by Donella Meadows
— March 25, 1999 —
Genetic engineering is nothing new. People have been messing with genes since the first farmers selected the biggest wild grass seeds and began to breed what we now call grain.
So say many widely respected scientists. It’s no big deal, they say, to snip out code from a flounder and paste it into a tomato. DNA is DNA is merely a chemical. There’s no label on it that says “flounder” or “tomato” or “human.” Nature has been mixing and mutating DNA for billions of years. Viruses and bacteria pick up genes, move them around, outside us and within us, all the time.
All of which is technically true, but I don’t see that it justifies our behaving like viruses and bacteria. If the genetic revolution is just more of the same anything, it strikes me as more of the same hubris that got us into atom-splitting and other technical messes we don’t know how to get out of.
For starters, our pace of gene alteration is orders of magnitude faster than nature’s. No virus or ordinary plant breeder has altered the genetics of half the world’s soybeans in just three years, or a third of the corn, cotton, canola, and potatoes. If there are problems with these engineered seeds, we aren’t taking the time to discover them in the lab or in isolated test fields. So we’ll find them in our food supply or our bodies or throughout nature, beyond our recall.
And there are likely to be problems. The ignorance with which we are carrying out these vast experiments is, well, dumbfounding. Every genetically engineered organism makes a new protein it never made before or stops making an old one. Its effects on those who eat it are not known, despite hurried assurances from underfunded, politically pressured regulators.
Wider effects in nature are even more imponderable. No one knows how readily cut-and-paste genes will travel via pollen. Or via those viruses and bacteria the human gene-splicers use not only to argue for the normality of their work, but also to do the work. Microbes are routinely used as carriers to insert genes into the corn or sheep or whatever cell. Wild microbes may — no one knows — be more likely to pick up a transplanted gene than a native one. Once a gene has been mobilized into the microbial world, it’s way out of our control.
This stuff is not just more of the same. Nothing in nature can choose any single trait from any critter and move it into any other (a red dye from algae into a flower; a human antibody into a cow). Or clone the flower or the cow. And now the geneticists are learning not only to edit the code for life, but to turn it on or off at will.
For example, they have a package of genes called the “terminator” that causes a plant to make dead seeds. They need it to prevent a farmer from harvesting and replanting super-cotton or hyper-corn seed, rather than buying more from the company that holds the patent. But the company can’t reproduce the seed either, unless it turns that terminator package off in its fields and on in the farmer’s fields. It does this by soaking the seed in a “trigger” chemical to turn on the terminator. Now under development are “triggers” that require the presence of a particular chemical for the plant to grow at all. Not only can Monsanto make a soybean (as it already does) that beats out weeds by growing in the presence of Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, some day the company will be able to hook the soybean, so it can’t germinate, say, or grow or form seed without a blast of Roundup.
The commercial possibilities are thrilling. That is the most disturbing difference between biotech and everything that has gone before — the selection mechanism that decides which genes shall live and which shall die — the selection mechanism for evolution. Nature selects according to the ability to thrive and reproduce in the environment. Farmers have selected for ten thousand years according to what feeds people. Now the criterion is what can be patented and sold.
Biotech companies love to talk about feeding the world, but their products must pay off in the market, which measures dollar demand, not human need. The effort has gone into the potato that makes McDonald’s fries, not the yam eaten by folks with no cash. The corn that feeds America’s pigs and chickens, not the dryland millet that feeds Africa’s children. The diseases of the rich, not the plagues of the poor. There is some public funding and corporate charity directed toward feeding the world, but the vast majority of minds and bucks are working on caffeine-free coffee beans and designer tomatoes.
What worries me most is that the technologies are being developed essentially in secret by private corporations. There is little public knowledge or control, and the products are being sold with no labels, no warning, no discussion, at least not in this country. The scientists who are doing the work, many of whom I know and respect, are just that, scientists, engrossed by the technical challenges, oblivious to the evolutionary, ecological, economic, or social consequences. It’s as if neither science nor society learned anything from the atomic bomb.
Shortly after that bomb first went off, C. S. Lewis wrote an essay called “The Abolition of Man,” which foresaw, chillingly, the degree of technical mastery over life that we are now on the verge of achieving. “What we call Man’s power over Nature,” Lewis wrote, “turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” He did not mean to stop science, rather he was pleading for science guided by democracy and ethics and wisdom. “The … science … I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained, it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole…. Its followers would not be free with the words ‘only’ and ‘merely.’ It would … buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999