Saturday, May 17, 2014

Genetic Engineering And You: a guide for those who eat

One of the biggest fights in politics today is over genetic modification of our food. Unfortunately, this is such a fraught issue that many people find themselves taking a hard-line position at one end of the opinion spectrum or the other, and the world of nuance in between is lost. I would like to clarify some middle ground that I think deserves to be explored.

Now, in principle, I have nothing against modifying or even recombining the genes in food plants and animals to increase yield or decrease the resources that go into something. I am certainly aware that part of terraforming alien worlds will inevitably involve genetic manipulation of not only living resources but also potentially humans ourselves. Heck, some of my favorite stories/worlds have this as a basic foundation! (See: the Pern series by Anne McCaffery) In fact, most food that we eat in the 21st century has been at the very least cross-bred to increase desirable traits. This is the beginning and ending of some people's argument: we have always tinkered with our food to make it more edible in some way, and modern methods are just the next step in that.

But there are issues with modern methods that simply did not arise in more traditional husbandry. Breeding two wheat plants or two cows together to produce a better version of the same species has predictable results, with at worst one or two mutations to be accepted or rejected (i.e. bred into another generation or culled). Taking a cow embryo and splicing in gene sequences from jellyfish or milkweed or elephants could have a whole cascade of side effects and/or unintended consequences.

Which is not to say that such splicing should never take place, just that it should be done in controlled circumstances. Raise that cow in relative isolation, and two or three generations (at least) of its offspring under close watch. Do not, whatever you do, set the first cow loose into a random field and let it wander off for a decade or so, at which point you have no idea how many offspring there are or how to identify and contain them. Not only is that bad science, it also makes the lives of everyone more difficult: the cattle farmers who might unexpectedly have jellyfish-cows, the meat inspectors who have to certify that this is in fact beef, and the consumers who eat something officially labeled 'beef'.

The ripple effect shows more potential problems. Often the experimental organisms and their offspring grow more quickly, or gobble resources more thoroughly, and overwhelm the native population of whatever. The spliced-in genes might mutate in unexpected ways, or cause strange mutations in the organism's native genetic code. Worse, the gene sequences might cause serious problems for consumers, like allergic reactions or the breaking of religious dietary laws. And without any sort of labeling or transparency about their process, the company cannot technically be held accountable.

We must also consider the intent, the end goal, of splicing in genes from an unrelated species. If your goal is to improve a tomato, you might want to add a gene sequence that increases its vitamin content, or one that extends its shelf life. Unfortunately, it seems that many corporations do not have the goal of improving the food itself. The aim of their tinkering is, far too often, to make the plant more compatible with their own fertilizer or pesticide, or less compatible with potential cross-breedees. (The larger goal of which, of course, is to increase their own profits without regard for who loses thereby.) One day we might conceivably even see animals which can only gain nutrition from plants created by a particular company, making farmers completely beholden to that company. This profit motive also leads these corporations to release organisms that have been minimally tested, or tested only in lab conditions, not in the wild.

This is the main problem I, and many other people, have with corporations like Monsanto. They seemingly do not care about the long-term consequences of their manipulations, nor about the short term effects on their own farmers, other farmers, or those who actually consume the food in question. Their methods and materials are functionally inscrutable, and they have bought enough politicians and regulatory bodies that they effectively face no consequences whatsoever. Worse, they simply keep growing, reaching deeper into our lives and our shopping carts every year, with little to nothing seeming to stand in their way.

As I've stated before, I don't have a problem with people pursuing this branch of science. In fact, I suspect that it will be necessary to our survival as a species (even before we start colonizing other planets) that we engineer plants and animals to be more fruitful/hardy/efficient. I just believe that this is work best done by universities and government research bodies, with data published in peer-reviewed journals before the resultant organisms are considered for distribution to the general public. These are institutions which (ideally) hold to a standard of public good, with an eye toward long-term implications of this still relatively untested technology. 

In the meantime, of course, it is important that we the citizens have not only labels on our food, telling us which organisms in it have been genetically modified, and with what genes, but also transparency at every level of creation, including what potentially-engineered plants have been fed to our food animals. We must have greater government oversight into the methods and practices of these monolithic corporations, and stricter laws about what can be modified (and why and how it is modified), and/or what sorts of genes can be spliced in. 

Genetically modified food will only become more common as history moves forward, but with a thoughtful outlook and a light touch, it can provide a higher standard of living for the entire global population. Let's chart that middle road.