Redesigning the World Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering
Ron Epstein 1
Until the demise of the Soviet Union, we lived under the daily threat of nuclear holocaust extinguishing human life and the entire biosphere. Now it looks more likely that total destruction will be averted, and that widespread, but not universally fatal, damage will continue to occur from radiation accidents from power plants, aging nuclear submarines, and perhaps the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons by governments or terrorists.
What has gone largely unnoticed is the unprecedented lethal threat of genetic engineering to life on the planet. It now seems likely, unless a major shift in international policy occurs quickly, that the major ecosystems that support the biosphere are going to be irreversibly disrupted, and that genetically engineered viruses may very well lead to the eventual demise of almost all human life. In the course of the major transformations that are on the way, human beings will be transformed, both intentionally and unintentionally, in ways that will make us something different than what we now consider human.
Heedless of the dangers, we are rushing full speed ahead on almost all fronts. Some of the most powerful multinational chemical, pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations have staked their financial futures on genetic engineering. Enormous amounts of money are already involved, and the United States government is currently bullying the rest of the world into rapid acceptance of corporate demands concerning genetic engineering research and marketing.
WHAT IS GENETIC ENGINEERING
What are genes?
Genes are often described as ‘blueprints’ or ‘computer programs’ for our bodies and all living organisms. Although it is true that genes are specific sequences of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) that are central to the production of proteins, contrary to popular belief and the now outmoded standard genetic model, genes do not directly determine the ‘traits’ of an organism.1a They are a single factor among many. They provide the ‘list of ingredients’ which is then organized by the ‘dynamical system’ of the organism. That ‘dynamical system’ determines how the organism is going to develop. In other words, a single gene does not, in most cases, exclusively determine either a single feature of our bodies or a single aspect of our behavior. A recipe of ingredients alone does not create a dish of food. A chef must take those ingredients and subject them to complex processes which will determine whether the outcome is mediocre or of gourmet quality. So too the genes are processed through the self-organizing (‘dynamical’) system of the organism, so that the combination of a complex combination of genes is subjected to a variety of environmental factors which lead to the final results, whether somatic or behavioral.2
a gene is not an easily identifiable and tangible object. It is not only the DNA sequence which determines its functions in the organisms, but also its location in a specific chromosomal, cellular, physiological and evolutionary context. It is therefore difficult to predict the impact of genetic material transfer on the functioning of the extremely tightly controlled, integrated and balanced functioning of all the tens of thousands of structures and processes that make up the body of any complex organism.3
Genetic engineering refers to the artificial modification of the genetic code of a living organism. Genetic engineering changes the fundamental physical nature of the organism, sometimes in ways that would never occur in nature. Genes from one organism are inserted in another organism, most often across natural species boundaries. Some of the effects become known, but most do not. The effects of genetic engineering which we know are ususally short-term, specific and physical. The effects we do not know are often long-term, general, and also mental. Long-term effects may be either specific4 or general.
Differences between Bioengineering and Breeding
The breeding of animals and plants speeds up the natural processes of gene selection and mutation that occur in nature to select new species that have specific use to humans. Although the selecting of those species interferes with the natural selection process that would otherwise occur, the processes utilized are found in nature. For example, horses are bred to run fast without regard for how those thoroughbreds would be able to survive in the wild. There are problems with stocking streams with farmed fish because they tend to crowd out natural species, be less resistant to disease, and spread disease to wild fish.5
The breeding work of people like Luther Burbank led to the introduction of a whole range of tasty new fruits. At the University of California at Davis square tomatoes with tough skins were developed for better packing and shipping. Sometimes breeding goes awry. Killer bees are an example. Another example is the 1973 corn blight that killed a third of the crop that year. It was caused by a newly bred corn cultivar that was highly susceptible to a rare variant of a common leaf fungus.6
Bioengineers often claim that they are just speeding up the processes of natural selection and making the age-old practices of breeding more efficient. In some cases that may be true, but in most instances the gene changes that are engineered would never occur in nature, because they cross natural species barriers.
