02 January 2010

Genetic engineering: a statement of opinion

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.
So genetic engineering isn't fundamentally different than what has been going on in this world since sex was invented (actually, before sex was invented: bacteria trade genes without sex all the time). It is basically the same process that converted wild almonds (which are toxic) into something you can eat and made the scrubby little plant teosinte into corn. You can take a gene from one potato and put it in other potato via traditional breeding or via genetic engineering and end up with exactly the same result. In short, there is nothing inherently dangerous or different about genetic engineering. It is basically the same thing as traditional breeding – only more powerful A lot more powerful.
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. 

Golden rice:
In some of the poorest parts of Asia, people rely on rice as a staple crop. They are barely able to feed themselves, and much of the year they eat virtually nothing but rice -- a problem because rice is basically just starch. It provides the calories to keep a person alive, but it doesn't have much in the way of vitamins. The result is that in many of these places vitamin A deficiencies are pandemic. The World Health Organization estimates 250 million children are vitamin A deficient, some so severely that between 250,000 and 500,000 go blind each year -- and half of those die within a year of loosing their sight (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.

Photo credits:
Teosinte and corn
Golden rice


NotSoAngryRedHead said...

Lovely post. Very thoughtful, and I agree with the general idea. However, there's a bit of a social scientist in me...

A lot of these problems stem from issues far beyond what's immediately in the picture. Starvation because of lack of food? What about starvation due to the global polarization of wealth? or unethical governments? or unethical companies?

I'm not really pro- or anti- genetic modification. I probably stick to the heirloom stuff as more of a way of keeping the old stuff alive sort of like brewing beer rather than buying it premade. I probably plant GMO plants. Actually I'm pretty certain of it. I also buy premade beer when I'm feeling fancy.

I think you're absolutely right about it not really being good or bad, but your arguments are maybe a bit short-sighted without including the history of modern agriculture, the global disparity in wealth, commercialism, etc. Genetically modified rice is a bandaid for the epidemic. It might be *something* if put into the hands of those in need, but it isn't a solution.

Some of the anti-GMO sentiment revolves around issues much greater than just food, and activists don't normally stick to just one focus - many activists are concerned with multiple issues because they're all interconnected in some way.

A "strong" environmentalist with good arguments is concerned with much more than just the environment. A "strong" activist with good arguments is concerned with more than what's on their table. I think some participants in the "green" movement forget to look beyond what's immediately in front of them which is true of most activist movements and can be *stupendously* irritating when trying to argue with them. I encounter this irritation with feminists, and I'm a feminist!

Ah well... I hope your post makes people think about the science and its potential because there really is a lot of potential. The application might leave something to be desired, but that doesn't make it inherently evil. I hope you post more about this topic!! I'd love to hear more of your thoughts as an "evil insider"! :-P Totally kidding except that I would really like to hear more from you about this.

JP said...

I also enjoyed the depth you went to with this post. I think it merits mentioning that as far as gm Bt veggies are concerned, we're now in a situation where the obvious increase in exposure to Bt has allowed for increased resistance from the pests. So what once was a valuable tool to organic gardeners is in jeopardy of becoming totally ineffective because nothing stands in the way of a company overusing a natural resource that belongs to all of us. As scientists, they are obviously aware of these concerns, and in my opinion that amounts to a hijacking.
So, powerful is an accurate word, but sometimes right and wrong are accurate, too. And should ending starvation be a for-profit action?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"And should ending starvation be a for-profit action?"

It's hard to see why it shouldn't be. We pay people for playing basketball and writing detective stories. Why balk at paying them for doing something really important like ending starvation?

Joseph said...

Thanks for the comments -- I totally agree that the issues resulting in food shortages are extremely complex, and GM crops are far from a magic bullet -- but they would help! And I'm for anything that helps, even if it won't solve the whole problem. (BTW -- I'm not REALLY an evil insider... I don't do any genetic engineering, though I certainly know people who do.)

Good points on Bt -- I agree that it is probably only a matter of time before pests start developing resistance (I'm surprised it hasn't happened already) and that isn't going to be a good thing. Another reason I'm not a fan of Bt crops.

I agree with Wm that there is no reason not to let ending starvation be a for-profit action, though for the record, the efforts to engineer for the third world I know about(golden rice and Biocassava Plus) are non-profit ventures.

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Ken said...

Of course, humans have engineered plants and animals for thousands of years. But I don't trust the big companies. Scotts has been successfully developing Roundup-resistant grass varieties for a while. Imagine what will happen when lawn grass becomes a weed that cannot be killed.
There is an incredibly thin line between capitalism and greed. And greed is the goal of most mega-companies. Developing countries are desperate for GM crops. But as an example, look at the pharmaceutical companies and how they restrict sharing life-saving drugs in the name of profit.
The big companies cannot be trusted. Consider the pressure the chemical companies have put on the government to squash organic farming; and support government subsidies that go to commercial farming -- not to organic farming -- or even independent farmers that can barely scrape by. And on, and on.
How much money has been spent trying to develop a blue rose?

Joseph said...

Good points on an issue I didn't get into here. With something this powerful, who controls the technology is a major issue. Intellectual property law is a BIG part of this. I like debate in these terms -- who controls it? How much do we trust them? Those are important questions, and much more productive than asking if GM technology good or bad.
Herbicide resistant turf grass is a spectacularly stupid idea -- and at this point, it doesn't look like it will ever get to the market (thank goodness). It is, however, an economic issue, not an ecological one. Bad news for farmers who rely on Round-Up to control weeds, but not for natural landscapes or even organic farms where herbicides aren't sprayed.