50 whys to look for genes: 48. Build on something people have been doing for thousands of years

The field of genetic engineering remains a heated topic of discussion in today’s society with the advent of gene therapy, stem cell research, cloning, and genetically modified food. [However] this relationship of biotechnology serving social needs began centuries ago… (wikipedia)

Dr. Fletcher [N.I.H.] said he sees no reason to restrict experiments in plants or animals unless the research is not meritorious or it involves extraordinary suffering. The mere fact that an experiment involves the manipulation of genes is not ”in and of itself extraordinarially important,” he said. ”The whole subject of genetics has been shrouded in religious mystery, as if genetic experiments were not the business of human beings…” (NY Times, 1987)

”Nothing gives me cause for alarm about the patenting of life,” Mr. Capron [USC Law Professor] said. ”The scare words ‘patenting of life’ and ‘creating life in the laboratory’ are just that, scare words. They make it sound like very radical things are going on when in fact very simple things are being done.” (NY Times, 2000)

From the dawn of civilization, mankind has been modifying plants at the genetic level to suit its needs, and the fates of human society and agricultural crops have been inextricably linked and mutually interdependent ever since. Agriculture allowed humans to abandon hunter-gatherer behavior, in turn spawning broader economic and cultural development. (AgBioWorld, 2003)

When the first genetically engineered crops came on the market… in the mid-1990s, people like me–plant breeders and the seed industry–tended to say, ‘Oh, gee, it’s just a logical extension of what plant breeders have been doing all along… There has been a profound process of genetic modification since the dawn of settled agriculture until now…” (M. Smith, 2014)

From a scientific perspective, …currently approved GMOs are safe. (Genetic Literacy Project 2014)


1. M. Smith (2014) above went on to say: “Genetic engineering is a new and different way to do that,” which invites the questions: Different in what ways?  One answer is that genes are inserted into a range of varieties for commercial release that is much smaller than was previously available (except when hybrid varieties had already reduced that range from original open-pollinated sources).  The sources of seeds suitable for specific environments has been reduced.

2.  Moreover, in an open-minded spirit, Smith goes on to note:

The fear that GMO foods are not safe is valid, she said, adding other aspects raise concerns such as the financial power of seed companies like Monsanto, all the herbicides used on genetically engineered crops, and the impact on the larger ecosystem. But, she said a lot of those worries are based on value judgments, not science.

This invites the question: Who gets to decide or deliberate on what values go into the breeding, ownership, release, and application of plant varieties in the age of genetic engineering?

3.  In what contexts do scientists appeal to the revolutionary potential of genetic engineering versus it building on something people have been doing for thousands of years?  (see previous post).

4.  Both sides of pro- and anti-genetic modification in food production accuse each other of employing the arts or strategies of war: “[W]hy do the ideas of the anti-GMO movement need the strategies of war to be taken seriously?” (Genetic Literacy Project 2014) versus “GMO Pushers and The Art of War” (Huffington Post 2014)


(Introduction to this series of posts)

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