In the mid-1800’s, the Irish potato famine, caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, killed more than a million people and resulted in massive Irish emigration to the United States. For centuries, farmers have struggled to battle insects, weeds and microorganisms that destroy their crops. So many major events in history have occurred as a result of plant disease epidemics or insect infestations. (Patlak 2000) For that reason, the benefits of biogenetic engineering are unquestionable.
Today, many people believe that technology is both a friend and an enemy. On one hand, some say that it makes tasks easier, cleaner and helps us lead healthy lives. On the other hand, some say that it perpetuates a culture without moral foundation. (Postman 1992) Indisputably, the staggering growth of technology has emerged in response to the societal needs of man. (Durkheim 1973) Biogenetically engineered foods, insecticides, vaccines and medications-for instance-have greatly eased mankind’s existence and our ability to efficiently produce many of the planet’s rapidly depleting vital resources.
By definition, genetic engineering involves the changing of genetic material in the DNA code of a living organism. This is done for the purpose of repairing genetic defects, enhancing preexisting characteristics, increasing resistance to disease of external damage or enabling the organism to do something it would not normally do. (Zaro 1997)
In the medical field, genetic engineering has resulted in the production of human insulin for diabetics from micro-organisms. Also, this research has led to sheep producing a human blood-clotting protein in their milk. (Zaro 1997) Clearly, the medical benefits of such technology are undeniable.
150 million dollars is lost every year in Australia’s beef and dairy industries because of cattle ticks. These ticks live in the coat of the cattle and suck their blood. By doing this, diseases such as tick fever can be transferred causing poor health and possibly death. Single-handedly, this tick fever was one of the biggest disasters in Australia’s agricultural history. Fortunately, a vaccine called TickGARD was recently engineered in order to address this problem. This vaccine cuts down their survival rate and lessens the likelihood of their reproduction by 70%. (Zaro 1997) This is just one example of genetic engineering benefiting mankind by allowing us to make the make the most of our planet’s rapidly depleting vital resources.
Approximately 450 million dollars is lost every year in Australia to the bollworm moth. This insect causes extensive damage to cotton, peanuts, tomatoes and maize. Unfortunately, the bollworm has gradually become resistant to most insecticides, and it is feared that it will grow resistant to new discoveries as well. Presently, scientists are trying to engineer cotton so that it will produce its own insecticide toxin to fight off any bollworm. (Zaro 1997) This innovation would stand to keep Australia from losing significant amounts of agricultural profit.
Ancient Romans made sacrifices to their various gods, in the hopes of preventing crop-plant destruction by pests. Modern farmers utilize pesticides, herbicides, plowing and breeding techniques in order to strengthen their crops. Unfortunately, pesticides and herbicides can pollute the soil and contribute to species extinction. Also, excessive plowing can lead to soil erosion. Thanks to genetic advances, farmers now have access to genetically endowed seeds that resist damage from insects and herbicides. This also means that farmers can spend less time plowing. (Patlak 2000)
It has increasingly become a realization that social problems such as disease and hunger can be resolved through the use of science and technology. (Weinberg 1966) Some theorists argue that it only serves to benefit the select individuals who can afford it. (McDermott 1993) Nevertheless, it is undeniable that technology’s benefits are universal.
