Genetic Modification

“Scientists should be on tap but not on top” – Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

Commercial concerns with a toe in the door of ‘biotechnology', notably companies like Monsanto, have embarked on a program of research into ‘genetic engineering' (a.k.a. ‘genetic manipulation', ‘genetic modification', ‘GM', ‘GMO'). The aim is to modify the way an organism operates, by alteration of its genetic pattern. It is done ostensibly to benefit mankind but, of course, as with most activities of commercial giants, it is likely to be to the enormous benefit of the commercial concern and at best of questionable benefit to the recipient or consumer. Biotechnology is such a specialized process that only a few concerns will be able to undertake the work. It will enable the ‘creation' of novel organisms, which can then be patented. We have seen this same process and the enormous profits it can generate, in the world of medicinal drugs and other chemicals.

GM work includes ‘creating' pesticide or herbicide resistant varieties of crops, that can then have copious quantities of the chemical in question poured over them during their growing phase. Two obvious consequences are more potential chemical residues in food and greater quantities of the chemical used, again to the advantage of the company. One clear potential danger is the development of resistance in other plants, let alone the ecological cost.

Another aspect of GM work is to produce altered animals, which will succumb to disease at a certain age, ostensibly to enable laboratory research on that disease. An example is the ‘OncoMouse', which develops cancers to enable research on cancer in the laboratory. Firstly, why does anyone believe that cancer in a mouse will help us to develop treatments for human cancer? Secondly, what does such an artificial cancer tell us about naturally-developing cancer? Those hapless mice and other modified organisms will suffer in vain, as so many have before them, in worthless animal experimentation.

Genetic modification has also been used to develop animals and plants that will be extra-productive or that will produce a ‘designer' product. Examples are cows that produce massive amounts of milk, plants that produce unheard of weights of crop, fruits that can produce oral vaccines, bacteria that can produce human insulin. The list goes on.

An even greater commercial advantage is foreseen by the commercial giants, by the use of ‘terminator' genes. No grower will be able to harvest his own seed, in that world, because it will not grow. Thus, the time-honoured practice, in developing countries, of keeping back seed for next year's crop, will be a thing of the past. If all seed is genetically modified in this way and the only supplier of seed is the commercial giant, all the world's growers will have to go cap in hand to the commercial giant, for each year's supply of seed. Such a dangerous and far-reaching monopoly is not difficult to foretell.

We also see pigs being genetically-modified, in order to grow ‘human' organs, for xenotransplantation.

Is it going to be so long, before human genetic engineering is reality?

It has been argued by some opponents, that genetic modification is doing ‘God's work'. The AVMC view is that it is a massive, uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) experiment with almost boundless capacity for harm. No one knows how far a plant pollen can travel, thus making it almost impossible to limit the spread of the modified genes. It may, in the not-too-distant future, be impossible to grow vegetables and crops that have not been contaminated with this potential danger, particularly since proposals at the time of writing allow for a minimum of only 30 metre gap around GM crops. The instability in the DNA pattern, brought about by such haphazard and rapid re-organisation of the genome of various species, may take decades or longer, to settle, with no knowledge of what the instability will produce. Already, Monsanto is facing glyphosate-resistant weeds, of giant proportions, presumably as a result of ‘infection' with glyphosate resistance from the GM crops they have grown (e.g. the modified soya bean dubbed ‘Roundup Ready'). There is a glyphosate-resistant ‘horseweed' (Conyza canadensis but also known as Erigeron, Leptilon or Eupatorium in the past), found in several States of the USA, where GM crops have been grown. It appears that this ‘weed' spreads State-wide, within a year of discovery in that State. The plant species was once rarely seen in California but this new biotype is now widespread in the State. Another ‘weed' called ‘waterhemp' (Amaranthus sp.) is also affected and has been dubbed a ‘superweed' by the press. Poor Monsanto is now pleading with growers to act now, to save their chemical, whose viability is now threatened. Strategies under consideration are the widespread use of 2,4-D (a ‘moderately dangerous' chemical) alongside Roundup (‘if you're in a hole, keep digging' appears to be the motto).

Science fiction horror movies, entailing monsters that have escaped from scientific experiments, are not looking so far-fetched now.

Genetic modification is creeping into just about every corner of the food industry but it is still maize and soya bean that are the most widely grown. Because there is such consumer resistance, world-wide, to buying GM crops, the USA is now ‘dumping' them on the aid market. Third World countries in need of aid are NOT in need of GM, but they're getting it.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the canteen at Monsanto's UK HQ in Buckinghamshire has now banned GM products! Well, they of all people should know ……

The Alternative Vet (AVMC) totally rejects the concept that there is a need for this sort of work and condemns it as an unwise, rash, foolhardy and a potentially extremely dangerous uncontrolled experiment.

Back in 1999, when the ‘millennium bug' was on everyone's lips, I wrote an essay which challenged the scare stories about computers crashing, world-wide, on 1st January 2000, which said that the real millennium bug would be GM (genetic modification, not General Motors). My fears have not been calmed in the intervening years. The potential for this practice to ruin, for ever, the wonderful balance of our planet's ecosystems, flora and fauna, developed over millions of years, is clear. If climate change doesn't get us, the march of GM technology is going to try its best to do so.

See also: Cloning, Xenotransplantation, Human-Animal Hybrid Embryos.