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March 24, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Genie Genie

What do anti-GE campaigners and climate-change deniers have in common? Andrew Mahoney argues that both have a fundamental mistrust and ignorance of science. They both play a dangerous role in preventing society from making progress with major environmental issues.

World hunger? Gone! Genetic and nutritional diseases? A thing of the past! It is amazing what humanity can do with genetic engineering. Yet with all these benefits, this field is sidelined and scorned by a very vocal, misinformed minority. The debate surrounding genetic engineering (GE) is synonymous with the climate debate – there are those who know the science on one hand, and people who are sceptical and ignorant on the other. Well here are the facts! GE could be the panacea society so desperately needs in the 21st Century.

 

The History

It is a commonly held misconception that modification of food for the benefit of humans is a recent field. This is far from the truth.  Throughout history, our ancestors have deliberately modified the genetics of species: cloning and selective farming are the old-school equivalents of modification in the lab. Together, these two techniques have ensured decreased prices of food that have pulled millions of humans out of starvation and poverty. Put simply, these techniques have saved lives and advanced humanity.

Cloning of plants, via cutting, has been an agricultural tool for hundreds of years. It is simple: the plant that produces the best fruit, or the most fruit, or the fastest yield of a resource, such as wood, has a branch of it cut and planted into the soil. This results in an identical plant that produces the products of the parent at the same rate.

Selective breeding, on the other hand, is the technique of choosing two individuals in a population of organisms, with desired qualities, and breeding them either naturally or, more recently, by artificial insemination. This attempts to result in the offspring having the best qualities of both their parents. This technique has been influential in a range of industries. As a result, we have astronomically increased the amount of wool, meat and milk available – and… at a cheaper price. It’s a marvel how we can double and triple yields in some of these products with the exact same amount of animals available. Sheep and cattle today produce twice as much meat as they did in the Middle Ages – who said playing with genetics isn’t cool?

Selective breeding and cloning have been accepted in these fields for centuries. In actuality, GE is only an evolution from these techniques, not some ultra-new science as some on the side against progress would have you believe.

 

The Facts

There are many advantages and disadvantages of GE. With the correct GE, society will be able to further develop crops and livestock that can survive extreme conditions, allowing organisms to thrive in tough environments. By taking the genes from a plant that can survive in desert conditions, and inserting it into corn (for example), we can create a food source which can flourish in places where previously it couldn’t. Can you imagine African deserts feeding and sustaining those in poverty? Furthermore, GE will lead to financial success for farmers in the development of organisms that can provide further increased yields of fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy.

Furthermore, genetic engineering has been very effective in the creation of vaccines and manufacturing of insulin. In vaccines, GE weakens the disease, increasing patients’ immunity. In insulin manufacturing, an insulin-producing gene has been reworked in bacteria so bacteria can produce insulin en masse. This has saved countless diabetes patients’ lives, as well as made the treatment exponentially cheaper. These developments are wonders of our age. With the use of GE, vaccines have helped to eradicate smallpox and left a whole range of other diseases on the brink of eradication, such as polio.

However, it is true that there can be disadvantages with this technique. Anti-GE groups fear the effects of GE on the basis that “it’s not natural” and “it’s not ethical”. For example, they would say that GE is wrong in that if GE salmon were to escape, they could severely disturb local ecosystems and destroy populations of other fish. They would exclaim that GE cattle shouldn’t exist because some GE species disproportionately suffer arthritis due to the increased weight on their feet. Instead of focussing on the advantages that GE reaps, they will happily regurgitate some of the drawbacks.

Obviously, there are disadvantages. But just because there are some potential downsides, it doesn’t mean we should shut down the entire operation. All these disadvantages that anti-GE groups rally on can be fixed by more human ingenuity. A simple thing like growing GE salmon in special areas, or preventing GE-modified organisms from reproducing, would solve a lot of issues. Put simply, the benefits of this science outweigh and can solve the problems with it.

 

The Future

Genetic engineering can literally lead to the end of starvation. Recent development of GE Crops have resulted in plants being able to grow in the desert. By the use of recombinant DNA of xerophytic plants and normal crops we can one day make the vast deserts abundant food bowls to famished nations!

Genetic engineering also is a medical marvel with the potential to cure hundreds of diseases – both genetic and environmental. Cancer may be eradicated (gene therapy is an established and clinically trialled treatment) and the re-engineering of genes can lead to the eradication of genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis. Scientists have already begun this work by successfully creating GE T Cells derived from Stem Cells to attack lymphatic tumours.

Furthermore, the use of Genetic Engineering in the fields will one day be able to provide meat to impoverished and famished nations. The recent development of In Vitro meat (Meat grown from a petri dish) can be further enhanced to provide nutritiously-wholesome meat filled with the correct levels of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins to help nutritious diseases like Kwashiorkor (A disease caused by protein-deficiencies) in areas such as Sub-Sahara Africa.

Intuitively, GE feels wrong. It’s gross to play with nature for our own benefit. But then you realise that we have been engaging in modification for hundreds of years. And you begin to understand the true life-saving potential of science. And you start to trust the science, and realise that Genetic Engineering is the technique with endless potential to change so many peoples lives for the better. You don’t have to eat the meat grown on a plate if you don’t want to- but don’t take that chance away from a starving African child.

 

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