HOW GENETIC ENGINEERING IS CURRENTLY USED
Here is a brief summary of some of the more important, recent developments in genetic engineering.7
1) Most of the genetic engineering now being used commercially is in the agricultural sector. Plants are genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides, to have built in pesticide resistance, and to convert nitrogen directly from the soil. Insects are being genetically engineered to attack crop predators. Research is ongoing in growing agricultural products directly in the laboratory using genetically engineered bacteria. Also envisioned is a major commercial role for genetically engineered plants as chemical factories. For example, organic plastics are already being produced in this manner.8
2) Genetically engineered animals are being developed as living factories for the production of pharmaceuticals and as sources of organs for transplantation into humans. (New animals created through the process of cross-species gene transfer are called xenographs. The transplanting of organs across species is called xenotransplantation.) A combination of genetic engineering and cloning is leading to the development of animals for meat with less fat, etc. Fish are being genetically engineered to grow larger and more rapidly.
3) Many pharmaceutical drugs, including insulin, are already genetically engineered in the laboratory. Many enzymes used in the food industry, including rennet used in cheese production, are also available in genetically engineered form and are in widespread use.
4) Medical researchers are genetically engineering disease carrying insects so that their disease potency is destroyed. They are genetically engineering human skin9 and soon hope to do the same with entire organs and other body parts.
5) Genetic screening is already used to screen for some hereditary conditions. Research is ongoing in the use of gene therapy in the attempt to correct some of these conditions. Other research is focusing on techniques to make genetic changes directly in human embryos. Most recently research has also been focused on combining cloning with genetic enginering. In so-called germline therapy, the genetic changes are passed on from generation to generation and are permanent.
6) In mining, genetically engineered organisms are being developed to extract gold, copper, etc. from the substances in which it is embedded. Other organisms may someday live on the methane gas that is a lethal danger to miners. Still others have been genetically engineered to clean up oil spills, to neutralize dangerous pollutants, and to absorb radioactivity. Genetically engineered bacteria are being developed to transform waste products into ethanol for fuel.
SOME DISTINGUISHED SCIENTISTS’ OPINIONS
In the 1950’s, the media was full of information about the great new scientific miracle that was going to make it possible to kill all of the noxious insects in the world, to wipe out insect-born diseases and feed the world’s starving masses. That was DDT. In the 1990’s, the media is full of information about the coming wonders of genetic engineering. Everywhere are claims that genetic engineering will feed the starving, help eliminate disease, and so forth. The question is the price tag. The ideas and evidence presented below are intended to help evaluate that central question.
Many prominent scientists have warned against the dangers of genetic engineering. George Wald, Nobel Prize-winning biologist and Harvard professor, wrote:
Recombinant DNA technology [genetic engineering] faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution.
Such intervention must not be confused with previous intrusions upon the natural order of living organisms; animal and plant breeding, for example; or the artificial induction of mutations, as with X-rays. All such earlier procedures worked within single or closely related species. The nub of the new technology is to move genes back and forth, not only across species lines, but across any boundaries that now divide living organisms The results will be essentially new organisms. Self-perpetuating and hence permanent. Once created, they cannot be recalled
Up to now living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can foretell, either for the host organism or their neighbors.
It is all too big and is happening too fast. So this, the central problem, remains almost unconsidered. It presents probably the largest ethical problem that science has ever had to face. Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain For going ahead in this direction may be not only unwise but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, novel epidemics.10
Erwin Chargoff, an eminent geneticist who is sometimes called the father of modern microbiology, commented:
The principle question to be answered is whether we have the right to put an additional fearful load on generations not yet born. I use the adjective ‘additional’ in view of the unresolved and equally fearful problem of the disposal of nuclear waste. Our time is cursed with the necessity for feeble men, masquerading as experts, to make enormously far-reaching decisions. Is there anything more far-reaching than the creation of forms of life? You can stop splitting the atom; you can stop visiting the moon; you can stop using aerosals; you may even decide not to kill entire populations by the use of a few bombs. But you cannot recall a new form of life. Once you have constructed a viable E. coli cell carry a plasmid DNA into which a piece of eukaryotic DNA has been spliced, it will survive you and your children and your children’s children. An irreversible attack on the biosphere is something so unheard-of, so unthinkable to previous generations, that I could only wish that mine had not been guilty of it.11
It appears that the recombination experiments in which a piece of animal DNA is incorporated into the DNA of a microbial plasmid are being performed without a full appreciation of what is going on. Is the position of one gene with respect to its neighbors on the DNA chain accidental or do they control and regulate each other? Are we wise in getting ready to mix up what nature has kept apart, namely the genomes of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells.
