17 May 2002
GENETIC ENGINEERS KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO: BIOLOGIST SPEAKS OUT
Genetic engineers know not what they do
By PETER WILLS
The Canberra Times, 16 May 2002
IN extolling the benefits of genetically modified food, William Rolleston of the Life Sciences Network (S&T guest column, April 18) cited an early example of technophobia anxiety that moving in a train at 20 miles per hour might cause illness.
The arguments from opponents of GM food are actually more sophisticated.
Their concerns spring from the kind of lessons that we have learned over the intervening years concerning the real side-effects of mass transport systems: pollution, energy consumption, human hazards and issues of wealth and poverty.
The world's genetic heritage is the result of four and a half billion years of evolution.
It is part of the natural commons in whose production the human species has so far played very little part. But if we let our genetically engineered creations loose in the world at large, that will change.
Before we had genetic engineering we could cause mating between unlikely partners through a variety of techniques making up the practices of selective breeding.
We also learned how to encourage cells from related species to form hybrids, exploiting combinations of genes that had become separated during recent evolution.
Now we can put herbicide-neutralising genes from bacteria in soy and transfer insect-toxin genes into cotton. There is no plausible sequence of natural processes whereby these transfers could occur during evolution.
But if we build our future food supply on the products of genetic engineering we need to be sure that the processes of nature are insensitive to our intervention.
We have not yet learned how to predict in advance the ultimate effects of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the wild.
The relevant studies have not even commenced. I am not aware of a single attempt to model the novel effects of genetic modification on a network of interacting species of the kind found in the open environment.
It is often stated that the regulation of genetically engineered organisms is the most stringent that has ever been imposed on any human enterprise, but authorities usually limit their considerations to the expected immediate effects from a GMO release.
They do not require applicants to present results from network modeling of the sort done routinely in relation to the assignment of sustainable fishing or logging quotas.
The problem is that we have little idea how to model the effects of infusing the environment with organisms containing evolutionarily novel constellations of genes.
What will be the consequence of putting natural selection into overdrive?
Everything we know about the intricacies and complexities at all levels of biological organisation should warn us that any substantial change we make today is likely to have far-reaching, unexpected consequences some time in the future.
The motivation for genetically engineering the world's food supply is to be found in the ambition of scientists and corporations.
It comes down to the desire of the scientist to be the originator of something permanent and the corporations' struggle to corner the largest market share.
In the past scientists got satisfaction from creating new ideas or devices that could be shared with others. Their claim to originality was either acknowledged or protected through patent.
Now it is possible for them to play God. Molecular biologists can create completely new organisms that autonomously replicate and enter the process of evolution out of nowhere. They can legally own entire new species.
Corporations used to make their money by persuading consumers that their goods were better than those of their competitors.
Now, with patents on GMOs they can maintain ownership of seeds even after they have sold them to farmers.
Commerce is taking control of the growing process and constraining farmers by contractual arrangements that are reminiscent of serfdom.
Society has allowed science to give way to commerce without noticing what is happening. The Australia New Zealand Food Authority has listed a variety of GM food products as scientifically safe for human consumption.
There are virtually no independent and certainly no comprehensive studies on which ANZFA can base its judgment.
ANZFA relies largely on data supplied by the corporations who apply to market their GM food products.
The results of long term epidemiological studies cannot be used because there are none.
Down what path does genetic engineering take us into the future?
Farming will be even more intensive, large-scale and monocultural than it has been in the past, but we will try to overcome dependence on dwindling oil supplies by genetically engineering some plants to produce fuel and others to pump an antidote to global warming into the atmosphere. This is the vision of having Nature properly under human control.
The lesson we should have learned about technology is that its effects on Nature are hard to foresee even when they are most profound.
It would be better to try and make progress by cooperating with natural processes, not attempting to harness them on a global scale.
The main mistake of converting our food supply to systems that rely on genetic engineering is that science cannot yet tell us what we really need to know about genetics in long-lasting ecosystems.
How do natural processes depend on functional structures within related constellations of genes?
The interacting organisms that constitute ecosystems contain constellations of genes that have slowly evolved over aeons, but we do not know how these systems hold together.
We know only that it is a very, very complicated business.
We are at a stage in history when respect for the unfathomed natural order should override the unreliable ambitions of an already privileged and inordinately powerful minority of humans.
Dr Wills, a theoretical biologist in the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland, is a former chairperson of Greenpeace New Zealand.
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