Genetic Engineering

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From the Summer 1998 issue of The Civil Abolitionist

Jeremy Rifkin applies for patent on human gene scrambling

This is was shocking news for anyone who has heard or read the executive director of the Foundation for Economic Trends describe the dangers inherent in transplanting genes from one species to another.  It turns out, however, that the purpose of making the application was to keep gung-ho gene jugglers from grabbing the ball and running with it before they know in which direction the goalposts lie.   

Rifkin and Stewart Newman, a cellular biologist at New York Medical College, at Valhalla,  made their joint application for a patent covering the mixing of human cells with those of other animals to create a new creature in order to create a breathing space during which the advisability of interspecies gene scrambling could receive the careful consideration its far-reaching effects warrant.

"We have announced this patent will be maintained as a genetic conservancy.  We will keep it on hold for 20 years, so every government has time to have thoughtful debate," Rifkin told a
Vancouver Sun reporter. "A new species, part human, part animal--do we want to take this next step, or do we want to step back and say this is morally wrong?"

The possibility of altering an individual's genetic makeup to cure or prevent cancer, for instance, is an enticing one that should be investigated, but with the greatest possible care because the ultimate effects on the individual and society are unknown.   Carried to an extreme, it could result in a somewhat homogeneous population of perfect specimens directing a sub class of individuals engineered to do the bidding of those in control of the technology. 

Vancouver research scientist Victor Ling described tinkering with genetic makeup as "the same as atomic energy...a powerful technology"
(and one that we have not been able to control - ed).   He doubts that there will be anything like a line of designer babies from which parents can select their offspring and believes society as a whole will decide what is desirable and what is not, according to an article by Gillian Shaw in
The Vancouver Sun, April 18, 1998.

Society has not been consulted about the genetic tinkering and other new technologies that have been carried out so far.  Many consumers did not want milk produced by cows treated with genetically-engineer-ed bovine growth hormone (BGH), but they were not even able to get a ruling that it be labeled as such. 

Europeans are objecting strongly to genetically-altered soy beans, but these are mixed in with natural soybeans (just as milk from BGH-treated cows is mixed with that of untreated cows), but they, too, have been unable to get a ruling that the genetically altered beans be so labeled, making it almost impossible for consumers to avoid them in foods like tofu and textured vegetable protein . 

Organic farmers and gardeners protested the takeover of American seed companies by chemical companies which promote varieties genetically engineered to be resistant to the weedkillers they manufacture and are more likely to require the use of the pesticides they produce, all extensively tested on animals, of course. and marketed anyway.  The chemical companies have the money to buy whatever they want and have demonstrated their ability and intention of doing so. 

One result: Herbicide-resistant canola plants passed their resistance to wild plants growing in a nearby field.

The market for organically-grown produce in the US has almost doubled.  That combined with higher prices consumers are willing to pay for organic foods, has caught the attention of commercial growers accustomed to using chemical fertilizer, weed killers and pesticides.  Always ready to serve agribusiness, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed lower standards for organic certification that would have allowed foods that were genetically-engineered, irradiated or grown in soil treated with sewage sludge to be labeled "organic"

A flood of no less than 200,000 letters from growers and consumers opposing the lowering of organic standards caused USDA to withdraw the proposals, which would have rendered organic certification meaningless.  For once, the will of the people prevailed over the interests of the chemical and pharmaceutical companies.  They had only to pick up their pens and write to assert it, but it took a lot of them to have this
effect.

There is at present  no reason to believe that these multinational companies will not continue to influence decisions about genetically engineered plants and ultimately about genetically engineered people programmed to require their drugs.  Such a scenario seems impossible but would be a logical progression of the dominance of chemical and drug companies have already exerted in decisions affecting human society and the health of the earth and its many forms of life.

Designing and producing species that seem better suited to human purposes could have  the effect of narrowing the gene pool as  species with less value for humans are eliminated.  This began to happen with apples, for instance.  Many of the flavorful old varieties are no longer available in the stores.  Instead, we are predominantly offered the ubiquitous and bland red delicious variety whose virtues consist of good- keeping qualities, resistance to damage in shipping and bright red color.  The selection has improved in recent years, however.

In the past, new domestic species have been developed by breeding plants and animals to emphasize their most desired characteristics. There have been mistakes such as Pekinese and bull dogs whose flattened nasal passages make it difficult for them to breathe,  chickens and turkeys whose legs are incapable of supporting their abnormal body weight, and not everyone would agree dairy cows with udders so distended they can hardly walk are a success story.  The process is slow enough, however, that the genetic material that comprises each species is not consigned to oblivion over a relatively short period of time. 

One of the greatest dangers of tinkering with genes, however, is not what it can do to one species or even an individual, but what it can do  to all species.  Changing the genetic make up of even a single plant or animal provides an opportunity for viruses and bacteria to mutate.  The results can be far-reaching.

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho express this concern in "The Unholy Alliance" published in
The Ecologist Vol. 27 No. 4 July/ August 1997:

"Genetic engineering is a technology designed specifically to transfer genes horizontally between species that do not interbreed.  It is designed to break down species barriers and, increasingly, to overcome the species' defense mechanisms which normally degrade or inactivate foreign genes.  For the purpose of manipulating, replicating and transferring genes, genetic engineers make use of recombined versions of precisely those genetic parasites causing diseases including cancers and others that carry and spread virulence genes and antibiotic resistance genes.  Thus the technology will contribute to an increase in the frequency of horizontal transfer of those genes that are responsible for virulence and antibiotic resistance, and allow them to recombine to generate new pathogens".

Among other examples Dr. Ho cites are:

"New, highly virulent strains of infectious bursal disease virus (IBDV) spread rapidly throughout most of the poultry industry in the Northern Hemisphere and are now infecting Antarctic penguins, and are suspected of causing mass mortality."

Scroll down for "You don't have to be a genius to oppose the patenting of genes"


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"Monkeypox, a previously rare and potentially fatal virus caught from rodents, is spreading through central Zaire....For the first time humans are transmitting the disease directly to each other."

"New strains of distemper and rabies vir uses are spilling out from towns and villages to plague some of the world's rarest wild animals in Africa."

(Continued on page 63)