The Insanity of Gene Technology

Jenny Marsh—06/2002
There is a gold rush currently taking place. Prospectors are jostling each other for a piece of the action, knowing that untold wealth is for the grabbing. Already, much of the land has been fenced off, demarcated with "PRIVATE" notices and "KEEP OUT" signs. But this is no ordinary gold rush, for it is taking place inside you and me — in our DNA. The gold is our genes and the prospectors are the biotechnology companies that hope to make massive profits in future gene therapies that involve "their" particular DNA sequences.

IT WAS ASSUMED THAT, when the Human Genome Project started, the results would be in the public domain — owned by humanity. That would have been right, for how can one company own the expression of a particular DNA sequence that is part of the function of our own bodies? But that ideal, like all ideals, has given way to the pragmatic commercialism of greedy men and woman who could not ignore the massive future profits that will result from patenting sequences of DNA today. And so thousands and thousands of patent applications for gene sequences have been filed — the gold rush is on.

"This will be in the best interests of humanity", the gene companies parrot; "We just want to feed the world"; "We want to alleviate the suffering of humanity"; "Gene technology will transform the world, increasing the quality of life for everybody". How noble of them; how magnanimous. If you have ever seen their promotional videos you will see images of the starving in Africa, of dire warnings that the Earth will no longer be able to feed its people and that biotechnology is our only hope, of old and new disease which need a gene solution, and of children suffering from genetic afflictions, staring pleadingly into the camera. You would think that these companies were charities the way they present themselves, not the aggressive multinationals they actually are. And of course, the implication of their message is that if you oppose their research and their control, then you are against humanity, against feeding the world, against alleviating the suffering of innocent children and against human progress.

"Luddite" is a term disparagingly used to label all those who oppose genetic engineering and the patenting of gene sequences. It has become the knee-jerk response of those on the payroll of gene companies, a term that hints only at the shallowness of the minds that use it. After all, why is the opposition to new technologies necessarily a bad thing? Was it against progress to oppose the eugenics program of the Nazi's in the Second World War, or the development of nuclear weapons? Is it against progress to oppose nuclear power stations, now we have seen what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? Is it against progress to limit pharmaceutical drugs that are now one of the leading causes of death in hospitals, the exponential growth of violent films and computer games that teach our young Neanderthal solutions to conflict, or the production of ever more efficient and poisonous pesticides? Technology has its uses, but only a backward society would impose no restraints upon its direction and development.

Genetic engineering is a technology that, in theory, could bring benefits to humanity, just as the development of nuclear weapons brought peace between the East and the West. It is undeniable that some lives will be saved as a result of genetic intervention, and that a few crops more suited to a particular environment will be produced (although there will not be the massive increase in food production the biotechnology companies promise). But the more powerful the technology, the more potentially destructive it can also be, either accidentally or intentionally. Today, the threat of nuclear war is greater than ever as the disintegrating Soviet Union leaks weapons and know-how into the hands of those who would use them without hesitation. And genetic engineering is even more potentially destructive than nuclear fission, because genetic engineering can create self-replicating disasters. Like AIDS, a self-replicating enemy would be difficult to control and could permanently damage the human gene pool, and that of the rest of nature. Given this fact, the possibility of which no thinking person can deny, is it in the interests of humanity and of the planet to disparagingly dismiss those who want much tighter controls (if not an outright ban) on the use of gene technology — at least until more is understood about the consequences of genetic meddling?

With the nuclear weapons industry, government retained control, preventing financial interests from diluting responsibility. But this is unfortunately not the case with the gene technology industry which is largely in the hands of the corporate sector. Caution is never foremost in the minds of corporate directors who have caught the scent of dollar bills — billions of them. Directors are responsible to shareholders, and shareholder's primary concern is stock value. These shareholders are often the very scientists who are doing the "independent" research and the very politicians who are clearing the way for complete corporate autonomy. Gene technology companies are amongst the wealthiest in the world, and the presence of these quantities of money is able to warp the staunchest democratic institutions, bending the rules in their favour, and manipulating governments into defending them against public opposition.

It is tempting for those in positions of authority — those with titles, degrees, money, connections — to label the ordinary people as ignorant, incapable of understanding the complexity of these issues, ungrateful to those who think they know what is best for "the masses"; a position admirably demonstrated by Professor Bainbridge in her astonishingly arrogant quote at the top of this article. (These are the same "stupid public" which opposed nuclear testing, nuclear power stations, increased CO2 production, DDT, the military base at Greenham Common, the onslaught of Wal-Mart, the Vietnam war, the invasion of East Timor and Tibet, to name just a few) The experts know the truth by definition as they are the experts — they assured us that nuclear power was safe, that unleaded petrol was the solution to pollution, that Mad Cow disease wasn't a problem, that Gulf War syndrome was all in the mind, that milk was healthy, that global warming was unlikely, that giving the Taliban military training during the Soviet invasion of Afganistan was the best solution, that the Titanic was unsinkable! And these are the same experts today trying to persuade us that genetic engineering is for the good of humanity, that it will feed the hungry, cure the sick, and maybe even bring back the dead.

The problem with experts is that they are precisely those individuals who have spent most of their academic lives specialising in one tiny area of research — the perfect recipe for narrow mindedness. And anyone in the academic world will know that you can find an "expert" to back almost any viewpoint, which is why you often see experts pitted against each other in the court room. There are even "experts" who disagree that human CO2 production is a key factor in global warming. Most of these specialists are also on the payrolls of large corporations (or of universities or governments that are increasingly influenced by corporations), which only serves to narrow their view even further as they are nudged into pleasing their paymasters — reducing their status to pawns in the corporate/political game and giving profit-orientated institutions the sanction of Science. Experts want it both ways: they want money (either for themselves or research grants) and they want to retain their "independent" academic status, deluding themselves that they have the intelligence to maintain unwavering impartiality in the face of blatant conflicts of interest. (Recently, medical researchers have come under fire for fixing research results to please their pharmaceutical sponsors.)

