Genetic Engineering

One of the hot topics, it has outgrown the ranks of the Environmentalists and the Greens from which it sprung, and is emerging as one of the most significant human rights issues of our generation.

The rights concerned are the right to know what our scientists are doing with our genetic heritage, and the right to know that safety precautions are in place that will protect our environment from a danger that has the potential to make Chernobyl look like the smoke from a campfire.

When I first began this section of the website, information was more difficult to source — most of my information came via a ge newsgroup I subscribed to. Since then,high quality information sites have proliferated, and the relative role played by this site has diminished considerably. I have revised the site so as to point to some of the issues involved without proliferating detail.

Firstly, there is the issue of modification itself.

Is there a simple yes or no answer to the question of whether it is OK to alter the genetic structure of any life form for whatever purpose?

Probably not. While the chance exists that research will make significant breakthroughs in disease control, it will continue. After a number of recent disasters, the application of new research to human beings will hopefully proceed with greater caution.

(The silence is already deafening from those who were talking up GE solutions to world hunger just a few years ago. The crops simply have not delivered as promised.)

At this stage of our knowledge, what is primary is that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are contained so that they do not act at large as they have done already around GE canola crops to create monster weeds and destroy significant numbers of soil organisms.

Is genetic engineering different in key respects from artificial breeding programs of the kind farmers have been using for centuries?

Yes, it is.

Under what circumstances, if any, should ethical considerations limit scientific activity? Do concepts such as "sacred" or "tapu" have any relevance for a scientist?

We can argue "should" until we're blue in the face. We can even pass laws about it. The fact remains that if there's potential profit, potential demand, it will happen, somewhere else in the world if not in our back yard, and eventually, this world being an increasingly smaller village, the results will affect us.

Third world countries are becoming increasing targets for GE companies who have cut their losses in the face of an increasingly educated public at home and are taking advantage of struggling economies elsewhere, in the same way they outsource manufacturing to countries where there are no anti-pollution or labour-protection laws.

"Designer" babies are coming closer and closer to a hospital near you. Unfortunately, unlike designer fashions, they cannot be retired to a wardrobe or a museum when the next fashion arrives. Imagine being a forties or a seventies or even a nineties designer baby walking around today. (There is an area related to hereditary disabilities such as haemophilia where a case can be made for research, but my bet is that that will not be where the money is when it comes to genetic enhancement.)

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and the same goes for a healthy use of GE.

Secondly, there is the question of safety.

Genetic engineering research is almost completely funded by commercial/industrial interests. Can we rely on these interests to put safety ahead of profit?

The simple answer is No. The abiding culture in the big GE firms has been one of obfuscation, delaying tactics, of ignoring safety legislation, of fudging research results, of bribery, of revolving doors, and of outright lies. Not just occasional lapses, but consistent behaviour over years and years.

It is epitomised in the following statement

''Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,'' said Phil Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications. ''Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA's job,'' Angell said.

Consider that the tests used by the FDA to determine the safety of a product are for the most part carried out by the manufacturer of the product.

Consider that in the case of, for example, Monsanto's aspartame, the "60 Minutes" television program surveyed 164 studies. 74 studies funded by NutraSweet (active ingredient, aspartame) found it was ‘as healthy as rain’. 83 of 90 studies by neutral laboratories reported dangers."

In fact, the case of aspartame, separately reported on this website is highly instructive in what it reveals about the attitude of large corporations towards issues of public safety.

In the field of genetic engineering we do not have to spread our net very wide to find evidence of incompetence and greed on a large scale.

What we will rarely find is an admission of how little is known with certainty in this field. What we will rarely find is an admission of error or incompetence.

On the other hand, what we have found, thick on the ground, is a multiplication of PR firms, never a good sign.

So, even if we decide that there is ethical justification for at least some forms of genetic engineering, the culture of the large firms involved would make such a process prohibitively dangerous.

Even in programmes carried out by NZ Government agencies, we cannot depend on safety measures being implemented appropriately.

A study carried out by NZ Plant and Food Research at Lincoln was approved over 900 objections subject to stringent safety precautions to prevent the spread of genetic material into the surrounding environment and it appears that these precautions have simply not been observed. GM brassicas have been allowed to flower and potentially pollinate local crops.

Experience elsewhere in the world has seen the creation of brassica superweeds, aggressive and immune from normal methods of weed control.

Anti-GM campaigners brought the matter to light in late 2008 and the trial along with another has been suspended. Good.

Good that it has been shut down.  Good that at least some policing measures seem to be effective.  Good that the message is there for scientists to heed in future.  You have a contract, not a licence.  There are more parties to the contract than just the researchers.

Bad that once again we are replacing and shutting the stable door after somebody has not just left it open, but removed it altogether.

What I do not want in this area of research is a bunch of attitudinal teenagers in the family car going “Yeah, whatever” as their parents urge them to use alcohol sensibly and stay away from dope.  If this cutting edge area of research is to benefit humanity, we need to respect it’s risks, and we need to respect the rights of those who are exposed to its potential hazards.





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