD funding from the United Nations climate fund. And since they will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, secretary Vilsack took the opportunity to announce that the US government is creating a new fund called “Powering the Future” to “speed uptake of BioTractor technology” across America. “We need to overcome farmer suspicions and invest in this new bio-economy before other countries catch us up” said Vilsack. “No time must be lost.”

Though one might think that patenting such a unique device would be uncontroversial it seems that no good idea escapes the attention of luddites, do-gooders and nay-sayers. Though Monsanto has applied for a full patent, its right to do so is being contested.

Monsanto’s opponent in this case is Pennsylvania Amish farmer Mo Hershberger who has asserted that Monsanto scientists came to his farm and stole a newborn foal produced by his prize-winning horse Harley. This happened five years ago, Hershberger claims, but “I can recognize Harley’s offspring anywhere” he said. “Moreover, according to my daughter, who has been to college, I have the DNA to prove it”.

He is supported in his legal action by environmental group NRDC. NRDC alleges that the BioTractor is in fact not merely a life-like machine but technically “alive”. It therefore cannot be patented say NRDC lawyers.

Monsanto claims not to be intimidated by the six foot plus farmer and the Hershbergers’ assertions were described by a senior Monsanto legal vice president as “utterly spurious and without foundation”. However, rumors circulating at the press conference suggest that Monsanto has offered a large sum to settle out of court. “I wouldn’t mind so much” said the elderly farmer, “I would have been happy if they just gave her back, but now I hear she’s been sterilized.”

When questioned closely whether his foal could have produced Amendz™ carbon capsules farmer Hershberger replied “sounds like horse s**t! to me.

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