The worst is that we shall never know. Bacteria and viruses have always formed a most effective biological underground. The guerrilla warfare through which they act on higher forms of life is only imperfectly understood. By adding to this arsenal freakish forms of life-prokyarotes propagating eukaryotic genes-we shall be throwing a veil of uncertainties over the life of coming generations. Have we the right to counteract, irreversibly, the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and curiosity of a few scientists?
This world is given to us on loan. We come and we go; and after a time we leave earth and air and water to others who come after us. My generation, or perhaps the one preceding mine, has been the first to engage, under the leadership of the exact sciences, in a destructive colonial warfare against nature. The future will curse us for it.12
In contrast, here are two examples of prominent scientists who support genetic engineering. Co-discoverer of the DNA code and Nobel Laureate Dr. James D. Watson takes this approach:
On the possible diseases created by recombinant DNA, Watson wrote in March 1979: ‘I would not spend a penny trying to see if they exist’ (Watson 1979:113). Watson’s position is that we must go ahead until we experience serious disadvantages. We must take the risk of even a catastrophe that might be hidden in recombinant DNA technology. According to him that is how learning works: until a tiger devours you, you don’t know that the jungle is dangerous.13
What is wrong with Watson’s analogy? If Watson wants to go off into the jungle and put himself at risk of being eaten by a tiger, that is his business. What gives him the right to drag us all with him and put us at risk of being eaten? When genetically engineered organisms are released into the environment, they put us all at risk, not just their creators.
The above statement by a great scientist clearly shows that we cannot depend on the high priests of science to make our ethical decisions for us. Too much is at stake. Not all geneticists are so cavalier or unclear about the risks. Unfortunately the ones who see or care about the potential problems are in the minority. That is not really surprising, because many who did see some of the basic problems would either switch fields or not enter it in the first place. Many of those who are in it have found a fascinating playground, not only in which to earn a livelihood, but also one with high-stake prizes of fame and fortune.
Watson himself saw some of the problems clearly when he stated:
This [genetic engineering] is a matter far too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific and medical communities. The belief thatscience always moves forward represents a form of laissez-faire nonsense dismally reminiscent of the credo that American business if left to itself will solve everybody’s problems. Just as the success of a corporate body in making money need not set the human condition ahead, neither does every scientific advance automatically make our lives more ‘meaningful’.14
Although not a geneticist, Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist and cosmologist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in England (a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton), has commented often and publicly on the future role of genetic engineering. For example:
Hawking, known mostly for his theories about the Big Bang and black holes, is focusing a lot these days on how humanity fits into the future of the universe–if indeed it fits at all. One possibility he suggests is that once an intelligent life form reaches the stage we’re at now, it proceeds to destroy itself. He’s an optimist, however, preferring the notion that people will alter DNA, redesigning the race to minimize our aggressive nature and give us a better chance at long-term survival. “Humans will change their genetic makeup to give them more intelligence and better memory,” he said.15
Hawking assumes that, even though humans are about to destroy themselves, they have the wisdom to know how to redesign themselves. If that were the case, why would we be about to destroy ourselves in the first place? Is Hawking assuming that genes control IQ and memory, and that they are equivalent to wisdom, or is Hawking claiming there is a wisdom gene? All these assumptions are extremely dubious. The whole notion that we can completely understand what it means to be human with a small part of our intellect, which is in turn a small part of who we are is, in its very nature, extremely suspect. If we attempt to transform ourselves in the image of a small part of ourselves, what we transform ourselves into will certainly be something smaller or at least a serious distortion of our human nature.
Those questions aside, Hawking does make explicit that, for the first time in history, natural evolution has come to an end and has been replaced by humans meddling with their own genetic makeup. With genetic engineering science has moved from exploring the natural world and its mechanisms to redesigning them. This is a radical departure in the notion of what we mean by science. As Nobel Prize winning biologist Professor George Wald was quoted above as saying: “Our morality up to now has been to go ahead without restriction to learn all that we can about nature. Restructuring nature was not part of the bargain.”16
Hawking’s views illustrate that even brilliant scientists, whose understanding of science should be impeccable, can get caught in the web of scientism. “Scientism”17 refers to the extending of science beyond the use of the scientific method and wrongly attempting to use it as the foundation for belief systems. Scientism promotes the myth that science is the sole source of truth about ourselves and the world we live in.
