Faces of hope, voices of space,
Will fish mate with tomatoes or soybeans crossbreed with petunias? Will pigs mate with humans or rabbits with mice? Of course not, but some scientists are combining the genes of these diverse creatures against the laws of natural selection. This unsacred liaison invented by chemical corporate giants is called genetic engineering. This high tech species metamorphosis makes the Existential writer Franz Kafka, with his man Gregor who woke up one morning and found that he had become a giant bug, a prophet of our time.
Millions of cows imprisoned inside factory farms suddenly wake up to find their udders engorged to an enormous size. Instead of carrying twelve pounds of milk to feed their calves, the cows are forced to pump out fifty to sixty pounds of milk just for human consumption, not knowing they've been injected with a genetically engineered growth hormone.
Genes are blue prints composed of thousands of genetic codes. They carry information for the proteins that make up the structure, function and outward traits that constitute the individual organism. DNA ultimately dictates the distinctive qualities of a species, from microorganism to insect, plant, animal and human being. The genetic codes in DNA determine physical forms, skin color, size of fruits, sensory structures of animals, types of trees, specific times for flowers to blossom, and billions of other features and functions.
Genetic engineering (or bioengineering) is a technique to splice, delete, add, isolate, recombine or transfer genes from one organism to another that may be totally unrelated. Alteration in genes and chromosomes causes disruption and disturbance in the biochemical structure of species and can result in species mutation. It is a kind of artificially programmed evolution (or devolution) changing the individual organism as its starting point, in contrast to natural evolution in which changes occur among diverse populations through natural selection.
Since the early nineteen fifties, biologists began to turn their attention to the mysterious double helix called DNA. Within twenty years scientists were already mixing DNA extracted from different species. The quantum leap of this new technology allowed the human creature to become the new creator of life on earth, creating a variety of plants and animals. Now natural evolution can be halted at our fingertips, forever altering the meaning of life and forcing us to redefine religion, nature and individuality.
Cellular dynamics in all living systems requires mutual acknowledgement and interdependence, a constant cooperation between the individual life and the entire biosphere to maintain the stability and equilibrium suitable for species survival. The holistic concept of the Gaia Hypothesis proposes a subtle mutual participation between organic life (the moving part) and the geological environment (the unmoving part) as an integral whole in the evolutionary journey. Bioengineering disregards this fundamental intricacy by disrupting species integrity, a gesture in contempt of nature's wisdom. Science can alter other creature's very genetic structure to suit our desires and the market value. Do animals, plants, forests, mountains, and oceans exist only for human benefit?
The Silenced Plea
Among the many victims of these artificial mutations, farm animals suffer the most. Their entire lives are locked inside factory warehouses, manipulated by machines as if their sole purpose to be born was to be harvested by man. They never have a chance to see the sky or smell the earth. They can never experience the pleasure or the freedom of living beings like our pets, the wildlife, or ourselves. Farm animals are subjected to life long abuse by the most atrocious, appalling manipulation invented by agribusiness. Their utter misfortune is caused by being labeled as food animals, but they are still sentient beings not so different than we are.
The super pig, a product of genetic engineering, is a sick animal, fattened artificially by human growth hormone. This super pig must endure side effects including crippling arthritis and distorted vision caused by the human growth genes that makes them cross-eyed. Pigs are being modified with human genes so that the organs of their offspring can be transplanted into humans. Soon, in addition to factory pig farms, there will be pig organ farms. A new creature called a GEEP, is part goat and part sheep. In nature, the two species never mate, but our modern alchemists have already perfected such a new species that never existed before.
And then there is the case of the ordinary chicken. The modern bird has been bred to grow at twice its normal rate. Its legs can no longer carry its massive body weight, and the animal suffers leg pain and deformities as well as an enormous strain on its heart and lungs. Often these chickens experience heart failure before the age of six weeks. Many other die due to rampant infectious diseases caused by intensive breeding. A transgenic chicken is engineered with a cow's growth hormone gene, which imbalances its entire metabolism. One cannot imagine the intensity of suffering caused by such mutations.
Someday, chickens might be engineered with genes from centipedes, giving the birds more than two legs, so that we can have more drum sticks for our dinner table. Or the chicken may be further modified into a kind of tube, without head, wings or tail, but with many legs, so it will produce more meat for us and be easier to manage for commercial exploitation. No one will know how to take care of this new breed of animal; in fact there will be no need for veterinarians. The new food machine, no longer a real creature by definition, can put an end of hundreds years of debate on animal rights.
