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 that…science 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.
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
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 organismís 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
The 100,000 or more genes found in the human genome constitute perhaps 5% of the approximately 3.5 billion base pairs of DNA sequence in the haploid human genome. Most of this noncoding DNA lies between genes and has been called spacer, or even "junk" DNA.53
The overwhelming proportion of the DNA-perhaps up to 99% in some genomes-appears to have no known function. It has been described as 'junk DNA' or 'selfish DNA'-selfish because it serves no purpose except to get itself replicated along with the rest of the genone.54
An interesting parallel in thinking exists between junk DNA theory and earlier theories of the prefrontal lobes of the brain as being non-essential to human well-being. In 1955 Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the treatment of schizophrenia by prefrontal lobotomy. In this procedure a long wire is inserted through the side of the skull and the prefrontal lobes are then stirred like scrambled eggs. In the United States the foremost practitioner of prefrontal lobotomy, Dr. Walter Freeman, a professor at George Washington University Medical School and a president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, inserted an ice-pick through the tear ducts to sever the prefrontal lobe connections. The procedure, initially used on mental hospital patients, became popular as a way of dealing with mental problems.
A sanitized version of the operation and its consequences was invariably given, and never more so than in an influential article, entitled "Turning the Mind Inside Out", published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941. The writer, the science editor of the New York Times, began in dramatic fashion by stating that there must be at least 200 men and women in the United States who had had worries, persecution complexes, suicidal intentions, obsession and nervous tensions literally cut out of their minds with a knife.55
About 20,000 people eventually received the operation. Scrambling the frontal lobes of the brain is, of course, an irreversible process.
The 'Junk DNA' concept is a lot like the attitude toward the functioning of the prefrontal lobes of the brain that led to the travesty of prefrontal lobotomies. The attitude in both cases was and is that the latest scientific research does not show that there is any useful function going on there so the prefrontal lobes or the junk DNA must not have any important function and we can, therefore, remove or ignore them. Just as the performers of lobotomies operated "blind"--they could not see what they were doing. So too researchers who insert genes into new organisms operate "blind", with a scatter-gun approach, not knowing where the gene is going to end up in the new DNA or what effects it is going to have apart from the most crude measures. As with performing lobotomies, creating genetically engineered organisms is an irreversible process. The lobotomies cannot be undone and the organisms, once released, cannot be recalled. In both cases science and the 'responsible' popular press lauds the great benefits for humankind of the procedures.
Life as a genetic commodity
In 1971 the United States government issued the first patent on a living organism, a genetically engineered bacterium for cleaning up oil spills. That slippery slope has led not only to the patenting of genetically engineered plants and animals, but also to the patenting of human genes, often without either the consent of the people from whom they are taken or any benefit to them.56
A proprietary attitude toward living organisms is based on philosophies of instrumental values, in which intrinsic value is disregarded. In other words all life is evaluated only in terms of its specific use for the individual. Absent is any sense of respect for life and the right of other living beings to work out their own destiny.
Given the historical role of the United States in championing the notions of equality and individual rights, the legalization of instrumental values with regard to human genes is somewhat surprising. If 'a man's home is his castle', how much the more so our bodies and genetic makeup. One would think that people would have legal control over their own genes; however, that does not seem to be the case.57
Assessing The Price
For all the advantages claimed for genetic engineering, in the overwhelming number of cases the price seems too high to pay. In order to insure megaprofits for multinational corporations well into the next century, we will have to mortgage the biosphere, seriously compromise life on the planet, and even risk losing what it means to be a human being. We have seen that genetic engineering poses serious risks to human health and to the environment. It raises serious ethical questions about the right of human beings to alter life on the planet, both sentient and non-sentient, for the benefit of a few.
If there are some areas of genetic engineering that can safely benefit humanity while respecting other forms of life, then efforts need to be redoubled not only in the area of scientific risk assessment, but also in developing broad ethical guidelines. If experts in both scientific and ethical areas are to be trusted and respected, they must be free from the taint of personal monetary gain and other forms of self-aggrandizement. The public's right to know and assess potential dangers and ethical problems must have priority over both corporate secrecy and naïve views of academic freedom that accord scientists the right to experiment with whatever strikes their fancy without regard for the consequences. Decisions should not be left solely to the so-called experts, whatever their value. Ordinary citizens need to inform themselves, insist upon a mandate, and take responsibility for the grave decisions that must be made. The public welfare must be restored as the primary consideration, and the unrestrained amoral greed of multinational corporations somehow curtailed.