Most scientific research is dependent on artificial closed system models, yet the cosmos is an open system. Therefore, there are a priori limitations to the relevance of scientific data to the open system of the natural world. What seems to be the case in the laboratory may or may not be valid in the natural world.17a Therefore, we cannot know through scientific methodology the full extent of the possible effects of genetic alterations in living creatures.18
If science is understood in terms of hypotheses from data collected according to scientific method, then the claims of Hawking in the name of science extend far beyond what science actually is. He is caught in an unconscious web of presuppositions and values that deeply affect both his hypotheses and his interpretation of data. It is not only Hawking who is caught in this web but all of us, regardless of our philosophical positions, because scientism is part of our cultural background that is very hard to shake. We all have to keep in mind that there is more to the world than what our current crop of scientific instruments can detect.
Hawking’s notions are at least altruistic. Perhaps more dangerous in the short run are projected commercial applications of so-called ‘designer genes’: gene alterations to change the physical appearance of our offspring to more closely match cultural values and styles. When we change the eye-color, height, weight, and other bodily characteristics of our offspring, how do we know what else is also being changed? Genes are not isolated units that have simple one-to-one correspondences.19
SOME SPECIFIC DIFFICULTIES WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING
Here are a few examples of current efforts in genetic engineering that may cause us to think twice about its rosy benefits.
The Potential of Genetic Engineering for Disrupting the Natural Ecosystems of the Biosphere
At a time when an estimated 50,000 species are already expected to become extinct every year, any further interference with the natural balance of ecosystems could cause havoc. Genetically engineered organisms, with their completely new and unnatural combinations of genes, have a unique power to disrupt our environment. Since they are living, they are capable of reproducing, mutating and moving within the environment. As these new life forms move into existing habitats they could destroy nature as we know it, causing long term and irreversible changes to our natural world.20
Any child who has had an aquarium knows that the fish, plants, snails, and food have to be kept in balance to keep the water clear and the fish healthy. Natural ecosystems are more complex but operate in a similar manner. Nature, whether we consider it to be conscious or without consciousness, is a self-organizing system with its own mechanisms.21 In order to guarantee the long-term viability of the system, those mechanisms insure that important equilibria are maintained. Lately the extremes of human environmental pollution and other human activities have been putting deep strains on those mechanisms. Nonetheless, just as we can clearly see when the aquarium is out of kilter, we can learn to sensitize ourselves to Nature’s warnings and know when we are endangering Nature’s mechanisms for maintaining equilibria. We can see an aquarium clearly. Unfortunately, because of the limitations of our senses in detecting unnatural and often invisible change, we may not become aware of serious dangers to the environment until widespread damage has already been done.
Deep ecology22 and Gaia theory have brought to general awareness the interactive and interdependent quality of environmental systems.22a No longer do we believe that isolated events occur in nature. Each event is part of a vast web of inter-causality, and as such has widespread consequences within that ecosystem.
If we accept the notion that the biosphere has its own corrective mechanisms, then we have to look at how they work and the limitations of their design. The more extreme the disruption to the self-organizing systems of the biosphere, the stronger the corrective measures are necessary. The notion that the systems can ultimately deal with any threat, however extreme, is without scientific basis. No evidence exists that the life and welfare of human beings have priority in those self-organizing systems. Nor does any evidence exist that anything in those systems is equipped to deal with all the threats that genetically engineered organisms may pose. Why? The organisms are not in the experience of the systems, because they could never occur naturally as a threat. The basic problem is a denial on the part of many geneticists that genetically engineered organisms are radical, new, and unnatural forms of life, which, as such, have no place in the evolutionarily balanced biosphere.
Plant, animal and human viruses play a major role in the ecosystems that comprise the biosphere. They are thought by some to be one of the primary factors in evolutionary change. Viruses have the ability to enter the genetic material of their hosts, to break apart, and then to recombine with the genetic material of the host to create new viruses. Those new viruses then infect new hosts, and, in the process, transfer new genetic material to the new host. When the host reproduces, genetic change has occurred.
