Life, Ethics & Independence VI – Genetic Engineering

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What is genetic engineering?

Altering the genetic make up of an organism artificially.

Selective breeding/artificial selection is a “natural” form of genetic engineering where breeding pairs are specifically selected so offspring would have desirable traits (phenotype). It’s usually restricted to domesticated animals and plants.

Genetic modification (GM) is the same principle, except it modifies gene sequences themselves – based on our knowledge of what specific genes do (genotype) – to create an organism with desired traits from scratch, over a shorter timescale than selective breeding.

It’s controversial, as there’ve been worries about how the technology has been applied by private companies, claims about risks to health and the environment, and well-trodden concerns about humanity “playing God”.

Pros and Cons

Arguments for

We already use it in medicine – This is no longer science fiction, but science fact. Gene therapy alters a person’s genes either to treat genetic illnesses or prevent faulty genes being passed on. Genetic modification is routine in animal models for medical research and, for example, genetically modified E.Coli bacteria are used to produce both insulin for diabetics and some vaccines.

Development of super crops/super foods
– Crops can be genetically engineered to not only be hearty enough to survive in areas where horticulture is difficult, but also staple crops can be fortified with vitamins and minerals, or taste, yields and shelf-life enhanced. A famous example is “golden rice”, a genetically modified variety of rice fortified with beta-carotene to reduce sight problems in the developing world caused by vitamin A deficiency. Golden rice might soon be further improved to increase zinc, iron and vitamin E content.

It’s a big stretch to say GM foods can “feed the world” though. It can certainly help along with other things like improved global food distribution.

Industrial uses for biological material Biological materials could be genetically engineered to have practical or industrial uses; including tissue engineering, drug delivery, genetically engineered crops for things like clothing (cotton already is) and possibly in future environmentally-beneficial things like engineered trees that retain extra carbon dioxide, or algae that produce biofuels. Genetically engineered bacteria are already used to produce rennet for between 80-90% of all cheese produced in the United States and UK (fermentation-produced chymosin).

“Savior siblings”
– This is a significant step up from gene therapy, where a child is deliberately created via IVF with the exact tissue matches necessary in order to transplant material to a sibling who has a rare disease. The first successful saviour sibling treatment in the UK occurred in 2010. Obviously there are ethical issues surrounding the pre-screening of embryos for genetic illnesses and the welfare of the saviour sibling themselves.

Arguments against

Law of unintended consequences – Genetic engineering as an extact science and technology is relatively new. There are perhaps legitimate concerns over how much we know about the long-term impact of GM crops – cross pollination, pesticide resistance etc. – because there might not have been enough field testing or research. The question though is how long is long-term enough?

“Designer babies” – The flip side of the “saviour sibling”. Human children could be “engineered” to deliberately have desirable traits for non-medical reasons. When you start to bring gender, race and enhanced abilities (the ultimate way to cheat in sport) into this it becomes more ethically dubious, crossing into eugenics. This also crosses into what you might consider undesirable traits. In 2008, a deaf English couple wanted to induce their genetic deafness in their child. Should genetic engineering only be used for “good things”? Who decides what’s “good” or “bad”?

Reduction in biodiversity?
– I include a question mark because in terms of agriculture, a reduction in biodiversity is part of the process. Farmers growing crops – regardless of whether they’re GM or not – need to remove wild plants. One reason GM crops are sometimes herbicide resistant is so farmers can eliminate weeds without affecting the crop they’re trying to grow. However, if you encourage farmers to produce GM monocultures in a poorly-managed environment, it could reduce the number of native crops and hybrids grown (affecting things like habitats) and lead to loss of seeds from other crop varieties in the long-term. It’s a big stretch though.