Are farm animals not part of the animal kingdom sanctified by nature? Are they not "the breathing shapes, many voiced landscape," a phrase borrowed from David Abram's book, The Spell of the Sensuous. They also have their special journey on Earth and deserve equal compassion and protection. The primary reason that they are excluded from ethical considerations, and even from the nature programs on public television, is because of their innocence and gentleness that allows them to easily be raised and turned into our food. We would be very outraged if wild animals like elephants and dolphins were subjected to such conditions.
The Brave New World
Over the last three million years, human beings developed slowly from a species that was mostly vegetarian like other primates, living in harmony with other animals. Then we gradually developed agriculture, languages and weapons. During the last two hundred years since the industrial revolution our power has soared and the development of our techno-culture has escalated at an alarming rate. The human population will soon reach six billion and will double its number again in the next thirty years. Daniel Quinn describes the scenario of population explosion in his book "The Story of B." He demonstrates that caged mice continue to multiply as long as their food supply is unlimited. Quinn's conclusion is based upon a fundamental law of ecology: An increase in food availability for a species results in population growth for that species. Genetic engineering aims at unnaturally increased food production to fuel the already excessive human population explosion that is burdening the planet and its resources.
Presently we are breeding 1.28 billion cattle, which further deplete the Earth's resources. In America, one hundred thousand cows are slaughtered every day to satisfy we human carnivores. Eventually, the planet will be crowded with human species along with our billions of food animals. As for the rest of the species, they will go extinct by loosing their natural habitat. There is a strong connection between diet and behavior, with the global emphasis on meat-eating reinforcing aggression in society. As a result, we humans have become the deadliest predators on the planet. The fast growing new industry of biotechnology will eventually usher us into a brave new world beyond imagination. Not even Plato, Darwin or contemporary evolutionists and ethicists can provide meaning for such a strange world.
Biotech companies also profit from patenting new species, genetically engineered bacteria, seeds, primates, pigs, cows, chickens, dogs, rabbits, and mice and owning the new species under patent rights. The first ever patented animal was the ONCO- MOUSE in 1992, a mouse genetically engineered for cancer research, and many other patented species are soon to follow. Patenting lab created animals is not only religiously and ethically offensive, it opens endless possibilities for humans to exploit other living beings.
Confusion in the Air
Mono-agriculture, the production of a few selected crops for mass production, itself is an artificial manipulation of nature. Along with the heavy spray of pesticide and herbicide it is abusive to the soil and threatens biodiversity. Planting bioengineered herbicide resistant crops, which is one of the main projects of genetic engineering will only allow farmers to spray higher level of herbicides without damaging crops. A vicious cycle will be created that will seriously contaminate our environment and poison animals.
Another danger is that biotechnology promises us a new variety of disease resistant crops. Transgenic crops contain genes from viruses, bacteria, animals and other plants. For example, transgenic tomatoes and strawberries contain the antifreeze gene from Arctic fish so they are better frost resistant. Such bizarre, surreal combinations not only can disrupt the host genetic functions but also can cause confused, chaotic biochemical mutations in the plants. When transgenic crops cross pollinate with wild plants, it can cause migration of their gene traits, including making them resistant to antibiotics. In time this migration will lead to new mutations and the fields will be eventually taken over by the super grass created by our genetic indiscretion.
The production of new lab crops in developed countries poses a threat to the livelihood of millions of farmers in undeveloped countries. For example, the lab product of coca butter and a new sugar substitute could put ten million farmers in poor countries out of work. The new product will not help farmers in poor countries who cannot afford such technology. The increased crops mainly benefit the countries already living in abundance, and the profit primarily goes to the transnational industries that are forging new global commercial monopolies in the name of scientific advancement.
Transgenic salmon contains genes from Arctic sea flounder, which enables them to grow six times larger and faster. Yet eventually these salmon can escape into the wild and cause unpredictable ecological disruption. The DNA of a virus can pass through even the gut of mice and find its way into every kind of cell, creating genetic disturbances including cancer, a disease that more than thirty years of medical research has been unable to find the cure.
A gene can replicate indefinitely, spread and combine. We have no means to stop this process but must let it pass on in its invisible ways. When a massive load of virus genes combines with wild relatives it can result in creating super viruses that can lead to deadly diseases. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho from the Open University biology department in the United Kingdom believes that "a vector currently used in fish has a framework from marine leukaemic virus, which causes leukaemia in mice, but can infect all mammalian cells. Vectors used in genetic engineering can infect a wide range of species. It's a bad science and a bad business making dangerous alliance."