If cells are genetically engineered, when viruses enter the cells, whether human, animal, or plant, then some of the genetically engineered material can be transferred to the newly created viruses and spread to the viruses’ new hosts. We can assume that ordinary viruses, no matter how deadly, if naturally produced, have a role to play in an ecosystem and are regulated by that ecosystem. Difficulties can occur when humans carry them out of their natural ecosystems; nonetheless, all ecosystems in the biosphere may presumably share certain defense characteristics. Since viruses that contain genetically engineered material could never naturally arise in an ecosystem, there is no guarantee of natural defenses against them. They then can lead to widespread death of humans, animals or plants, thereby temporarily or even permanently damaging the ecosystem. Widespread die-off of a plant species is not an isolated event but can affect its whole ecosystem. For many, this may be a rather theoretical concern. The distinct possibility of the widespread die-off of human beings from genetically engineered viruses may command more attention.23
Secret work is going forward in many countries to develop genetically engineered bacteria and viruses for biological warfare. International terrorists have already begun seriously considering their use. They are almost impossible to regulate, because the same equipment and technology that are used commercially can easily and quickly be transferred to military application.
The former Soviet Union had 32,000 scientists working on biowarfare, including military applications of genetic engineering. No one knows where most of them have gone, or what they have taken with them. Among the more interesting probable developments of their research were smallpox viruses engineered either with equine encephalitis or with Ebola virus. In one laboratory, despite the most stringent containment standards, a virulent strain of pneumonia, which had been stolen from the United State military, infected wild rats living in the building, which then escaped into the wild.24
There is also suggestive evidence that much of the so-called Gulf War Syndrome may have been caused by a genetically engineered biowarfare agent which is contagious after a relatively long incubation period. Fortunately that particular organism seems to respond to antibiotic treatment.25 What is going to happen when the organisms are purposely engineered to resist all known treatment?
Nobel laureate in genetics and president emeritus of Rockefeller University Joshua Lederberg has been in the forefront of those concerned about international control of biological weapons. Yet when I wrote Dr. Lederberg for information about ethical problems in the use of genetic engineering in biowarfare, he replied, “I don’t see how we’d be talking about the ethics of genetic engineering, any more than that of iron smelting – which can be used to build bridges or guns.”26 Like most scientists, Lederberg fails to acknowledge that scientific researchers have a responsibility for the use to which their discoveries are put. Thus he also fails to recognize that once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot coax it back in. In other words, research in genetic engineering naturally leads to its employment for biowarfare, so that before any research in genetic engineering is undertaken, its potential use in biowarfare should be clearly evaluated. After they became aware of the horrors of nuclear war, many of the scientists who worked in the Manhattan project, which developed the first atomic bomb, underwent terrible anguish and soul-searching. It is surprising that more geneticists do not see the parallels.
After reading about the dangers of genetic engineering in biowarfare, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, became extremely concerned, and, in the spring of 1998, made civil defense countermeasures a priority. Yet, his administration has systematically opposed all but the most rudimentary safety regulations and restrictions for the biotech industry. By doing so, Clinton has unwittingly created a climate in which the production of the weapons he is trying to defend against has become very easy for both governments and terrorists.27
New crops may breed with wild relatives or cross breed with related species. The “foreign” genes could spread throughout the environment causing unpredicted changes which will be unstoppable once they have begun. Entirely new diseases may develop in crops or wild plants. Foreign genes are designed to be carried into other organisms by viruses which can break through species barriers, and overcome an organism’s natural defenses. This makes them more infectious than naturally existing parasites, so any new viruses could be even more potent than those already known.
Ordinary weeds could become “Super-weeds”: Plants engineered to be herbicide resistant could become so invasive they are a weed problem themselves, or they could spread their resistance to wild weeds making them more invasive. Fragile plants may be driven to extinction, reducing nature’s precious biodiversity. Insects could be impossible to control. Making plants resistant to chemical poisons could lead to a crisis of “super pests” if they also take on the resistance to pesticides.
The countryside may suffer even greater use of herbicides and pesticides: Because farmers will be able to use these toxic chemicals with impunity their use may increase threatening more pollution of water supplies and degradation of soils.
Plants developed to produce their own pesticide could harm non-target species such as birds, moths and butterflies. No one – including the genetic scientists – knows for sure the effect releasing new life forms will have on the environment. They do know that all of the above are possible and irreversible, but they still want to carry out their experiment. THEY get giant profits. All WE get is a new and uncertain environment – an end to the world as we know it.29
When genetically engineered crops are grown for a specific purpose, they cannot be easily isolated both from spreading into the wild and from cross-pollinating with wild relatives. It has already been shown30 that cross-pollination can take place almost a mile away from the genetically engineered plantings. As has already occurred with noxious weeds and exotics, human beings, animals and birds may accidentally carry the genetically engineered seeds far vaster distances. Spillage in transport and at processing factories is also inevitable. The genetically engineered plants can then force out plant competitors and thus radically change the balance of ecosystems or even destroy them.
