Genetic modification is being used to wipe out pests and allergies, but at what cost?
In September 2011 it was reported that specially created insect 'death squads' had been released in central Brazil. These were swarms of 'living pesticides' in the form of genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes and crop-destroying caterpillars that were carriers of artificially inserted genes that made their offspring die before adulthood.1
It has since emerged that this project was resoundingly successful. The undesirable insect populations plummeted, but so did the bird populations that had previously fed on those insects. No one seemed to have thought of this knock-on effect beforehand.
Are the various national animal-protection organizations consulted before the genetic make-up of any animal is modified? Is there any universally obligatory ethical review process that must be undertaken in each country before any genetic modification is carried out?
These may be matters for the United Nations, as animal populations don't stick to national boundaries. But this particular recent instance in Brazil is far from being a one-off event. And our politicians-just like us-are only informed after the event.
Such 'transgenic' modifications can be introduced into any animal-from fish and frogs to guinea fowls and goats. China now has cows that produce human milk specifically created for baby formulas-to avoid cows' milk allergy in humans.
This idea has been refined in New Zealand, which now has a tailless cloned 'kiwi cow' that produces milk free of the allergy-causing milk protein.2
A GM future
Serious thinking is now called for, as GM will surely transform our world and our lives in ways that we can't even begin to imagine. Here are some potential problems.
- Safety. While genetic engineering may eliminate some diseases and improve environmental health conditions, the possibilities of misuse are legion.
Genetic modification can easily be used for, say, conducting 'genetic warfare', where one nation could wipe out the livestock that another nation depends on-and all done secretly by introducing self-perpetuating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into flocks of chickens or schools of fish, or herds of meat- or milk-producing sheep and goats.
- Ethical considerations. The quasi-philosophical argument that crossing species is 'unnatural' no longer seems to carry much ethical weight. Yet as we humans are the effective guardians of this planet, we are also responsible for what happens to it. Other species are neither our playthings nor our slaves, yet animal welfare appears to be totally disregarded.
- Effects on the natural ecosystem. GM breaks down natural species boundaries and interferes with biodiversity, the long-term results of which can only be guessed at. There is also the possibility that GM strains will flow into non-GM gene pools and perhaps lead to adverse reactions in animals higher up the food chain-including us. It can even break the food chain: if pesky Scottish midges are wiped out, what will swallows feed on?
It is essential that we press for stricter controls and licensing for all new breeds brought into production and to market, regardless of whether they are products of biotechnological engineering or traditional selective-breeding methods, as the risks of both may be indistinguishable.
- Religious reasons. Major religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism regard transgenic animals as unacceptable yet their adherents weren't consulted, despite the fact that they make up most of the world's population.
- Deleterious health effects. There's a possibility of allergic-type and even more serious adverse reactions that may remain undetected for some time in animals higher up the food chain-again, including us.
- Covert extension of corporate control. GMOs represent a clear extension of creeping corporate control over our lives, with unforeseen effects on the environment as well as on international travel and trade.
In summary, GM means that:
- safety is overlooked
- ethics are disregarded
- the world's ecosystem is ignored
- animal welfare is trampled underfoot
- the wishes of the majority are ignored
- potential health effects are not addressed
- corporate control is effectively being extended into all aspects of our lives.
Knowing this, should we merely stand by submissively?
WDDTY vol 23 no 11
Harald Gaier is a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, and practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London (www.drgaier.com).
1. New Scientist, 12 September 2011; www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128291.700-swarm-troopers-mutantarmies-waging-war-in-the-wild.html?full=true