Is such a program of action possible? Certainly even slowing the inexorable progress of the current trends will be extremely difficult. Yet there is hope. In Europe, for example, heightened public awareness of the dangers of genetically engineered foods has significantly affected corporate plans for their widespread introduction there. Fortunately there also continue to be a vocal minority of well-trained scientists in the field, who see clearly the dangers of what is occurring, and who are brave enough to voice their consciences, despite very real personal and professional risks.58 Clearly the key is educating the public about what is happening. We need to have confidence that ordinary citizens working together can build a foundation of integrity from which can arise a collective wisdom that can show us the way through the incredibly complicated maze of issues surrounding genetic engineering.
1. Ron Epstein is Research Professor at the Institute for World Religions, Berkeley, CA, and Lecturer, Philosophy Department, San Francisco State University. His email address is email@example.com. Further information related to the present article is available on his website "Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers".
determine characters in linear causal chains, one gene giving rise to one
According to the new genetics:
2. Stewart A. Newman, "Genetic Engineering as Metaphysics and Menace," Science and Nature 9/10 (1989): esp. 114-118. See also Richard C. Strohman "Epigenesis and Complexity: the Coming Kuhnian Revolution in Biology," Nature Biotechnology 15 (March 1997): 194-200, and Mae-Wan Ho, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare. The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business (Bath, UK: Gateway Books, 1998).
6. See Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind (London: Zen books, 1993) and Biopiracy: the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (Boston: South End Press, 1997), pp. 87-90. The use of genetic engineering in agriculture is a radical new extension of the monoculture paradigm. See also the discussion of the so-called 'Terminator" genes below.
9. "The FDA cleared Organogenesis' (Canton, MA) Apligraf® (graft-skin) for marketing. The product is the only living, bilayered skin construct approved for marketing in the U.S., according to Novartis Pharmaceuticals (E. Hanover, NJ), which will market Apligraf worldwide. Like human skin, Apligraf has two primary layers, including an outer epidermal layer made of living Keratinocytes. The dermal layer of Apligraf consists of living human fibroblasts. The human Keratinocytes and fibroblasts utilized to manufacture Apligraf are derived from donor tissue that is thoroughly screened for a wide range of infectious pathogens, notes a Novartis spokesperson. Apligraf is applied by a physician in a hospital outpatient facility or a wound care center." (Genetic Engineering News, June 15, 1998.)
13. Watson, J.D., personal communication, September 22 and 27, 1986, Cold Spring Harbor, in Tibor R. Szanto, "Value Communities in Science: The Recombinant DNA Case. Controversial Science: From Content to Contention. Thomas Brante et. al. eds. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press), 260, n. 5.
14. Watson 1978:159, quoted in Tibor R. Szanto, "Value Communities in Science: The Recombinant DNA Case." Controversial Science: From Content to Contention. Thomas Brante et. al. eds. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press), p. 244. Watson has also commented on the safety issue in gene therapy:
Calls for a cautious approach to gene therapy,
guided by government regulation, met with scorn from James Watson,
15. "Physicist Hawking Focusing on Life." San Francisco Chronicle, April, 13, 1996.
16. George Wald. "The Case Against Genetic Engineering." The Recombinant DNA Debate. Jackson and Stich, eds. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979): 128 (Reprinted from The Sciences, Sept./Oct. issue, 1976).
17a. Scientists learn in a
laboratory that their objects of study behave accord to existing theories.
This is not surprising since theories have been formulated on the basis of
laboratory experience. Scientists, but also many other people, tend not
only to apply the principles found under such conditions to a specific
experimental system, but also to consider them to be valid in other
contexts. The impression is thus created that knowledge developed in
closed systems under controlled conditions has unlimited validity in open
systems as well. This conclusion is neither founded in theoretical
considerations, nor always confirmed by practical experience. It becomes
particularly significant when we attempt to predict the result of
interventions in the natural environment on the basis of laboratory
18. In addition to the physical effects, many are
also concerned with mental and spiritual effects, areas clearly beyond the
boundaries of scientific concern. Since science does not deal with the
relations between the mental and spiritual dimensions and the physical
dimension of life, science cannot tell us anything about how genetic
engineering will affect our mental and spiritual life. Transcendence is
the potential of all sentient life, not just human, for spiritual wisdom
and liberation. Transcendence is meaningless from the perspective of
21. This idea is central to Gaian theory, the theory that the entire planetary biosphere constitutes a single living organismor self-regulating system. Gaian theorists are divided into two main camps, those who believe that the earth is a mindless self-organizing physical system, and those who believe that the earth has its own consciousness or awareness.
