The Implications of Genetic Engineering
The term “genetic engineering” (GE) was first coined in 1953 by American scientist and Nobel laureate James D. Watson, who is credited with discovering the double helix structure of DNA. “Recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic modification” (GM) are other terms used to describe the same process of manipulating genes in a living organism to change its characteristics. Genetic engineering is not new; humans have been manipulating the genes of plants and animals for centuries through traditional breeding methods. What is new is the technology that allows us to transfer genes from one species to another, something that would not occur in nature.
The use of GM crops was first commercialized in the United States in 1996 and they are now grown in 28 countries around the world. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), as of 2016, 18 million farmers were growing GM crops on over 463 million hectares, an area equivalent to the size of France, Spain and Germany combined. The majority of GM crops are grown in just four countries – the United States, Brazil, Argentina and India – which between them account for 91% of the total GM crop area. The most common GM crops are soybeans, maize, canola and cotton.
2. The promise of genetic engineering
When genetic engineering was first proposed as a way to increase food production, it was considered an environmentally sound way of doing so because the process could have reduced the use of agrochemicals. In theory, this would have resulted in less soil and water pollution and less chemical use overall. For example, herbicide-tolerant crops would have allowed farmers to spray herbicides more selectively, thus reducing chemical runoff into waterways. Pest-resistant crops would have reduced the need for chemical pesticides, while drought-resistant varieties would have needed less irrigation water. In addition, GE was seen as a way to boost yields by introducing new traits such as resistance to disease or pests, or by increasing the nutrient content of food crops.
There were also social benefits touted for GE crops. For example, it was claimed that GE crops could help improve food security in developing countries by increasing yields and reducing post-harvest losses due to pests and diseases. GE crops were also seen as a way to reduce child labor in agriculture, as they would require less manual labor for weeding and spraying chemicals. In addition, GE was seen as a tool for conserving biodiversity because it would allow farmers to grow a wider variety of crops on their land without having to purchase new seeds each time.
3. The reality of genetic engineering
The reality of genetic engineering has not lived up to its early promise. Although GE crops are now widely grown around the world, they have not led to decreased use of agrochemicals nor have they increased crop yields overall (with the exception of Bt maize in the United States). In fact, herbicide-tolerant crops have resulted in increased chemical use because farmers can now spray more indiscriminately knowing that their crops will not be harmed. This has led to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, which in turn has created a need for even more toxic chemicals to be used. Pest-resistant crops have also driven the evolution of pests that are resistant to the toxins produced by the crops, necessitating heavier use of pesticides.
The social benefits of GE crops have also not materialized. In fact, there is evidence that GE crops have contributed to increased poverty and child labor in some cases. For example, in India, where farmers have been adopting GE cotton, there have been reports of increased indebtedness and suicides among small farmers who cannot afford the expensive seeds and chemicals. In Africa, where small-scale farmers grow a large proportion of the food crops, the high cost of GE seeds has put them out of reach for many, resulting in hunger and malnutrition. Although GE crops were touted as a tool for conserving biodiversity, they have actually had the opposite effect by contributing to the loss of traditional crop varieties as farmers switch to planting GE varieties.
4. The environmental and social implications of genetic engineering
The environmental and social implications of genetic engineering are complex and far-reaching. On the one hand, GE crops have led to increased chemical use and pollution, which has had negative impacts on human health and the environment. On the other hand, GE crops have contributed to poverty and hunger in some parts of the world by making it difficult for small-scale farmers to compete with large-scale operations that can afford the expensive seeds and chemicals. In addition, GE crops have contributed to the loss of traditional crop varieties, which is a cause for concern from a biodiversity conservation perspective.
5. The moral implications of genetic engineering
The moral implications of genetic engineering are even more complex than the environmental and social implications. One major concern is that GM crops may lead to “genetic pollution” – the transfer of genes from GM crops to non-GM crops or wild relatives. This could result in the creation of “superweeds” or “superpests” that are resistant to herbicides or pesticides, which would be difficult or impossible to control. Another concern is that GM crops may adversely affect human health. Although there is no definitive evidence that this has happened so far, there is a potential for GM crops to cause allergies or other health problems if the genes they contain are transferred to humans through our diet.
Another ethical concern related to GM crops is that they may exacerbate inequality between rich and poor countries. This is because GM technology is controlled by a few large multinational corporations, which tend to be based in developed countries. These companies own the patents for GM seeds and sell them at high prices, which puts them out of reach for small-scale farmers in developing countries who cannot afford them. As a result, GM crops may contribute to further impoverishment and hunger in those countries.
Genetic engineering is a complex issue with far-reaching environmental, social and moral implications. Although GE crops are now widely grown around the world, they have not lived up to their early promise of reducing chemical use or increasing crop yields. In fact, they have contributed to increased pesticide use and pollutions, as well as poverty and hunger in some parts of the world. The ethical concerns related to GM crops are also significant; they may lead to “genetic pollution” or adversely affect human health, and