Key arguments presented by critics of genetic engineering:
• Environmental issues.
Genetically modified crops could end up causing major environmental problems, producing super-weeds if they accidentally interbreed with neighboring wild crops, or resulting in the emergence of super-pests as insect populations adapt to the genetic modifications introduced into crops. Recent studies have proved that DNA sequences from certain genetically modified crop species have indeed crossed over widely into the gene pool of non-modified neighboring plants. Scientists are working on ways to avert this problem, but it arguably constitutes one of the most grievous long-term dangers posed by genetic engineering of plants.
See Fred Pearce, “Crops ‘widely contaminated’ by genetically modified DNA,” New Scientist (Feb. 23, 2004).
• Unintended health effects.
Genetic modifications could produce unforeseen secondary effects in plants and animals – subtle and undetectable alterations that would conceivably render their tissues toxic to humans at some point well beyond the immediate time of their consumption in foods. Strongly-felt concern over this risk among consumers in Europe has resulted in a sweeping ban on genetically modified foodstuffs within the E.U. Although American citizens have so far proved far less worried about this issue, the U.S. National Academies nonetheless acknowledged the potential danger in an extensive 2004 report that laid out recommended procedures for assessing the risks and monitoring the safety of genetically modified foods.
See “Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects,” The National Academies (July 2004); Dave Toke, The Politics of GM Food (Routledge, 2004); and Herbert Gottweis, Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States (MIT, 1998).
• Dangers of xenotransplantation.
Moreover, the technologies of xenotransplantation – such as grafting hearts, livers, and other vital organs from genetically-modified pigs into humans – have raised an even more pressing set of questions. What if the animal tissues carry viruses that are harmless in pigs but – after a few simple mutations – devastating to humans? Might the transplanted organ become a kind of Trojan Horse for a new animal-human virus, unwittingly infecting not only the recipient individual, but possibly the rest of the human species as a whole? Scientists have deemed these kinds of risks sufficiently plausible to justify a stringent moratorium on all transgenic xenotransplantation procedures until their safety can be proved.
See Sheila McLean and Laura Williamson, Xenotransplantation: Law and Ethics (Ashgate, 2005); National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia), “National Health and Medical Research Council Statement on Animal-to-Human Transplantation (Xenotransplantation) Research (March 10, 2005).
• Globalization disparities.
A strain of genetically modified rice, dubbed Golden Rice by its creators, produces up to 23 times as much Vitamin A in its tissues as normal rice. This could bring an end to chronic vitamin deficiencies afflicting millions of people throughout the Third World. But the ecological activist Vandana Shiva has argued that Golden Rice epitomizes the short-sightedness of technocratic approaches to problems created by global poverty. Rather than forcing Third World farmers to rely on a high-tech plant strain produced abroad, she argues, it would be far wiser to reform the underlying cultural and economic system that generates, in turn, the kind of society whose members suffer chronic deficiencies of Vitamin A in the first place. Activists like Shiva fear that the introduction of genetically modified crops into global markets could render traditional (non-modified) Third World farm products less competitive over coming decades, leading to further impoverishment of those nations’ populations. It would also tend to make those farmers more lopsidedly dependent than ever on the technological largesse and know-how of the industrialized nations.
See Jacqueline Paine, et. al., “Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content,” Nature Biotechnology 23:4 (April 2005), 482-87; and Vandana Shiva, “The Golden Rice Hoax: When Public Relations replaces Science,” available online at: http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/GEessays/goldenricehoax.html
• Patents on nature.
Genetically modified organisms are not cheap to make: they require years of research conducted in expensive labs. Biotech firms (and increasingly universities as well) use this rationale to justify their aggressive efforts to patent the processes through which alterations are inserted into sections of plant and animal DNA. Critics like the consumer advocate Jeremy Rifkin have argued that this amounts to a “privatization” of natural entities that have always formed part of the global commons – a profiteering sleight-of-hand akin to patenting sunlight or water. Rifkin maintains that genetic information forms part of the common property of all humankind, and should not be subject to appropriation by any private interest.
See Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (Tarcher, 1998), ch. 2.
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Key arguments presented by the promoters of genetic engineering:
• Environmental benefits
Engineering crops for pest-resistance results in a major ecological benefit because it reduces the need to spray fields with pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Organic farming methods are insufficient for generating the sheer amount of foodstuffs required to feed the world’s growing population. Therefore, since some form of effective pest control is required in agriculture, it is better for it to come in the form of engineered resistance rather than the widespread use of chemicals on the land.
See Philip Reilly, Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and other Adventures in Genetics (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2000), chs. 13-16.
• Agricultural benefits
Genetic tweaking of plant and animal products could help dramatically boost the yield of global agriculture, rendering foods not only more plentiful but more nutritious and better-tasting as well.
See Desmond Nicholl, An Introduction to Genetic Engineering, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, 2008), ch. 13; and Toke, The Politics of GM Food.
• Medical benefits
Genetic engineering has already saved lives, and it could lead to major breakthroughs in medicine, ranging from diagnosis of medical conditions to gene therapy to personal genomics and personalized medicine. If the scientific and medical research are conducted responsibly, this could revolutionize the treatment of many diseases such as cancer, heart disease, or other widespread and deadly afflictions.
See David Haugen, Genetic Engineering: Opposing Viewpoints (Greenwood, 2009); Nicholl, An Introduction to Genetic Engineering, ch. 12; and Nessa Carey, The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance (Columbia, 2012); Keith Wailoo and Stephen Pemberton, The Troubled Dream of Genetic Medicine: Ethnicity and Innovation in Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis, and Sickle Cell Disease (Johns Hopkins, 2006).
• A pragmatic approach to addressing global poverty
While ending global poverty over coming decades through socioeconomic and cultural interventions is certainly a worthy goal, it remains unclear whether these methods will ever succeed. In the interim, technological innovations like Golden Rice offer simple solutions that can start saving lives immediately.
See the web site of the Golden Rice Project at http://www.goldenrice.org/;
• The rationale for genetic patents
The patenting of genetic modifications is necessary, in a free market system, in order to harness the forces of capital: allowing the profit motive to play its part greatly accelerates the pace at which life-saving innovations can emerge.
See Haugen, Genetic Engineering: Opposing Viewpoints; and Reilly, Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and other Adventures in Genetics, chs. 13-14. For a more critical view that nonetheless does a good job of analyzing the economics of biotechnological interventions, see Eugene Thacker, The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture (MIT, 2005).