22. 'The term deep ecology was coined by Arne Naess in his 1973 article, "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movements." Naess was attempting to describe the deeper, more spiritual approach to nature.... He thought that this deeper approach resulted from a more sensitive openness to ourselves and nonhuman life around us.' Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered (Satl Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985), p. 65.
22a. Although deep ecology and and Gaia theory are still somewhat controversial, the existence of such legislation as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in the United States is indication that there is an increasing awareness of the importance of environmental systems.
23. The first genetic engineers
called for a moratorium in the Asilomar Declaration of 1975, precisely
because they were afraid of inadvertently creating new viral and bacterial
pathogens. The worst case scenario they envisaged may be taking shape.
Commercial pressures led to regulatory guidelines based largely on
untested assumptions, all of which have been invalidated by recent
scientific findings. For example, biologically "crippled"
laboratory strains of bacteria can often survive in the environment to
exchange genes with other organisms. Genetic material (DNA) released from
dead and living cells, far from being rapidly broken down, actually
persists in the environment and transfers to other organisms. Naked viral
DNA may be more infectious, and have a wider host range than the virus.
Viral DNA resists digestion in the gut of mice, enters the blood stream to
infect white blood cells, spleen and liver cells, and may even integrate
into the mouse cell genome. ("Scientists Link Gene Technology to
Resurgence of Infectious Diseases. Call for Independent Enquiry,"
Press Release 6.4.98 from Professor Mae-Wan Ho: ).
24. See Richard Preston, "Annals of Warfare: the Bioweaponeers", New Yorker (March 9, 1998): 52-65. See also Judith Miller and William T. Broad, "Iranians, Bioweapons in Mind, Lure Ex-Soviet Scientists" New York Times, Dec. 8, 1998 ; and "Frontline: Plague War" <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/plague/>.
25. See Dr. Garth and Dr. Nancy Nicolson's Institute for Molecular Medicine website for details: http://www.trufax.org/gulfwar2/newsrel.html .
27. William J. Broad and Judith Miller, "Germ Defense Plan in Peril as Its Flaws Are Revealed" (NY Times, August 7, 1998). See also Wendy Barnaby, "Biological Weapons and Genetic Engineering" (GenEthics News, Issue 18, June/July 1997).
30. "The most immediate and easily observable impacts of transgenic plants on the ecological environment are due to cross-pollination between transgenic crop-plants and their wild relatives to generate super-weeds. Field trails have shown that cross-hybridization has occurred between herbicide resistant transgenic Brassica napa and its wild relatives…." Ho, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, p. 133. Some evidence indicates that transgenic plants have a greater ability to pollinate other plants than ordinary plants, which increases the danger of the emergence of superweeds. See J. Bergelson, C.B. Purrington & G. Wichmann, "Promiscuity increase in transgenic plants" Nature 395, no. 6697 (Sept. 3, 1998) 25, and "Genetically Engineered Plant Raises Fears of 'Superweeds' (Associated Press) printed in the Los Angeles Times (Sept. 3, 1998).
…Mr. Mickey Kantor, former United States Trade Representative and, until January 21 of last year, the Secretary of Commerce for the United States, has been made a member of the board of directors of Monsanto Corporation, a leading transnational biotechnology firm. The appointment was confirmed by a staff member of Mr. Kantor's Washington, DC law firm. Mr. Kantor joins others in the US who recently changed job assignments from service in government to positions in the biotechnology industry. Marcia Hale, earlier this month, moved from assistant to the President of the United States for intergovernmental affairs to senior official with Monsanto to coordinate public affairs and corporate strategy in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Also putting on the industry hat this month was L. Val Giddings. Less than two weeks ago, Giddings' went from being a biotechnology regulator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA/APHIS) to being the vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Giddings, who had been a member of the U.S. delegation at the first meeting of the Open Ended Ad Hoc Working Group on a Biosafety Protocol, attended last week's second meeting on the protocol as the representative of BIO. (Emailed news release from Beth Burrows of the Edmonds Institute entitled "Government Workers Go Biotech, " May 19. 1997. Also posted on the Internet at http://www.corpwatch.org/trac/corner/worldnews/other/other53.html http://www.geocities.com/Athens/1527/appt.html
Burrows distributed the following addendum at the biosafety negotiation meetings in Montreal, August 17, 1998:
Once again, this time in alphabetical order, we note with interest the following changes in job assignments:
David W. Beier . . .former head of Government Affairs for Genentech, Inc., now chief domestic policy advisor to Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States.
