Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Problems With Genetic Engineering

There is public concern about the possible problems with genetic engineering. At the start of the 1970’s, these concerns were more widespread, as we didn’t know really what we were doing. When this technology was shown to be safe, these concerns abated. The possible risks of genetic engineering, however, have been a public concern, especially in Europe. These objections are threefold.

The first problem is that genetic manipulation is an unnatural manipulation of nature. This is what philosophers call the “yuck factor”. According to this people, eating food from a plant that has genes from bacteria is just “going too far”. There is just too much technology here.

There is no real response to this emotional argument. Scientists would say: “Well, all major crops have been genetically manipulated by humans even before genetic engineering was invented, so, that’s okay.”

Well, genetic engineering is really different. We’re taking genes from all over the plant, animal and bacterial world, and splicing them together. We can’t offer a rational response to this argument. We just can hope that these concerns will abate, as has happened with in vitro fertilization, for example.

The second of the supposed problems with genetic engineering is that genetically modified foods might be unsafe to eat. Some modifications of proteins, for example, may create a structure in the protein that some people might be allergic to. It turns out that most genetically modified plants grown today are not altered in the food part of the plant. They have some extra DNA sequences, but they are not modified in the food part. We’ve got to be careful with allergies, however.

The third of the risks is that genetically modified plants may be dangerous to the environment. Although a single gene is being transferred to a crop plant (one that makes it resistant to insects, for example), that gene might be transferred also to neighboring plants. This has been observed in some instances, but not in others. There is a danger of creation of super weeds with resistance. This is maybe a real risk, but not a really serious one.

There are two ways to look at these public concerns. One way is to proceed with caution, to do as many tests as we can, and make sure something doesn’t cause harm. The other way to look at it is the precautionary principle. This principle says “if you can’t prove that this would never cause a problem, don’t do it”. This argument has been common in Europe, but less so in other parts of the world. Certainly, this argument isn’t made in the less developed parts of the world, where genetic engineering has become a major way of improving plants.

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