Misinformation fuelling the “yuck factor” – Arguments on both sides of the debate can be vicious and hyperbolic. Borthlas recently covered that from an anti-GM perspective, where UK Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, described anti-GM campaigners as absolutely wicked for opposing GM crops. Likewise, safety of GM foods is often the primary argument used by anti-GM campaigners, even if that doesn’t stand up to any scientific scrutiny (I come back to that later). These arguments damage both science’s public image (sinister motivations, patronisation and impatience) and the image of anti-GM campaigners (Luddites and scientific illiteracy). It’s perhaps the worst failure of scientific communication in modern times.

Monsanto: Dark lords of GM?

If there’s not much wrong with genetic engineering itself, there certainly is with how and why it’s being applied. Most worries about genetic engineering and GM foods revolve around a single company – American agri-science giant Monsanto.

Monsanto have previous in Wales. Large amounts of Agent Orange (and other chemicals like PCBs) were dumped as chemical waste by Monsanto (and other companies) in Brofiscin quarry near Groesfaen, Rhondda Cynon Taf, seeping into the surrounding area. It’s considered one of the most contaminated sites in the UK, and clean up costs are estimated to be at least £100million. Monsanto have persistently denied responsibility, but after decades of legal wrangling a satisfactory conclusion was found.

None of that has anything to do with genetic engineering, but Monsanto have generated a lot of bad press due to their near monopoly of some GM crops and GM seeds, becoming the poster villain of the anti-GM campaign. It’s worth looking at whether some of the common claims are true.

Terminator seedsFalse, and it might’ve been useful in some cases– Infertile seeds (preventing a second generation of GM plants), known as terminator seeds or GURTS, were initially developed but scrapped over concerns that it would look like – to the public and anti-GM campaigners – as forcing farmers to keep buying seeds from the company that produces and patents them. Terminator seeds might’ve been useful, and the technology has still been developed elsewhere. For one thing, they would prevent transfer of GM traits into the wild or neighbouring fields because plants would produce sterile pollen, and would’ve also allowed the use of sterile GM crops to produce pharmaceutical compounds.

Litigation for copyright infringement due to cross pollination/accidental spread of GM materialTrue, but it’s not an anti-GM argument – A Canadian farmer was sued by Monsanto for obtaining and planting a patented herbicide-resistant GM canola seed without paying Monsanto a licence fee (court decision here). He deliberately harvested these seeds from plants originating from GM seeds/pollen which made their way onto his farm. He wanted GM crops – I think people miss that – and tried to steal them in a manner that under the law was perhaps copyright infringement. He lost his case, but didn’t owe Monsanto any money, trying several times unsuccessfully to counter-sue, but never explaining why he harvested the seeds. Monsanto, AFAIK, aren’t allowed to pursue claims that involve “trace material” – like GM-traits appearing within plants. They will if it involves seeds themselves. That’s an anti-copyright, anti-Monsanto argument, not anti-GM.

Patenting genes
True – Monsanto does, as the above illustrates, patent gene sequences and GM seeds themselves, effectively allowing them to corner the market. There’s no issue with patenting seeds, as they’re “product” and farmers have used things like hybrid seeds (which require purchase every year for optimum results) for the best part of a century. Patenting genes does seem morally repugnant. Genes should probably be a property of science only and used “open source” by anyone and any company subject to peer-reviewed scrutiny. Golden rice, which I mentioned earlier, is being developed on a not-for-profit basis for example.

Good technology, good science, nasty companies. I don’t think it’s contradictory to be both pro-GM and anti- (the likes of) Monsanto, or even anti- the current economics of genetic engineering. They are, however, separate arguments on near separate issues.

Public Policy and Genetic Engineering

The Welsh Government’s current approach to GM is described as “precautionary” and “restrictive”, with a very extensive and bureaucratic application process in order to use GMOs in Wales (or to put people/companies off). The Welsh Government is also a member of a European regional GM-free network, and it’s likely that if they had the power to create a GM-free Wales, the National Assembly would vote to do so. It’s unclear how this will pan out after Brexit.

When it comes to genetic engineering in medicine and industry, it’s quite different, with the Wales Gene Park – based at University Hospital, Cardiff as part of Cardiff University – being a major centre for research into genetic illnesses and gene therapies.