Complex issues require a different kind of understanding, a different kind of intelligence: minds have to be open and flexible, able to join together with other minds to grasp the nuances of complex systems. On these uneven surfaces, the specialist is often at a disadvantage and needs to stand back while the generalist steps in to "feel" out the situation, creating a broad framework before handing over to the specialists to fill in the details. That is efficient and responsible investigation, and one that is much more likely to be in the interests of society. Ordinary people tend to be better generalists because most of us have not had extreme specialist training and most of us are not (yet) in the pockets of the big corporations or our politicians. This is why it is invariably ordinary people who are best at understanding problems in the world (which is pretty complex), and is why the ordinary person is invariably at the forefront of campaigns for ecology, peace, justice and democracy.

Ordinary people are saying "no" to genetic engineering because, all ethical considerations aside, we realize that the stakes are currently two high with this fledgling science to monkey around with DNA just for the sake of making these multinationals extremely rich. We all will suffer the consequences of their mistakes, and there have already been many — field trials of GMO crops that have gone through without proper assessment, GM hormones and other products that are now commonly used without proper testing and with destructive results and rogue scientists that continue to strive for the "accolade" of developing the first human clone. Some genetic modification has already proved fatal, as happened with genetically engineered tryptophan food supplements in the 90s. What would happen if a grand mistake was made and a self-replicating disease organism was produced or a GM field-trial cross-pollinates another plant species (entirely possible) and sterilized a major food crop or, worse, the soil itself? What good would an apology be from the scientist or biotechnology company that made it? No amount of compensation or apologies will rectify these sorts of catastrophes. Wouldn't the wise recourse be to wait a few decades until more is understood about gene expression before feeling that we are in a position to accurately assess the risks?

To meddle with a system that you do not fully understand because of commercial incentives is not only extremely dangerous (given the possible consequences), but shows short-sightedness, the same short-sightedness that led Albert Mickelson, in his 1894 speech declaring, "While it is never safe to say that the future of Physical Science has no marvels even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established." And the same stupidity admirably demonstrated by the biotechnology companies who are pushing for genetic modification at a time when 90% of our DNA currently has an unknown function — dismissed by many scientists as "junk DNA". Indeed, geneticists will freely admit that gene expression is showing itself to be extremely complex — not the one-to-one gene to characteristic expression that is the working model used by biotechnology companies. And yet these companies are trying to convince us that it is perfectly safe to release GMO crops into the environment after only a rudimentary assessment lasting mere months.

Assessing the risks of this tinkering is impossible unless you know the system inside out and this may take many decades of careful observation. So risk assessment at this stage of the game is totally misleading because it serves only to dress up ignorance with statistical analysis. Garbage in, garbage out. And as many of the "independent" scientists assessing the risk of genetic modification are either directly or indirectly on the payrolls of biotechnology companies, or governments wishing to ignite their economies, this is clear insanity. We all share DNA, we all share this planet, and when there is a problem, we will all be involved. Humanity and the planet carries the real risk, not these multinationals. So it is only right that we should all be involved in the decision making processes of this technology. We need to all take that responsibility and not leave it to those whose responsibility is primarily to keep shareholders happy and GNPs growing.

Of course, if there was a referendum on gene technology today, it would be outlawed. This is why governments and the industry will not have them. This is also why plans and policies in this area are conducted behind closed doors, hidden by a vale of corporate confidentiality, and why academic whistleblowers are treated with such derision by both government scientists and the research institutions that employed them.

So, with all ethical and moral considerations aside, biotechnology should be halted — at least for now. Greed is the only reason for continuing the rapid and reckless implementing of a fledgling technology as potentially dangerous as this one. Also, ethical and moral considerations should not be ignored as they are fundamental to a humane and decent society. It is often tempting to dismiss them as the emotional rants of the uneducated or the religious, as many scientists are currently doing. But without strict ethical and moral structures, society is reduced to a barbaric pragmatism. Ethics and morality ended the slave trade, stopped eugenics programs, gave equal voting rights to women and the working classes, and defined human rights for people throughout the world. Just because these considerations are subjective, and therefore sometimes difficult for scientists to appreciate, does not mean that they are not essential to civilisation. Try telling a political prisoner freed by Amnesty International that ethics and morality are worthless.

Genetic engineering, with its ability to blur the lines between species and its potential to permanently destroy the integrity of the human and other DNA — DNA that took billions of years to evolve to its present state (which although not perfect is perfectly workable) — cannot and must not be left in the hands of multinationals and the governments that support them. These institutions do not have our best interests at heart for they are working to their own agendas. We cannot, therefore, trust them with the heritage of the human race. We must act in the interests of future generations by opposing, at every opportunity, biotechnology — from the cloning research undertaken by our most respected scientific institutions to the Frankenstein foods that are appearing in our supermarkets. Field trials for GM crops must be stopped before the gene pool is seriously damaged (and it WILL happen if things continue at this break-neck speed), and gene patents must be overthrown for they do not serve humanity. If we do not act now to stop this biotechnological insanity, our descendants will look back with incredulity at a generation that sold every last family heirloom for a quick cash fix.