Under current United States government regulations, companies that are doing field-testing of genetically engineered organisms need not inform the public of what genes have been added to the organisms they are testing. They can be declared trade secrets, so that the public safety is left to the judgment of corporate scientists and government regulators many of whom switch back and forth between working for the government and working for the corporations they supposedly regulate.31 Those who come from academic positions often have large financial stakes in biotech companies, 32 and major universities are making agreements with biotech corporations that compromise academic freedom and give patent rights to the corporations. As universities become increasingly dependent on major corporations for funding, the majority of university scientists will no longer be able to function as independent, objective experts in matters concerning genetic engineering and public safety.32a
Scientists have already demonstrated the transfer of transgenes and marker genes to both bacterial pathogens and to soil fungi. That means genetically engineered organisms are going to enter the soil and spread to whatever grows in it. Genetically engineered material can migrate from the roots of plants into soil bacteria, in at least one case radically inhibiting the ability of the soil to grow plants.33 Once the bacteria are free in the soil, no natural barriers inhibit their spread. With ordinary soil pollution, the pollution can be confined and removed (unless it reaches the ground-water). If genetically engineered soil bacteria spreads into the wild, the ability of the soil to support plant life may seriously diminish.33a It does not take much imagination to see what the disastrous consequences might be.
Water and air are also subject to poisoning by genetically engineered viruses and bacteria.
The development of new genetically engineered crops with herbicide resistance will affect the environment through the increased use of chemical herbicides. Monsanto and other major international chemical, pharmaceutical, and agricultural corporations have staked their financial futures on genetically engineered herbicide-resistant plants.33b
Recently scientists have found a way to genetically engineer plants so that their seeds lose their viability unless sprayed with patented formulae, most of which turn out to have antibiotics as their primary ingredient. The idea is to keep farmers from collecting genetically engineered seed, thus forcing them to buy it every year. The corporations involved are unconcerned about the gene escaping into the wild, with obvious disastrous results, even though that is a clear scientific possibility.34
So that we would not have to be dependent on petroleum-based plastics, some scientists have genetically engineered plants that produce plastic within their stem structures. They claim that it biodegrades in about six months.35 If the genes escape into the wild, through cross-pollination with wild relatives or by other means, then we face the prospect of natural areas littered with the plastic spines of decayed leaves. However aesthetically repugnant that may seem, the plastic also poses a real danger. It has the potential for disrupting entire food-chains. It can be eaten by invertebrates, which are in turn eaten, and so forth. If primary foods are inedible or poisonous, then whole food-chains can die off.36
Another bright idea was to genetically engineer plants with scorpion toxin, so that insects feeding on the plants would be killed. Even though a prominent geneticist warned that the genes could be horizontally transferred to the insects themselves, so that they might be able to inject the toxin into humans, the research and field testing is continuing.37
The genetic engineering of new types of insects, fish, birds and animals has the potential of upsetting natural ecosystems. They can displace natural species and upset the balance of other species through behavior patterns that are a result of their genetic transformation.
One of the more problematic ethical uses of animals is the creation of xenographs, already mentioned above, which often involve the insertion of human genes. (See the section immediately below.) Whether or not the genes inserted to create new animals are human ones, the xenographs are created for human use and patented for corporate profit with little or no regard for the suffering of the animals, their felings and thoughts, or their natural life-patterns.
Use of Human Genes
As more and more human genes are being inserted into non-human organisms to create new forms of life that are genetically partly human, new ethical questions arise. What percent of human genes does an organism have to contain before it is considered human? For instance, how many human genes would a green pepper38 have to contain before one would have qualms about eating it? For meat-eaters, the same question could be posed about eating pork. If human beings have special ethical status, does the presence of human genes in an organism change its ethical status? What about a mouse genetically engineered to produce human sperm39 that is then used in the conception of a human child?