Linda J. Fisher . . .former Assistant Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pollution Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, now Vice President of Government and Public Affairs for Monsanto Corporation.
L. Val Gidings . . . former biotechnology regulator and (biosafety) negotiator at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA/APHIS), now Vice President for Food & Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).
Marcia Hale . . . former assistant to the President of the United States and director for intergovernmental affairs, now Director of International Government Affairs for Monsanto Corporation.
Michael (Mickey) Kantor. . . former Secretary of the United States Department of Commerce and former Trade Representative of the United States, now member of the board of directors of Monsanto Corporation.
Josh King . . . former director of production for White House events, now director of global communication in the Washington, D.C. office of Monsanto Corporation.
Terry Medley . . . former administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture, former chair and vice-chair of the United States Department of Agriculture Biotechnology Council, former member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food advisory committee, and now Director of Regulatory and External Affairs of Dupont Corporation's Agricultural Enterprise.
Margaret Miller . . . former chemical laboratory supervisor for Monsanto, now Deputy Director of Human Food Safety and Consultative Services, New Animal Drug Evaluation Office, Center for Veterinary Medicine in the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)*.
William D. Ruckelshaus . . . former chief administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), now (and for the past 12 years) a member of the board of directors of Monsanto Corporation.
Michael Taylor . . . former legal advisor to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s Bureau of Medical Devices and Bureau of Foods, later executive assistant to the Commissioner of the FDA, still later a partner at the law firm of King & Spaulding where he supervised a nine-lawyer group whose clients included Monsanto Agricultural Company, still later Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the United States Food and Drug Administration, and now again with the law firm of King & Spaulding.
Lidia Watrud . . . former microbial biotechnology researcher at Monsanto Corporation in St. Louis, Missouri, now with the United States Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Effects Laboratory, Western Ecology Division.
Clayton K. Yeutter . . . former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, former U.S. Trade Representative (who led the U.S. team in negotiating the U.S. Canada Free Trade Agreement and helped launch the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations), now a member of the board of directors of Mycogen Corporation, whose majority owner is Dow AgroSciences, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company.
Such problems are by no means restricted to the United States:
The government's advisers on genetically engineered crops should be sacked because too many have close links to the biotech industry, environmentalists said yesterday. Friends of the Earth (FoE) said that 8 of the 13-strong Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) have ties with companies or organisations involved in carrying out crop trials or other genetic engineering research. Members of ACRE are the Government's statutory advisers on allowing genetically modified crops to be planted in the countryside. They have so far passed more than 150 applications without any refusals. Although panel members do not vote on any application in which they have a personal interest, Adrian Bebb, FoE's food campaigner, said the process was flawed. "How can people have confidence in the government advisory panel when so many members have close financial links to the biotech industry?" (London INDEPENDENT July 8, 1998)
32. Russell Mokhiber,"'Objective' Science at Auction" (The Ecologist, March/April, 1998). See also Dan Fagin, Marianne Lavelle and the Center for Public Integrity, Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Threatens Your Health (Birch Lane Press, 1997).
32a. According to a 1991 study of universities in the United States, M.I.T., Stanford, and Harvard respectively had the highest rates of commercial penetration into their biotechnology-related departments. (Sheldon Krinsky et. al., "Academic-Corporate Ties in Biotechnology: A Quantitative Study" Science, Technology and Human Values 16(3) Summer 1991, 275-287). The College of Natural Resources, University of California at Berkeley recently signed a $50 million agreement with a subsidiary of Novartis Corporation to give the latter exclusive access to patent rights on genetic engineering research done at the college. Novartis also has the right to appoint some faculty members. See Carl T. Hall, "Research Deal Evolving Between UC, Biotech Firm: Berkeley Campus Could Get $50 Million" San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 9, 1998; Peter Rosset and Monica Moore, "Research Alliance Debated" San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 1998; Charles Burress, "UC Finalizes Pioneering Research Deal With Biotech Firm: Pie Tossers Leave Taste of Protest" San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 1998.