In 1994, the Food and Drug Administration approved virus resistant squash, insect protected potatoes and delayed softening tomatoes. In 1995, insect protected cotton, corn and canola were also approved. In 1996, more insect protected corn, potatoes and tomato entered the marketplace. In 1997, virus resistant papaya, squash, soybean and corn were approved as well. In 1998, increasing numbers of virus and insect resistant fruits and vegetables filled the marketplace. Last year, a more slowly ripening cantaloupe was introduced. All of the above listed fruits and vegetables were the products of biogenetic engineering. (FDA/CFSAN 1999)
In September of 1999, Consumer Reports and an independent testing firm conducted tests to establish the presence of unlabeled genetically engineered ingredients in popular grocery items. (CFS 1999) The following are some of the processed foods that tested positive:
* Frito-Lay Fritos Corn Chips
* Bravos Tortilla Chips
* Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
* General Mills Total Corn Flakes
* Post Blueberry Morning Cereal
* Heinz 2 Baby Cereal
* Quaker Chewy Granola Bars
* Nabisco Snackwell’s Granola Bars
* Ball Park Franks
* Duncan Hines Cake Mix
* Ultra Slim Fast
* Quaker Yellow Corn Meal
* Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix
* Alpo Dry Pet Food
* Green Giant Harvest Burgers
* McDonald’s McVeggie Burgers
* Ovaltine Malt Beverage Mix
* Betty Crocker Bac-Os Bacon Flavor Bits
* Old El Paso Taco Shells
* Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix
* Enfamil ProSobee Soy Formula
* Similac Isomil Soy Formula
* Nestle Carnation Alsoy Infant Formula
Although biogenetically foods or “biofoods” are safe, the National Academy of Sciences does agree that tighter regulations are necessary in order to ease the growing public’s concerns. In a report submitted by an independent panel of scientists, it was concluded that genetically engineered foods are in fact safe to eat. Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences stated that “plants created through modern molecular biology pose no greater risk than those grown using centuries-old farming techniques.” (Krieger 2000)
For centuries, farmers have mated the plants bearing the biggest fruits to produce plants with even bigger fruit, and the hardiest plants to produce the hardier ones. New genetic techniques have produced crops that do much more. The new crops can thrive in adverse environments, resist pests and bear fruit offering additional nutritional and disease-fighting compounds. It’s no wonder that farmers are supportive of this technology, since it means greater productivity, efficiency and profit. (Krieger 2000) Clearly, everyone stands to benefit from genetic engineering, from the common man to the farmer.
Since 1992, biogenetically altered crops have been for sale to the American farmer, with genes borrowed from bacteria, viruses, insects and even animals. In 1999, it is estimated that 70 million acres of American farmlands contained genetically altered crops. (Krieger 2000) The widespread use of genetically engineered crops is evident, now it’s only a matter of societal acceptance.
Many educational institutions such as the University of California-Davis and University of California-Berkley are embracing this technology and conducting their own research in order to improve the flavor, shipping quality and disease resistance in tomatoes, apples and walnuts. (Krieger 2000) Nevertheless, much of society still has to come to terms with accepting this new science. Perry Adkisson, chancellor and professor at A;M University says, “Public acceptance of these foods ultimately depends on the credibility of the testing and regulatory process.” (Krieger 2000)
In Britain, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes is finding that the subject of genetically modified foods is approached with much hesitation and controversy. As experts, they expected the public to accept the products they approved, but they found themselves to be extremely wrong. Vegetarian cheese and tomato paste were accepted without much hesitation, but insect resistant corn and soy flour caused considerable controversy. In 1988, the press reacted so negatively toward genetically altered baking yeast that the product has never since been sold. (Burke 1997)
A small committee chaired by the Reverend John Polkinghorne investigated the concerns of numerous religious and interest groups. The committee found that Christians were divided in regards to acceptance of genetic engineering. Some had no objections, but many had uneasy concerns as to the moral and biblical implications of tampering with DNA. The Jewish reaction-on the other hand-was quite straightforward, “If it looks like a sheep, then it is a sheep.” (Burke 1997) Muslims and Hindus were much more opposed, as were animal welfare groups and vegetarians. (Burke 1997)
University of California-Davis microbiologist Judith A. Kjelstrom, associate director of the Biotechnology Program says, “Often, people want to go back to the ways of the past because it seems less scary. But with the existing levels of poverty in the world and the growth in human population, what is really scary is how to feed 10 billion people on less arable land. We cannot afford to stop the progress of agricultural biotechnology.” (Krieger 2000) Thus, it is true-according to Dr. Kjelstrom-that genetic engineering has emerged as a result of the societal needs of man.
In conclusion, biotechnology is beneficial, although certain members of society still regard the new science with hesitation and controversy. Undeniably, it makes tasks easier, cleaner and helps us lead healthy lives. Increased population and steadily depleting vital resources are indisputable reason for pursuing technological growth. Biogenetically engineered foods, insecticides, vaccines and medications are already in widespread use throughout the United States. Through its continued use, society will continue to battle plant disease epidemics, insect infestations and create new vaccines which will allow us to transcend many of the struggles that have plagued humanity for centuries.