Several companies are working on developing pigs that have organs containing human genes in order to facilitate the use of the organs in humans. The basic idea is something like this. You can have your own personal organ donor pig with your genes implanted. When one of your organs gives out, you can use the pig’s.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a set of xenotransplant guidelines in September of 1996 that allows animal to human transplants, and puts the responsibility for health and safety at the level of local hospitals and medical review boards. A group of 44 top virologists, primate researchers, and AIDS specialists have attacked the FDA guidelines, saying, “based on knowledge of past cross-species transmissions, including AIDS, Herpes B virus, Ebola, and other viruses, the use of animals has not been adequately justified for use in a handful of patients when the potential costs could be in the hundreds, thousands or millions of human lives should a new infectious agent be transmitted.”40
England has outlawed such transplants as too dangerous.41
Genetically engineered material can enter the body through food or bacteria or viruses. The dangers of lethal viruses containing genetically engineered material and created by natural processes have been mentioned above.
The dangers of generating pathogens by vector mobilization and recombination are real. Over a period of ten years, 6 scientists working with the genetic engineering of cancer-related oncogenes at the Pasteur Institutes in France have contracted cancer.42
Non-human engineered genes can also be introduced into the body through the use of genetically engineered vaccines and other medicines, and through the use of animal parts genetically engineered with human genes to combat rejection problems.
Gene therapy, for the correction of defective human genes that cause certain genetic diseases, involves the intentional introduction of new genes into the body in an attempt to modify the genetic structure of the body. It is based on a simplistic and flawed model of gene function which assumes a one-to-one correspondence between individual gene and individual function. Since horizontal interaction43 among genes has been demonstrated, introduction of a new gene can have unforeseen effects. Another problem, already mentioned, is the slippery slope that leads to the notion of designer genes. We are already on that slope with the experimental administration of genetically engineered growth hormone to healthy children, simply because they are shorter than average and their parents would like them to be taller.44
A few years ago a biotech corporation applied to the European Patent Office for a patent on a so-called ‘pharm-woman,’ the idea being to genetically engineer human females so that their breast-milk would contain specialized pharmaceuticals.44a Work is also ongoing to use genetic engineering to grow human breasts in the laboratory. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that not only would they be used for breast replacement needed due to cancer surgery, but also to foster a vigorous commercial demand by women in search of the “perfect” breasts.45 A geneticist has recently proposed genetically engineering headless humans to be used for body parts. Some prominent geneticists have supported his idea.46
Genetically Engineered Food
Many scientists have claimed that the ingestion of genetically engineered food is harmless because the genetically engineered materials are destroyed by stomach acids. Recent research47 suggests that genetically engineered materials are not completely destroyed by stomach acids and that significant portions reach the bloodstream and also the brain-cells. Furthermore, it has been shown that the natural defense mechanisms of body cells are not entirely effective in keeping the genetically engineered substances out of the cells.48
Some dangers of eating genetically engineered foods are already documented. Risks to human health include the probable increase in the level of toxins in foods and in the number of disease-causing organisms that are resistant to antibiotics.49 The purposeful increase in toxins in foods to make them insect-resistant is the reversal of thousands of years of selective breeding of food-plants. For example when plants are genetically engineered to resist predators, often the plant defense systems involve the synthesis of natural carcinogens.50
Industrial mistakes or carelessness in production of genetically engineered food ingredients can also cause serious problems. The l-tryptophan food supplement, an amino acid that was marketed as a natural tranquilizer and sleeping pill, was genetically engineered. It killed thirty-seven people and permanently disabled 1,500 others with an incurable nervous system condition known as eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS).51
Dr. John Fagan has summarized some major risks of eating genetically engineered food as follows:
the new proteins produced in genetically engineered foods could: a) themselves, act as allergens or toxins, b) alter the metabolism of the food producing organism, causing it to produce new allergens or toxins, or c) causing it to be reduced in nutritional value.a) Mutations can damage genes naturally present in the DNA of an organism, leading to altered metabolism and to the production of toxins, and to reduced nutritional value of the food. b) Mutations can alter the expression of normal genes, leading to the production of allergens and toxins, and to reduced nutritional value of the food. c) Mutations can interfere with other essential, but yet unknown, functions of an organisms DNA.52
Basically what we have at present is a situation in which genetically engineered foods are beginning to flood the market, and no one knows what all their effects on humans will be. We are all becoming guinea pigs. Because genetically engineered food remains unlabeled, should serious problems arise, it will be extremely difficult to trace them to their source. Lack of labeling will also help to shield the corporations that are responsible from liability.
MORE BASIC ETHICAL PROBLEMS
See the rest here: