Luddites, biotechnology and the future
It’s early morning. A thick fog is wrapping the cobbled narrow street in a translucent cotton, softening the appearance of grimy buildings and filth-ridden gutters. A group of people are quickly but quietly moving up the street towards a big red-bricked building. They stop in front of a wide double door, built from pale solid wood. One of the men raises an axe and smashes the door open. The mob storms the building and starts destroying the delicate machinery inside. Soon, only splinters and bent and distorted lengths of steel remains where once stood one of the finest examples of technological progress made in over 200 years: the automated power loom. The Luddites have struck again.
In hindsight, it might seem a bit foolish to have tried to stop the progress of industrialisation by chopping up some old machinery with an axe, but humans aren’t exactly rational creatures (see The limbic society) and tend to react emotionally to most situations.
Cue present day. A field of golden wheat, swaying slowly in the soft wind. The early morning sun has just touched the top of a hill on the other side of the valley. A group of people are quickly but quietly positioning themselves along the downwind edge of the field. On a given signal, they set fire to the tall dry grassy strands. The fire spreads rapidly, engulfing the wheat. Soon, only scorched earth and charred stumps remains where once stood one of the most technologically advanced feats in the history of mankind: the genetically modified organism or GMO.
GMO – a quick background
Now, about GMO: even though biotechnology is a fairly modern concept, the process of genetically modifying organisms to suit our needs and fancies is nothing new. We’ve been doing it ever since we cultivated the grey wolf some 10,000 years ago. But we’ve been forced to do it old-school: look for traits that we think would be of benefit to us (if not the organism itself) and select upon them. Over years, decades, centuries and millennia we have managed to create a wide range of unnatural beasts and abnormal crops, all by using controlled breeding.
What’s different now is that we for the first time have access to the genome itself. Instead of looking for how genes express themselves in the form of their parent organism’s plumage, colour or size, we can now modify them directly, either by borrowing traits from other organisms or by tweaking the genes themselves. By injecting the new genes into our target organism (on egg cell level) we can then increase an animal’s resistance to certain pathogens or increase the yield of a crop. This would then reduce the need to use antibiotics or fertilisers and would therefore help produce higher quality food for less money.
As hinted in the introduction, people aren’t all that keen on genetically modified organisms. The reasons for this seem to group together in four different arguments: terrorism, religion/ethics, invasion and health.
I’ll start with terrorism. With biotechnology we have the possibility to create new and previously unknown biological weapons and disperse them on the enemy. The population in that country would then quickly get infected and perish from this synthetic superbug.
While this is a theoretical possibility, it’s not really a practical one. It would be much easier to just use an existing virus or bacteria than to create a new one. And even then, the lack of control over how the disease will spread makes bio-terrorism even more uncontrollable than nuclear terrorism. So in short, yes, it would be possible but it could as easily turn on you and your family as on your enemy.
Next up is religious and ethical arguments. I won’t bother with the former – not a lot is allowed according to most monotheistic religions anyway, including banking, pork chops and alcohol consumption – but I will have to say something on the latter. From an ethical point of view, biotechnology is indistinguishable our current breeding programmes. We alter nature to fit our needs, with little or no concern of the welfare of the organisms themselves. Lately, we do seem to have started to care more about animal welfare (although mainly pets), which is of course a Good Thing, but regardless, bioengineered organisms should fall under the same regulations as any other creature. Which it does and all should therefore be catered for*.
Invasive species. Now this is a big one. It’s well-known that the introduction of foreign species into existing ecosystems is usually less than favourable for native species, like when the European rabbits were planted in Australia or the Japanese kudzu-vine spread into the wild in USA. The threat that a genetically enhanced organism lets itself loose and out-competes the wild fauna or flora is a real one. So far – even though several GMOs have managed to spread in the wild – nothing like this has happened. But we need to monitor the situation carefully and make sure we don’t inadvertently create a species that will become a pest. (There are safeguards in place, like suicide-genes and such, but if life and evolution has taught us anything it’s that things constantly change. The suicide genes might devolve, or lose their efficiency for a number of reasons. It would be foolhardy to rely solely on emergency shutdown mechanisms.)
And finally health. This is the argument most widely used against GMOs, and especially GMO crops. It has been stated by activist groups that GMO food could be bad for your health, either directly or through long-term exposure. A plausible mechanism for how that could possibly work has yet to be suggested. Especially since GMO food chemically is no different from other food.
Also, we have been using GMO food for 30 odd years now and no apparent epidemic of related health problems has been detected.
The only possible mechanism for harming human beings would be to deliberately introduce a gene that produces some kind of toxin. And even then it would have to be produced in high enough concentrations to harm us, which would mean precious energy that could have been used to increase the yield would have to be reallocated for expensive toxin production. The resulting crop would perform very poorly in the fields compared to other, non-toxic, varieties.
Although there are issues with genetically modified organisms, they’re mainly to do with the potential threat of creating new pest species that could potentially harm the local ecosystems. However, in that scenario, it’s worthwhile to remember that GMOs rarely turn out to be the super-organisms that everyone fear. Even if sporting a modified gene here and an enhanced gene there, they rarely perform better in the wild than the species with a few million years of evolutionary adaptation under their belt.
You might question – and rightfully so – what the point of GMO crops is, if they don’t perform any better than the regular selected crops. Actually, they sometimes do, but we’re still in the process of trying to figure this biotechnology thing out. We have managed to produce crops that express some beneficial traits, but it has not been as easy as we’ve hoped. The potentials are promising but getting there might take some time. But obviously, this should warrant more research to be done, not less.
And when it comes to health concerns, we need to remember there’s no magical ‘natural’ substance or medium. Just because a gene has been modified by us and not nature, it doesn’t make the organism somehow completely foreign and less natural. It’s still the same chemicals as in non-GMOs, and the GMO crops still contain all the regular stuff like dietary fibers, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Or as the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation would have it:
“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”
So to conclude this – all too long – post: GMO food is no more dangerous to eat than food from crops refined through selective breeding. And frankly, if you’re worried about what’s in your food, you could do worse than focusing on what could really harm you: refined sugar. But that’s another story.
* Unless of course you don’t have any faith in our authorities competence or good intentions. In which case it’s a different issue all together.
** For the record, I’ve been lucky enough to have owned a couple of Great Danes and they’re lovely dogs. Not frankenesque at all.