Genetic modification – where will it all end?

Advances in science and technology are mostly a Good Thing. More people live longer, healthier lives in greater comfort and with more leisure time that ever before in history. Personally, I am very interested in all things scientific and welcome new technology when I see the benefits that it brings. However, there are times when a “perfect storm” seems to brew. If bad science and vested [large financial] interests get mixed up with a little politics, a good outcome is unlikely.

As I see it, genetic modification is an opportunity for it all to end very badly …

There is nothing new about manipulating genes. It has happened in nature for millions of years – that is how evolution progresses. Humans have carefully bred animals and plants to improve their characteristics. Many common farm animals today look nothing like the wild animals from which there were selectively bred. If you have ever eaten a wild strawberry, you will have noticed that it nothing like the big, juicy fruit that you can buy in the supermarket. Dogs are a spectacular example; every breed of dog that we are familiar with is, genetically, the exact same species.

The approach to genetic manipulation in the past has been [necessarily] slow and dependent on genetic variations that are available and viable in the host plant or animal. Modern genetic modification is much more drastic and, as I see it, a much greater leap into the unknown, with the possibility for gene sequences, that are not normally found in nature, being released into the ecosystem. The scientists, many of whom are paid by the large companies that have a major investment to GM crops, say that it is all safe. The press seem totally focused on whether GM food is safe to eat, which is the least of my worries.

I will give a couple of examples of why I am concerned:

Many years ago, rabbits were introduced into Australia – an ecosystem which had been mostly isolated from the rest of the world for a long time. The result was a lot of rabbits and the corresponding crop damage that might be expected. The problem was that the animals had no natural predators and could breed endlessly without being disturbed. Fortunately, they are a relatively benign species and were eventually brought under some kind of control. This, however, is a typical example of what happens in an ecosystem when the checks and balances are upset. There are many other examples. North American gray squirrels and Japanese knot-weed in the Great Britain come to mind.

Experimental planting of GM crops has been performed in England amid much controversy. The scientists reassured us by explaining that every GM field was surrounded by an exclusion zone of 50 meters [or something like that] to ensure that the GM crop could not escape. This was laughable. One day, in the town in which I used to live, I was walking to the shops and I saw a weed growing on the verge by the side of the road. Nothing unusual about that, but this was not a weed. I recognized the yellow flower of a rapeseed plant. Even though I lived in the country, it was at least 2 miles to the nearest field from the center of the town. The seed for the plant had escaped; no exclusion zone would have stopped it. This was unlikely to be a GM crop, but it easily could have been.

So, my concern is that a GM plant or animal will find its way into our ecosystem, intentionally or otherwise, and will run riot. My big worry is that it is something much less benign and less easy to control than the humble rabbit.

This is all very negative, so let me consider a possible upside of GM. I apologize to any vegetarians present, but I am a keen meat eater. I am particularly fond of pigs. They are very efficient animals to farm, as they yield many products. There is a saying that you can eat “every part of a pig except its squeak”. But I have wondered whether they could be improved by using some GM technology. Here are some possibilities:

  • Pigs are mammals and, therefore, produce milk for their young. Surely they could be bred or genetically modified to produce a good quantity of human compatible milk.
  • Pigs have some very rough fur. Again, could GM be applied to improve the quality of their “coat”. Maybe it could be improved to the extent that they could compete with sheep and goats in the wool market.
  • Modern mammals give birth to live young, but more primitive species laid eggs. A few – like the duck billed platypus – still do. Perhaps pigs could be coerced into laying eggs too by borrowing a few genes.

Maybe I need to patent my woolly egg and bacon making machine straight away …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2014/05/01/genetic-modification-where-will-it-all-end/