33. Ho, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, p. 133. See also M.T. Holmes and E.R. Ingham, "The Effects of Genetically Engineered Micro-organisms on Soil Food-webs," Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America (Supplement), 75 (1994): 97.
33a. The conscious choice of a few genes for mobilization and widespread replication substitutes human judgment for natural selection. From a theological viewpoint, it is questionable that the agribusiness scientific staff have the collective wisdom to determine what constitutes the "good" when it comes to desriable genes. The fact that their choice could become self-sustaining (e.g., if the gene escaped into the wild) is cause for further concern. Initially, this and other adverse impacts potentially resulting from mass scale transgenic operations are likely to be invisible. One potentially insidious effect of reliance on genetically engineered herbicide resistant technology is the repeated use of single herbicide preparations. The repeated applications of a controlled sequence of four or more different herbicides typical of transgenic farming could be expected to transiently affect soil microorganims. But the sustained reliance on a single herbicide such as glyphosate [Roundup] or bromoxynil would predictably shift the soil microflora for longer periods, perhaps changing the overall composition of the soil's living matter irrevocably. Such an effect, should it occur, could affect soil quality for future plantings, particularly since germination in some herbicide treated soils has been reported to be impaired. Here the ethical concern is responsibility for future generations.... (Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1998, 114)
33b. Ibid., esp. 50-62.`
34. On March 3, 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and an American cotton seed company, Delta & Pine Land Co., received a US patent on a technique that genetically alters seed so that it will not germinate if re-planted a second time. The technology aims to prevent farmers from saving seed from their harvest to re-plant the following season. Because it is a potentially "lethal" technology, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has dubbed it the "Terminator technology." …If commercially viable, the Terminator technology will have profound implications for agriculture. It is a global threat to farmers, biodiversity and food security. The seed-sterilizing technology threatens to eliminate the age-old right of farmers to save seed from their harvest and it jeopardizes the food security of 1.4 billion people - resource poor farmers in the South - who depend on farm-saved seed. The developers of the technology say that it will be targeted for use primarily in the South as a means of preventing farmers from saving proprietary seeds marketed by American seed corporations. Delta & Pine Land Co. and USDA have applied for patents on the Terminator technology in at least 78 countries. If the Terminator technology is widely utilized, it will give the multinational seed and agrochemical industry an unprecedented and extremely dangerous capacity to control the world's food supply. (RAFI Communique, March/April 1998 http://www.rafi.ca/communique/19982.html )
Geneticist Joseph Cummins has commented:
…Pollen escaping from the terminator crop is
sterile and cannot spread to weeds or other crops. Pollen escaping from
the tetracycline treated seed producing crop can spread the terminator
blocking genes. When a weed is fertilized, for example, with the
terminator pollen, the new generation of seeds will bear plants with
fertile pollen. In the next generation, 25% of the terminator plants
will produce sterile pollen. Since the sterile pollen cannot spread the
terminator genes, the spread of terminator genes by normal sexual means
is limited, but the terminator genes will always be in the population.
The situation is similar to lethal genetic diseases in humans.
Terminator doesn't threaten plant populations if it is spread only by
normal sexual processes. However, spread of terminator by other means is
more intimidating…. Spreading terminator genes by virus could easily
cause a wide array of weeds and crops to be rendered sterile, and
genetic recombination could easily eliminate the reversing action of
tetracycline. The terminator virus could have a have a profound
influence on crop production…. [Such genes] are potentially able to
create chromosome mutations leading to genetic erosion and untoward
changes in gene regulation and expression. They are very highly mobile,
and, once introduced into higher plants and animals, are likely to
spread and not want to leave ever!