Pathogens, The Ultimate Predator
Along with ecological disasters, the year 1997 can be rightly named a year of the holocaust of farm animals. Outbreaks of infectious diseases among farm animals all over the world has caused researchers to worry that we are due for another global epidemic, primarily owing to the over use of antibiotics. Two strains of E. coli as well as Staphylococcus bacteria now contaminate meat, poultry and diary products. Genetic engineering can greatly compound this problem. Laboratory contained transgenic organisms when released into the environment are capable of spreading across species barriers and creating new diseases. A new danger is that they can easily develop multiple antibiotic resistance. In recent years old diseases like cholera, malaria and tuberculosis are coming back in new strains resistant to treatment. At the same time new pathogens are arising. To cope with this, medical laboratories will have to sacrifice billions more animals for medical experimentation. What befalls other creatures also befalls ourselves. In the future, allergy specialists will have to study gene behavior in order to treat new allergies, because genetic engineering involves adding new proteins to artificially altered food products. This can aggravate allergies since proteins cause most allergies. We are becoming guinea pigs and without our consent being herded into the giant laboratory of biotechnology.
Can we entrust our food supply and the future of the Earth to those who have no respect or ethical consideration for the living planet, who are motivated mainly by short term profits? Bioengineering is promoted by a multibillion-dollar agribusiness, which controls large segments of the world food supply. It is spearheaded by scientists whose strange alchemical adventure recognizes no species boundary; not even God can predict the consequences. The potentials of bioengineering can become the most dangerous device to destroy nature ever invented, worse in the long run than nuclear weapons. Why is our government so complacent about this important issue and not keeping us properly informed? Because biotechnology promises the security and abundance of our food supplies, therefore more population growth. For the time being, we are comforted by the deceptive appearance of affluence and continuous economic growth. We can continue cluttering our environment, encroaching into the wilderness, and trespassing territory that naturally belongs to other creatures.
New technologies are erasing the most vital processes that human beings need to form direct maternal bonding with nature. Human beings, like other animals, need physical contact with nature, to live and play with curiosity and humility, sharing nature's offering and wisdom with other Earth residents. Modern men are obsessed with power, possession, production, technological efficiency and speed. Unlike ants and bees, which are at least capable of living in altruistic cooperative societies, we continue to operate out of our own self-interest only. As Daniel Quinn wrote in his book, "Ishmael," instead of being a "leaver" on earth, we have become the only "taker." The deterioration of our sense of moral responsibility will only accelerate the current ecological crisis.
All species and habitats are members of the bio-community. From the daisies of the field to great whales in the ocean, from the desert to the rainforest, each has its own intelligence, personality, and consciousness, to evolve creatively with mutual consent. Each has the right to be protected. Human beings as one of these species are indeed out of control. This is evidenced by the growing population explosion, the outbreak of new infectious diseases, the accelerated crime rate, our exploitative economic policies and the way each of us is destroying the planet as a wasteful consumer. Millions of years of planetary evolutionary efforts can become obsolete in a few decades. Sensitive species, such as frogs in some areas in the United States, are already displaying deformities owing to mutation caused by environmental pollution. Though we have not figured out the mystery of the Big Bang behind the existence of the universe, human history is already entering into the second big bang, an explosion through genetic engineering that promises to radically alter everything that we know. The current measures we use to secure our own species mean the end of nature. Without biodiversity the earth cannot evolve and is doomed to decay.
Hope Against Hope In this time of global crisis, each one of us needs to awaken a new ethical vitality and put forth the energy and moral responsibility that our planet desperately needs to resist the forces of commercial exploitation. We need this for our own sanity and meaningfulness, sacredness of the living Earth. The survival of their future is our own survival. Without collective effort, we will not be able to remedy the ill fate of the planet. Instead of self-gratification, we all need to make some sacrifices in order to give hope to other creatures. Bill McKibben made a deeply moving and refreshing non-anthropocentric statement in his book, The End Of Nature: "So I hope against hope, Though not in our time, and not in the time of our children, or their children, if we now, TODAY, limit our numbers, our desires and our ambitions, perhaps nature could someday resume its independent working."
Since there is no regulation in labeling genetically engineered products, we have no way to avoid them. Hence we must demand that our government enforce strict regulation in labeling all transgenic products. We can boycott processed food made by genetic engineering, and begin to educate our communities about this important issue. We should support local farmers by purchasing locally grown, organic produce, and switch to an ECO- VEGETARIAN DIET. As long as we breathe fresh air, eat food, and enjoy the beauty of nature, we owe it to mother Earth and her billions of years of sustainability.
1. The Unholy Alliance. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho