Genetic Engineering: Dangers and Opportunities

Article excerpt

Genetic engineering could be a boon to sustainable farming or an ecological nightmare, a path to human perfection or a march toward eugenic dystopia.

Ready or not, the world is entering the age of genetic engineering. Altered environments and human-created life-forms will be part of the new millennium. Plants may be transformed into miniature factories producing plastics, medicines, or perfumes. Animals with human genes may provide hearts and other organs for critically ill people.

Scientists have cloned animals, and human cloning may not be far behind. Gene therapy research is exploring ways to treat cystic fibrosis, fragile-X syndrome, and other devastating genetic diseases. The transfer of genes between microbes, plants, and animals provides opportunities for altering life-forms and even creating new ones.

Many people are apprehensive about genetic knowledge. They realize they can be identified by their DNA, possibly compromising their personal privacy. In addition, genetic tests that reveal susceptibility to inherited diseases could prejudice employers against them.

For better or for worse, genetic engineering will affect the major environmental problems of our time-- overpopulation, pollution, erosion, and the rapid loss of biodiversity. It is crucially important that we take stock of this technology's probable effects on our planet's ecosystems.

We should also consider the effects of genetic engineering in the social and political realms. Because the agricultural and medical benefits of genetic engineering are expensive, poor individuals and poor nations will not be able to afford them--at least not for years to come. As a result, the economic gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. In addition, Third World leaders are trying to protect unusual plant and animal species from Western exploitation. Western companies want the species for genetic engineering projects and hope to obtain them with minimal expense.

Genetics and Sustainable Farming

Biotechnology is revolutionizing health care, manufacturing, and food production in the West, but steps need to be taken to help the Third World participate in the revolution and share its benefits. One way genetic engineers could benefit poor nations is by aiding sustainable farming.

Traditionally, farmers who worry about environmental damage have protected their land by using cover crops and other antierosion measures, and they use nonpolluting alternatives to chemical pesticides. Some farmers have changed their practices in order to save fuel and help check the rapid depletion of oil resources. Today, conservation of soil, water, and energy are goals of "sustainable" agriculture. Government-aided research and education programs encourage farmers to appraise ecological problems on their farms and to seek workable solutions.

Most American farmers neglect sustainability and pattern their operations on the industrial model. They don't conserve soil, and they make extensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels. They seek short-term profits and are not concerned about environmental damage. As genetic engineering develops, a variety of its products may benefit the sustainable farmers as well as the exploiters. If geneticists create perennial grain crops that need not be replanted every year, this would help check tillage erosion and reduce fuel use.

On the other hand, certain kinds of genetically modified crops could invite environmental damage. For example, a chemical company developed a herbicide-resistant variety of cotton. The company manufactured herbicide and wanted to enable farmers to use more of it on their crops.

Sustainable farming is well suited to the needs of Third World countries. The costs of importing farm machinery, pesticides, fertilizers, and tractor fuel are extremely burdensome for farmers in poorer countries. Sustainable agriculture's goal is low-input production. …