October 8, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Genetic Engineering

Every new technology can be a boon to some people and a potential disaster to others.

The Gerber company has announced that it will not use genetically engineered products in its baby food. This was a wise business decision. In England especially, some people are protesting the use of genetically engineered foods. By responding to what the public wants and doesn't want, the Gerber company is likely to remain in business for some time; or until some other company finds a way to out-compete them.

Genetic engineering is so new that its effects are unknown. Despite a good deal of care and regulation, it is likely that there will be be some problems, perhaps some serious ones. This is inevitable with anything new. Fortunately, life has a way of continuing since it can adjust to almost anything.

All change is fraught with peril. Whenever any form of life is moved to a new location, the possibility of it destroying or supplanting indigenous life forms exists. The most glaring examples of this is the introduction of the rabbit to Australia. The bunnies bred like rabbits and before long they were considered a major pest. They tried to get rid of the rabbits by introducing the myxomatosis virus, which kills rabbits, to Australia. The virus got back to England and almost wiped out the domestic rabbits that were an important food source.

DDT was thought to be the miracle agent that would wipe out malaria and a horde of parasites such as lice and fleas. It did what it was supposed to do. However, as also happens with antibiotics, the fleas, lice and mosquitos recovered as DDT resistant forms. No one could foresee at the time that as DDT was passed up through the food chain, it would become more concentrated and that it would affect the egg shells of eagles and other raptors. Since it doesn't degrade in nature(biodegrade), it persists for a very long time. Now DDT is banned in the U.S. and other countries.

A new drug may be tested on a group of people and found to be safe. However, as soon as it is used by millions of people, problems invariably arise. Very effective antibiotics are made ineffective by the inevitable development of resistance of the bacteria that they were designed to kill.I use the words "inevitably" and "invariably" because problems almost always arise when something is widely distributed and intensively used. The only way to prevent such problems is to never do anything new. There are people who believe that not doing anything new is a real solution to the problems that beset the world.

Genetic engineering has produced human insulin which is a boon to diabetics. There have been problems using human insulin in people who have been taking beef and pig insulin. However, the benefits of human insulin far outweigh the liabilities. Genetic engineering's potential for producing more and better foods and for curing diseases seems to be almost limitless.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis(BSE, mad cow disease) and its human equivalent(Creutzfield-Jacob disease) spread because sheep parts were fed to cows. The problems could not have been foreseen. In Great Britain, genetic engineering and BSE are seen by activists as similar problems, whereas they are entirely different.

The whole business is reminiscent of the beginning of the industrial revolution, when workers smashed machines because they were depriving people of jobs. The machine smashers were right, machines did deprive some people of jobs. However, they made jobs for the people who made the machines and machines are largely responsible for our present unprecedented affluence.

Next column

Return to the Science Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page