Sceptical about GMOs in Europe is starting to change slowly. Only two GM crops (a pest-resistant corn and industrial potato) are licenced for commercial cultivation in the EU. The decision to allow, restrict or ban these is left to member states, but has to be done for defined scientific or environmental reasons. Here’s a wider list of approved GMOs in the EU. Again, it’s unclear how Brexit will impact this.

I doubt the reason for the scepticism is safety. There’ve been plenty of studies into the effects of GM foods, while many prominent organisations like the Royal Society of Medicine, World Health Organisation and even the European Commission themselves (pdf), to varying degrees conclude GM crops are safe to use and GM foods safe to eat. A cautious approach, however, is still perfectly sensible.

Although the technology to manipulate genes themselves is young, we have almost 40-50 years of more primitive forms of genetic engineering use to back that up. Up to a third of all the durum wheat used to produce pasta in Italy (Creso) results from deliberately engineered mutations caused by radiation, similarly golden promise barley used to make beers and whiskey in the UK. Because the results of these “older” techniques can be less certain, in many respects it’s less controlled than lab techniques like DNA manipulation, yet it’s been commonplace in Europe for decades with seemingly little concern. Golden promise is even considered organic.

In terms of the environment and health, it would be wrong to describe things like outcrossing and horizontal gene transfer as “contamination”, but it would be right to be cautious. Herbicide resistance, for example, doesn’t only occur in GM foods while horizontal gene transfer is one of the natural causes of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and a pretty fundamental process in natural selection.

Similarly, cross-pollination does happen, and it has been noted that GM pollen has crossed into non-GM fields. There could well be health implications if the genes are, for example, an allergen. However, allergens are closely monitored across the food industry, and even more so when it comes to GM foods.

In economic terms, opposition to GM foods in the EU has, arguably, prevented a competitor to the Monsantos and Syngentas of the world coming about. It’s been argued that it could well have been done, not for scientific or safety reasons, but as an act of economic protectionism from US food and GM-seed imports. I’m not sure, personally, how well that stands up.

Closer to home, Aberystwyth University arguably has all things necessary to have become a major centre for GM research in relation to agriculture. Because of the entrenched levels of opposition it probably never will.

What could Wales do?

As pointed out earlier, the only reason the Assembly have debated GM crops in the past is because it was treated as an agricultural and environment issue rather than a science policy one. Genetic engineering on the whole though – including industrial and medical uses – is probably non-devolved, while this is one of the few areas the European Union did genuinely wield more political influence than either Cardiff Bay or Westminster.

Products containing GM ingredients had to be labelled as set out by EU regulations. That probably should continue after Brexit so consumers can make an informed choice, though maybe the label should be standardised – for example, a double-helix symbol becoming as familiar as the recycle arrows.

Savior siblings could continue to be allowed, and strictly defined, but “designer babies” should be outlawed or kept under review. The problem there is trying to police that globally, not just on a nation-by-nation basis.

One of the arguments used against GMOs in Wales was that following a trial, it was suggested they could affect farmland wildlife (both positively and negatively) on a case-by-case basis. We now know that declines in bees, for example, are more complicated, perhaps due to certain insecticides and mites. There are signs farmers are beginning to warm to GM crops somewhat, mainly for economic reasons.

Obviously, I think the Welsh Government and National Assembly should drop opposition to GM crops/foods and follow a still cautious, but more evidence-based approach based on the prevailing scientific consensus on a case-by-case basis. We can help that by beefing up our agricultural research presence, and allowing more controlled GM trials. The problem there is that trials usually attract protests and vandalism.

We’re in danger of throwing the baby out out with the bathwater across a whole range of medical and industrial uses because of the debate around GM foods.

I don’t think it’s right to say – in a blanket statement – that genetic engineering is good or bad. It’s a very powerful tool, and like all tools it might be right in some circumstances and wrong in others. The question is where, and how do you decide, to draw the lines?