Genetic Modification, should we be scared

The biggest scandal to hit European agriculture since the animal rights movement uncovered the shocking mistreatment of animals on some farms occurs. Millions of Euros worth of crops are discarded, but why? A large seed supplier mistakenly issues banned GM maize that is sown over 3000 hectares of land. The EU is forced to undertake a review into their stance on GM crops, though any decision would come too late to save the innocent farmers whose crops are lost that year. The question is then raised: Why were they banned in the first place?

What are the consequences possible from the use of GM crops, the consequences of genetically modified animals and even more, of genetic modification of ourselves? Let’s take a step back. Genetic Engineering can be defined as alteration of the DNA of a cell for purposes of research, as a means of manufacturing animal proteins, correcting genetic defects, or making improvements to plants and animals bred by man. Despite the controversy, It seems clear to me that this technology is, at root, seeking to benefit us all in a broad variety of aspects, but what I want to know is: do the problems solved outweigh the problems created as a result?

As recent as the 1950s DNA had still not been identified, but the race to do so was in full swing. Today it is credited to James Watson and Francis Crick while working in England. This led to Herbert Boyer’s breakthrough synthesis of human insulin from genetically modified E. Coli bacteria In the late 1970s. This was a momentous step in the treatment of diabetes as before the only treatment was using donor or animal insulin, which was not as effective and could lead to other complications. The breakthrough was then quickly patented by a large pharmaceutical company and Boyer was made a partner.

Gene therapy seems the most obvious banner of genetic engineering’s advances so far; the first instance of it being in the early 1990s when an experimental technique cured two young girls of a rare and often fatal blood disease. The next on the hit list was cystic fibrosis, a disease that weakens the sufferer’s ability to breath. Failure to treat it at first resulted in the regulator instructing researchers to get back to the lab. Clemency was found when the therapeutic genes were put into a more suitable vector that isn’t rejected.

The virus developed for that has since been used to cure blindness caused by a certain uncommon disease. We have known, since just after the first worthwhile microscope in the 19th century, that microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi are responsible for the production of a great number of important products, including wine, cheese and soy sauce. Now that we understand this to the extent we do, we can take advantage of processes like these and produce nearly any molecule we choose by genetic engineering. Simple fungi like yeast can be used as complex chemical medicinal factories.

Last year trials began on mosquitos that have immune systems that block the malaria virus from being carried. Needless to say this could be a great tool in malaria prevention. A huge number of humans across the planet exist with rice as their main food, frequently their only source of nutrition. However it is missing certain pigments that we all need to consume to produce vitamin A. As a result a huge swathe of humanity suffers from vitamin A deficiency, which can directly cause blindness and exacerbates all sorts of infections including HIV.

Vitamin A deficiency syndrome is simple enough to treat but still accounts for one quarter of global malnutrition-related deaths. Enter ‘Golden Rice’, the genetically modified rice that produces the pigments necessary to provide vitamin A. It’s called ‘Golden’ because the pigment turns the plant a yellowy-brown. Quite an elegant solution to a child death problem that would otherwise rely on copious economic and charitable activity I think, as malnutrition is often caused not by a complete lack of food but a lack of the right types of food. But before we get carried away, there are a couple ugly considerations that need to be addressed.

The first is one that I have glanced on already; the human penicillin synthesis, Boyer’s breakthrough, was quickly snapped up and patented by a business. The same can apply for the miracle foods like ‘Golden Rice’: who is to say that the developers won’t patent it and sell it above market price because they know governments will subsidise purchase of it? Of course, personal gain is a common enough reason for any scientist to be carried out and I’m sure without it we would be a lot further behind, but is this exploitation unjust? And what miracle foods are made?

Those that benefit the few the most or those that benefit the mass? In February 2012, the National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence cancelled work on a reportedly effective anti-cancer drug as it costs too much to help too few. Yet, equivalent amounts are being spent on making paracetemol cheaper by pennies. The same economics apply to genetic modification, especially with humans. What gene therapies will take precedence? The common red-green colour blindness inherited from parents or the highly rare, but serious Cri-du-chat syndrome which inhibits growth and social and learning problems.

Behavioural therapy and Ritalin can only go so far. After the proliferation of plastic surgery techniques in the past couple of decades, an attitude developed that stuck a blow against tolerance. People who looked different were made to feel guilty for not conforming because of their apparent ‘choice’ to not alter themselves. Likewise, the fact is that some milder genetic disorders contribute to many people’s personal image, which they don’t want to be changed. People with mild giantism, like retired NBA star Yao Ming, can excel in one way and people born shorter can excel in another (Danny DeVito is 5’0).

The most controversial potential for genetic engineering is the sanding down of the diversity of human appearance, I believe. What must be monitored extent to which genetic engineering is safe and what we are willing to allow. Should we allow treatment for red-green colour blindness? It would certainly help sufferers to operate in society that little bit more easily. So why not try to better ourselves as much as possible? We could remove the gene that restricts brain growth, or muscle production and save our society thousands of years in painstaking evolution. I think that to do so would be wrong.

It is a luxury which is so great that perhaps we, as a society, should show restraint in this indulgence as its potency is sufficient in this specific respect to change us beyond all previous recognition. It seems clear to me, then, that though the dexterity of this new technology is hitherto unmatched, it is currently a force for good. The medical benefits for the treatment in serious diseases, unrivalled since a Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, noticed that the washing of hands reduces infections though being unable to explain why precisely, is so useful that to ignore this would be a step backwards.

The advantages to the poor of improved crops are also clearly definable and elegantly effective. However, I am reminded of Pandora’s Box: as we open the pantheon of genetics more and more we slowly expose ourselves eventually to a critical mass of morally objectionable choices, which, without careful moderation, could force us to redefine what our current humanity means to us.