See also Volker Lehmann, "Patent on seed
sterility threatens seed saving," Biotechnology and Development
Monitor, No. 35 (June, 1998): 6-8; Rural Advancement Foundation
Internationals (RAFI) news releases on "Terminator Technology"
< http://www.rafi.org/misc/terminator.html>; and Martha L. Crouch,
"How the Terminator terminates: an explanation for the non-scientist
of a remarkable patent for killing second generation seeds of crop
plants" Rev. ed. Edmonds, WA: Edmonds Institute, 1998 http://www.bio.indiana.edu/people/terminator.html
35. "The first samples of transgenically grown biodegradable plastics, or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA's), have been shipped to plastics companies in the United States and Europe. Metabolix Inc., of Cambridge, MA, has patented transgenic technology in the U.S. that inserts genes into transgenic highly efficient fermentation systems and field crops to produce plastics, which will eventually be cost competitive with petroleum-based plastics used in packaging, diapers, containers, bottles, and garbage bags. A number of companies and research institutions in the U.S. and Europe are working to patent transgenic plants for plastic production…. University of Warwick scientists in England have made breakthroughs in transgenic plastic production, while researchers in Canada are close to making plastics from similar transgenic plants." (BIOINFO: an Agricultural Biotechnology Monitor, Vol IV, No. 3, March, 1996)
36. Dr. John Fagan, a molecular biologist, has warned that the new constituents that are used in these plastics are oils that are probably toxic to animals and humans. Thus when cross-pollination occurs with wild brassica, the wild plants produce things that are toxic to the deer, rabbits, and other wildlife, as well as humans. (Personal communication)
37. Geneticist Joseph Cummins warned: "The questionable experiment is to insert a gene for scorpion toxin into an insect virus then to spray the tinkered virus onto produce crops in the field. The tinkered virus is now highly potent in destroying insects both pests and their natural predators and the pollinators. The scorpion toxin may not be threatening to humans as a toxin when it is eaten but its impact on cuts and open sores is a concern. Such toxins are frequently allergens as well as nerve toxins. Food allergy causes effects ranging from migraine headache to death. The danger from a small field test is tangible provided the experiment is not well thought out and controlled. Genetic recombination is a significant concern in such experiments. The scorpion toxin gene can be spread by recombination to insects that suck blood as well as insects that suck plant juice. The virus that acquires a toxin gene will achieve a new ecological niche and is likely to be a formidable parasite." (Gene Tinkering Blues 1:3, August 1996)
38. In the People's Republic of China, Professor Chen Zhang-Liang, Director of the National Laboratory of Protein Engineering and Plant Genetic Engineering and Vice-President, Peking University, directs a laboratory "that is transplanting human protein genes into tomatoes and sweet peppers to control ripening. (Arthur Fisher, "A Long Haul for Chinese Science" (Popular Science, Special Issue: Chinese Science and Technology, August, 1996, p. 42.)
40. IP/Biodiv News, 1-24-97. For further information on the dangers of xenotransplants, see Alix Fano et. al. "Of Pigs, Primates and Plagues: a Layperson's Guide to the Problems with Animal-to-Human Organ Transplants," NY: Medical Research Modernization Committee, n.d.
41. LONDON (AP) -- Britain
barred the transplant of animal organs to humans on Thursday, saying the
risk of disease transmission must be better understood. The decision came
after a report by a government-appointed panel of experts,
43. Horizontal gene transfer refers to "the transfer of genes to unrelated species by infection through viruses, through pieces of genetic material, DNA, by being taken up into the cells from the environment, or by unusual mating taking place between unrelated species. (Mae-Wan Ho, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare, p. 13)
46. "Jonathan Slack, professor of developmental biology at Bath University and a leading embryologist, says he can now create headless frog embryos relatively easily by manipulating certain genes….He said the breakthrough could be applied to human embryos because the same genes perform similar functions in both frogs and humans. Using intact cloned human embryos to grow organs would be out of the question because they would have to be killed and this would be equivalent to murder, Slack said… Slack's ideas have angered some academics. Professor Andrew Linzey, an animal ethicist at Oxford University, denounced his research." This sort of thinking beggars belief. It's scientific fascism because we would be creating other beings whose very existence would be to serve the dominant group. It is morally regressive to create a mutant form of life," Linzey said. Other scientists, however, support Slack in raising the profile of such controversial research…. Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London, said Slack's suggestions were perfectly sensible and could in principle be possible. "There are no ethical issues because you are not doing any harm to anyone. "It is a question of whether it is acceptable or not to the public and that depends on the 'yuk' factor." ("Headless frog opens way for human organ factory," London Sunday Times, October 19 1997.)
