Science is not the awe-inspiring tool many of us grew up believing in. Not that it has changed, but I suspect the march of progress has quickened into a steady trot - faster than many can match. So we fall behind and choose to base our decisions on intuition and emotion instead.
Even then, the pursuit of knowledge recognizes our disenchantment and adjusts to find answers to our fears. Farmers have struggled with educating observers about our ready alliance with chemical tools to control pests of all kinds. Perhaps it's fair to be suspicious of both agriculture and agribusiness - Lord knows we have been known to spin the truth a teensy bit.
Even so, those whose passion in life is verifiable scientific truth labor on and produce answers to these challenges. Understanding biodegradability and being able to predict it before the compounds are released would address a wide range of objections and save countless resources testing those products. Scientists are getting results, and they are promising.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the press release associated with this work focused on those compounds, including herbicides, that are most resistant to biodegradation, but fails to mention the even larger group of compounds that are intrinsically biodegradable. The usual news write ups about toxic chemicals and the environment 9999 times out of 10000 will inevitably highlight those that are the nastiest.
The huge benefits of the thousands of organic compounds used in the pharma, biotech, plastics, and other industries as well as medicine and agriculture will simply be ignored whether or not those compounds accumulate in the environment or not. Biodegradation is only one route by which thousands of compounds are destroyed naturally in the environment (heat, light and interaction with other non-living materials, are others). The predictive system will be useful, certainly, but its wider applicability should consider these other routes and the risk factors and toxicity associated with any particular chemical, rather than tarnishing all entries in the database simply on the basis of whether or not a microbial enzyme exists to digest it. [More]
News items like this renew my faith in our embrace of technology to improve our existence, and our ability to adjust course to confront legitimate concerns.