Redesigning the World: Ethical Questions about Genetic Engineering

Plant, animal and human viruses play a major role in the ecosystems that comprise the biosphere. They are thought by some to be one of the primary factors in evolutionary change. Viruses have the ability to enter the genetic material of their hosts, to break apart, and then to recombine with the genetic material of the host to create new viruses. Those new viruses then infect new hosts, and, in the process, transfer new genetic material to the new host. When the host reproduces, genetic change has occurred.
If cells are genetically engineered, when viruses enter the cells, whether human, animal, or plant, then some of the genetically engineered material can be transferred to the newly created viruses and spread to the viruses’ new hosts. We can assume that ordinary viruses, no matter how deadly, if naturally produced, have a role to play in an ecosystem and are regulated by that ecosystem. Difficulties can occur when humans carry them out of their natural ecosystems; nonetheless, all ecosystems in the biosphere may presumably share certain defense characteristics. Since viruses that contain genetically engineered material could never naturally arise in an ecosystem, there is no guarantee of natural defenses against them. They then can lead to widespread death of humans, animals or plants, thereby temporarily or even permanently damaging the ecosystem. Widespread die-off of a plant species is not an isolated event but can affect its whole ecosystem. For many, this may be a rather theoretical concern. The distinct possibility of the widespread die-off of human beings from genetically engineered viruses may command more attention.23
Secret work is going forward in many countries to develop genetically engineered bacteria and viruses for biological warfare. International terrorists have already begun seriously considering their use. They are almost impossible to regulate, because the same equipment and technology that are used commercially can easily and quickly be transferred to military application.
The former Soviet Union had 32,000 scientists working on biowarfare, including military applications of genetic engineering. No one knows where most of them have gone, or what they have taken with them. Among the more interesting probable developments of their research were smallpox viruses engineered either with equine encephalitis or with Ebola virus. In one laboratory, despite the most stringent containment standards, a virulent strain of pneumonia, which had been  stolen from the United State military, infected wild rats living in the building, which then escaped into the wild.24
There is also suggestive evidence that much of the so-called Gulf War Syndrome may have been caused by a genetically engineered biowarfare agent which is contagious after a relatively long incubation period. Fortunately that particular organism seems to respond to antibiotic treatment.25  What is going to happen when the organisms are purposely engineered to resist all known treatment?
Nobel laureate in genetics and president emeritus of Rockefeller University Joshua Lederberg has been in the forefront of those concerned about international control of biological weapons. Yet when I wrote Dr. Lederberg for information about ethical problems in the use of genetic engineering in biowarfare, he replied, “I don’t see how we’d be talking about the ethics of genetic engineering, any more than that of iron smelting – which can be used to build bridges or guns.”26  Like most scientists, Lederberg fails to acknowledge that scientific researchers have a responsibility for the use to which their discoveries are put. Thus he also fails to recognize that once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot coax it back in. In other words, research in genetic engineering naturally leads to its employment for biowarfare, so that before any research in genetic engineering is undertaken, its potential use in biowarfare should be clearly evaluated. After they became aware of the horrors of nuclear war, many of the scientists who worked in the Manhattan project, which developed the first atomic bomb, underwent terrible anguish and soul-searching. It is surprising that more geneticists do not see the parallels.
After reading about the dangers of genetic engineering in biowarfare, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, became extremely concerned, and, in the spring of 1998, made civil defense countermeasures a priority. Yet, his administration has systematically opposed all but the most rudimentary safety regulations and restrictions for the biotech industry. By doing so, Clinton has unwittingly created a climate in which the production of the weapons he is trying to defend against has become very easy for both governments and terrorists.27
New crops may breed with wild relatives or cross breed with related species. The “foreign” genes could spread throughout the environment causing unpredicted changes which will be unstoppable once they have begun. Entirely new diseases may develop in crops or wild plants. Foreign genes are designed to be carried into other organisms by viruses which can break through species barriers, and overcome an organism’s natural defenses. This makes them more infectious than naturally existing parasites, so any new viruses could be even more potent than those already known.
Ordinary weeds could become “Super-weeds”: Plants engineered to be herbicide resistant could become so invasive they are a weed problem themselves, or they could spread their resistance to wild weeds making them more invasive. Fragile plants may be driven to extinction, reducing nature’s precious biodiversity. Insects could be impossible to control. Making plants resistant to chemical poisons could lead to a crisis of “super pests” if they also take on the resistance to pesticides.28
The countryside may suffer even greater use of herbicides and pesticides: Because farmers will be able to use these toxic chemicals with impunity their use may increase threatening more pollution of water supplies and degradation of soils.
Plants developed to produce their own pesticide could harm non-target species such as birds, moths and butterflies. No one – including the genetic scientists – knows for sure the effect releasing new life forms will have on the environment.
They do know that all of the above are possible and irreversible, but they still want to carry out their experiment. THEY get giant profits. All WE get is a new and uncertain environment – an end to the world as we know it.29
When genetically engineered crops are grown for a specific purpose, they cannot be easily isolated both from spreading into the wild and from cross-pollinating with wild relatives. It has already been shown30 that cross-pollination can take place almost a mile away from the genetically engineered plantings. As has already occurred with noxious weeds and exotics, human beings, animals and birds may accidentally carry the genetically engineered seeds far vaster distances. Spillage in transport and at processing factories is also inevitable. The genetically engineered plants can then force out plant competitors and thus radically change the balance of ecosystems or even destroy them.
Under current United States government regulations, companies that are doing field-testing of genetically engineered organisms need not inform the public of what genes have been added to the organisms they are testing. They can be declared trade secrets, so that the public safety is left to the judgment of corporate scientists and government regulators many of whom switch back and forth between working for the government and working for the corporations they supposedly regulate.31 Those who come from academic positions often have large financial stakes in biotech companies, 32
and major universities are making agreements with biotech corporations that compromise academic freedom and give patent rights to the corporations. As universities become increasingly dependent on major corporations for funding, the majority of university scientists will no longer be able to function as independent, objective experts in matters concerning genetic engineering and public safety.32a

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