Partially inspired by my recent annoyance with a certain seed catalog, I've decided it is high time I wrote out some of my thoughts about genetic engineering. A long post, but I hope you'll take the time to read it and comment on it.
Genetic engineering is the process of taking a segment of DNA from one organism and popping it into the genome of another organism. Which sounds pretty radical, but actually isn't. Basically, that is what sex is: the genes from the two parents get mixed together into a new combination. Happens all the time, and humans have been manipulating these combinations of genes since before history. Bread wheat, for example, was created by combining the genes of three different species (Triticum urartu, Aegilops speltoides, and Aegilops tauschii) into one plant.
I like to compare genetic engineering to the internet. The internet is powerful – you can do a LOT of different things with it. Good things like sharing information, and making friends, bad things like child pornography, and just silly things like funny cat videos. The internet isn't good or bad – it is just a powerful tool people use in different ways. The same is true of genetic engineering. It isn't good or bad, it can just do a lot of different stuff: some of it good, some bad, and some just silly.
A couple examples to show what I mean:
Bt Corn and cotton: Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacteria which produces a protein lethal to caterpillars (in some strains – other strains are lethal to other specific groups of insects) but is entirely nontoxic to other organisms (like us). Bt is a wildly popular organic insecticide -- if you like to eat organic produce, you also eat large quantities of Bt. So, scientists took the gene for the Bt toxin out of the bacteria and popped it into other crops – most popularly, corn and cotton. Now instead of spraying synthetic insecticides, the plants produce their own organic insecticide right in their leaves. The short term impacts have been overwhelmingly positive. Cotton used to be THE most heavily sprayed crop in the world (followed closely by apples). Virtually all cotton now has the Bt gene, and the result has been a dramatic reduction in spraying, resulting in far fewer pesticide poisonings (particularly in places like India where a lot of cotton is grown with minimal safety regulations), a big uptick in the health wild insect populations, less CO2 production because fossil fuel burning tractors aren't having to drive out all the time to spray, and increased yields on less land so more wild areas can be left intact. Which is all terrific.
But there is cause for concern. What if, for example, Bt corn cross bred with its wild ancestor, teosinte, in Mexico and the gene moved out into wild populations? Suddenly, wild ecosystems would have an incredibly powerful new insecticidal gene floating around. What would happen to wild insect populations? Would teosinte become able to out compete other wild plants? Currently, you are not allowed to grow any genetically engineered crops in areas where their wild ancestors also grow to prevent accidental cross pollination – but how easy is that going to be to enforce? All it takes is one farmer in Southern Mexico with a handful of corn from the US, and the Bt gene could be out in wild populations.
In my view, the Bt gene is very powerful, and so far powerfully positive, but certainly has the potential to be dramatically negative.
Citation). Pretty sobering numbers. Enter golden rice – rice genetically engineered to produce vitamin a in the form of beta-carotene (which makes the grain yellow – hence the name). Distribute the golden rice seeds in these communities, and this debilitating vitamin deficiency could be a thing of the past, while keeping the people their independence. It requires no reliance on the gifts of food or vitamins from wealthier countries, rather provides them the tools to pull themselves out of a terrible situation. The downsides are... well, nothing. Producing beta-carotene in seeds doesn't do anything good for the rice, so even if it crossed with wild rice, the gene wouldn't persist in the wild, nor disrupt natural ecosystems. It would just save lives and end some suffering. Unfortunately, though the technology is up and ready to go, golden rice has never made it to the people who need it -- thanks to aggressive lobbying by well-fed environmentalists in the US and Europe.
There are lots of other things that are being done with genetic engineering: insulin and human growth hormone are both produced by genetic engineered bacteria, to dramatic effect for diabetics (good) and doping in sports (not so good). The Gates Foundation is funding an incredible project remaking cassava to transform – and save – the lives of people in sub-Saharan Africa. There are also goofy things like putting petunia genes into roses and carnations to try and make them blue – though really they come out sort of mauve-ish. Not bad, not good, just silly.
My point in all these examples is this: Debates about if genetic engineering, as a whole, is good or bad miss the point. It isn't good or bad, it is just powerful. What we need to be debating are the specifics: Is Bt corn worth the risks? Should we try and produce more nutrient supplemented crops like golden rice? Do we really need blue-ish roses? Because genetic engineering can be such a powerful force for good, we morally can't just shut down the debate because it sounds strange or “unnatural.” Those might be sufficient reasons to not make blue roses – but not sufficient to keep things like golden rice out of the hands of malnourished people. We need a healthy, informed discussion of genetic engineering so we can harness its power to help people, and avoid using it to do things we'll regret.
Teosinte and corn