47. Textbooks say that DNA in
food should be digested and destroyed. But Dorfler and his student Rainer
Schubbert found that when they fed a bacterial virus called M13 to a
mouse, sections of its genetic material about 700 DNA "letters"
long--large enough to contain a gene--survived to emerge in faeces. The
researchers wondered whether a few of these genetic snippets had managed
to penetrate the mouse's cells. They took cells from the mice and probed
them with a dye molecule that lights up when it binds to the M13 DNA. The
probe lit up inside cells not only from the intestine, but the spleen,
white blood cells and liver. "They weren't hard to find," says
Dorfler. "In some cases as much as one cell in a
Geneticist Joseph Cummins has commented:
See also Schubbert, R., Lettman, C. and Doerfler, W. "Ingested foreign (phage M13) DNA survives transiently in the gastrointestinal tract and enters the bloodstream of mice," Mol. Genet. 242 (1994): 495-504.
48. 'It has long been assumed that our gut is full of enzymes which can rapidly digest DNA, In a study designed to test the survival of viral DNA in the gut, mice were fed DNA from a bacterial virus, and large fragments were found to survive passage through the gut and to enter the blood stream. This research group has now shown that ingested DNA end up, not only in the gut cells of the mice, but also in spleen and liver cells as well as white blood cells. "In some cases, as much as one cell in a thousand had viral DNA."' Ho, op. cit.., p. 141.
49. The spread of antibiotic resistant organisms is a dangerous by-product of genetic engineering. Antibiotic resistant genes are often used as marker genes in the process of gene-splicing. They can then be spread by horizontal transfer. As mentioned above, antibiotics are also sprayed on crops in large quantities to unlock the effect of the so-called Terminator technology.
51. John B. Fagan, Ph.D., "Tryptophan summary," http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/jftrypt.htm . Apparently genetically engineered tryptophan is already back on the market with the same dangerous characteristics that caused the initial problems:
A reformulated food supplement could contain harmful contaminants similar to those found in an earlier banned version of the product, according to US researchers. L-trytophan, a naturally occurring amino acid, was banned in 1990 after the product was linked to a Japanese outbreak of a rare blood disease called eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS). The outbreak affected 1,500 people and killed 30. Studies of the product, which was promoted as a sleep and diet aid, revealed it contained an unidentified contaminant nicknamed 'peak X'. Scientists could not determine whether the contaminant, or L-trytophan, or a combination of the two caused the disease. Several manufacturers have since reformulated the product into brands containing 5-hydroxy-L-trytophan. The product is widely available over-the-counter in the US. Stephen Naylor and Gerald Gleich at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota examined six brands for traces of the original contaminant. All six showed the 'peak X' signature, they said on Monday 31 August. The levels varied between 3-15% of those observed in a test on the original product. Gleich said they were not aware of the new formulations being associated with any outbreaks of EMS, but said the 'potential was there.' The Food and Drug Administration said it had confirmed Naylor and Gleich's findings, which are published in the September issue of the journal Nature Medicine. ("Remade Food Supplement as Bad as Banned Original" [posted by Shane Morris on the GENTECH@ping.de listserv Sept. 2, 1998]).
Several articles on the subject, including those reporting the research mentioned above, were published in The Lancet 352, no. 9129 (Aug. 29, 1998).
52. John Fagan, "Assessing The Safety And Nutritional Quality Of Genetically Engineered Foods" http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-18472/jfassess.htm .
53. Mark V. Bloom, Ph.D., "Polymerase Chain Reaction," http://www.gene.com/ae/RC/CT/polymerase_chain_reaction.html .
55. "Adventures with an Ice Pick: an Short History of the Lobotomy," adapted from Robert Youngson and Ian Schott, Medical Blunders (London: Robinson, 1996). Adaption copyrighted by The Independent on Sunday, March 3, 1996.
57. For example, see the interesting case of Seattle businessman John Moore, discussed by Phillip L. Bereano in this article "Body and Soul: the Price of Biotech" (Seattle Times, August 20, 1995) p.B5 . The case is also discussed in Monte Paulsen, "Biotech Buccaneers" (Fairfield County Weekly, August 29, 1998).
58. For example, several years ago I talked with a distinguished professor in the field who is a department chair at a well-known university. After publicly writing about the theoretical possibility of some serious dangers with genetic engineering, he was publicly reprimanded by colleagues for needlessly scaring the public and blacklisted, so that he was denied government funding, even after subsequent experiments proved him to be correct