Here, recently, the human body was referred to as a “Simple Machine,” and the article explored the ramifications of life extension; the ramifications of human aging being slowed, human diseases being eliminated. This achievement, if you will, is the logical extension of our accelerating skills in the area of genetic manipulation and nanotechnology.
There are a host of species whose “machinery” is much simpler than the human structure, and in these areas human-engineered change at the genetic level has already begun. Genetically engineered food crops, virtually unknown ten years ago, now occupy over 100 million acres of U.S. farmland. This is an astonishing 167,000 square miles, an area larger than the entire state of California. Over half of the soybeans grown in the U.S. last year were genetically engineered, and over a third of the entire U.S. corn crop.
The decision by major U.S. agribusiness to embrace genetically engineered crops was done without thought to the public relations fiasco that ensued. Whether or not genetically engineered food will marginally harm some species, or cause a catastrophic breakdown in global ecosystems was almost incidental in terms of the complete lack of attention these corporations paid to possible public reaction. In the event, public reaction, especially in Europe, has been fierce.
In the United Kingdom, the same country that produced “Dolly,” the first mammal produced by genetic cloning, opposition to agricultural biotechnology has been especially vehement. Prince Charles, perhaps the best known opponent, has said “I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.”
The result of this opposition has been a significant slowdown in the proliferation of genetically modified crops. But it’s not clear in the available literature just how bad these crops really are. Some of the products developed were clearly bad, such as Monsanto’s “terminator seed.” This is a genetically modified plant that sterilizes its own seeds after it has fully grown. Not only did news of this seed lead people to the uninformed but plausible conclusion that the seed might mingle with other plant species and cause them to turn off all their reproductive systems, wiping out life on earth in one horrible genetic bridge-too-far, but the commercial motive for these seeds was to force farmers to buy new seeds year after year. This is common practice in the U.S. and Europe, where farmers use hybrid seeds, but forcing farmers in the developing world to buy new seeds year after year would create a severe financial burden. Not very good PR, guys.
There is much benefit that genetic engineering could provide, if it was known to be definitely safe. It’s very similar to nuclear power in that regard. Nukes don’t cause air pollution, they have a nearly inexhaustible supply of fuel; if they could be made perfectly safe to operate they would be a welcome alternative to damming rivers and burning fossil fuel. A new strain of genetically engineered rice, for example, grows grains that contain an abundant supply of vitamin A. One of the biggest sources of malnutrition in much of the developing world is vitamin A deficiency, affecting over 100 million children. This deficiency can cause blindness and death.
To those who believe that humans are a cancer on the earth, none of this matters. The deepest of the deep ecologists lack no certainty in what future should exist for genetically modified crops; no future. But to the rest of us, it would be nice to think that if we haven’t yet evaluated all the risks of “frankenfoods,” that doesn’t mean we never will. With proper nalysis and research, hopefully humanity can reap the benefits of genetically modified foods without suffering the possible drawbacks.