Genetic Engineering

Here in Washington, next month’s election carries Initiative #-522 to be voted on by the people.  If passed, it will mandate product labeling to show contents that hasve been genetically modified.  It’s creating a lot of controversy.  Here were my thoughts on the subject.

This past summer I had occasion to visit a zoo and stopped by to see the wolves.  They really are fetching creatures.  They’re nothing like my neighbor’s bulldog which, though sweet, is as ugly as sin.   It’s hard to believe that homely bulldog, or any dog, for that matter, is descended from the noble wolf.  This disparity is the result of an ancient form of genetic engineering: Animal husbandry.  From time immemorial, goatherds, shepherds, stockmen and other keepers of animals have “improved the breed” by only letting ones with desired traits get together and rut.  They did this with wolves too and over time, they selected ones with stubby legs, or floppy ears, or wiry fur and so on.  Of course husbandmen are breeding the whole animal, so you would also end up with ancillary traits you may not want, e.g., curly tails.

Enter now the modern husbandman who, instead of selectively breeding for desired traits, consults the mad scientist in the genetics lab.  This scientist fellow can isolate individual genes for desired traits, but no others.  For example, you can custom-order a dog with stubby legs but without the curly tail — or any tail at all, for that matter.

Beyond that, the mad scientist can take genes from one kind of organism and insert them into another, one of a whole different kind.  Say a farmer wants to make use of the offal coming from his slaughter operation.  He thinks it would be nice if he could get his chickens to eat it but they are not suited to a diet of guts.  After mulling over the problem, the mad scientist decides to take a hens’ egg and insert the digestive gene from a spyder; spyders, after all, live on liquefied guts.  Ah, now the good farmer can make use of everything on the farm and increase his profits thereby.

But do you want to eat a chicken that’s part spyder?  I thought not.

Even more disturbing is the possibility (likelihood?) that the spyder gene will affect other genes and pretty soon you’ve got some horrid chimera that can fly in your window, peck open your neck and suck out your blood.

But there is another kind of genetic engineering, the kind done with vegetation.  In an effort to increase soybean yields, the mad scientists have messed with the soybean genome, cutting out a gene here, inserting a gene there, and now soybeans survive spraying with Roundup.

What might the Law of Unintended Consequences have in store for our intrepid mad scientist?  How about this anti-Roundup gene nudging the gene for growth?  Sending out a bazillion runners, corn, or soybeans or barley or wheat, could grow like Kudzu vines.  Kudzu, a noxious weed, grows over everything in sight — grass, weeds, shrubs and trees — and kills by impenetrable shade.  Kudzu has laid waste much of the southeastern US and is spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres a year.  Eradication is all but impossible.

But why would our mad scientists fool around with the world’s food crops anyway?  Why would they run such a risk?  Answer?  Money.  If genetic engineering can make crops grow faster, grow bigger and grow throughout the year, Big Ag can make a boatload of money.

But genetic engineering, left unchecked, can all too easily give us Frankenstein’s Monsters. A few weeks ago, down in Oregon, a farmer discovered some wheat in his north forty that survived a spraying with Roundup.  Though Monsanto denied this Roundup-resistant wheat was an experiment gone awry, Roundup-resistant soybeans are Monsanto’s stock-in-trade so draw your own conclusions.

It seems someone in Big Ag has let loose the Kraken.  What’s next?  Probably nothing good.  Kudzu, here we come.

Ah, but if we Washingtonians saw labels informing us our Wheaties and hamburgers contained genetically modified foodstuffs, we probably wouldn’t buy as much of it.  By our selecting for natural foods, genetically engineered foods will die out as they will no longer be profitable.  If people said “I’ll not buy another thing with Roundup-resistant soybeans,” Roundup-resistant soybeans would be off the market inside a week.

“Better safe than sorry” is a bit of old folk wisdom.  “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” is another.  I’ll pay a few cents more for my breakfast cereal if it will forefend my grandson being born with an eye in the middle of his forehead.

I’m voting for I-522.  So should you.  Caution and prudence demand it.


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