Thursday, October 18, 2012

Animal welfare and GMOs

I hope to approach today's blog topic by way of detour. Bear with me!

First, I'd like to talk about the problem of terminology.

Both the critics and the cheerleaders of genetic engineering agree that there is a problem with the term "genetic engineering".

Those promoting genetic engineering downplay what is radically new and invasive about their techniques. They prefer the term "genetic modification" and have lobbied many governments successfully to make this the official term. This is why we commonly hear the acronym GMOs, which stands for "Genetically Modified Organisms". The hope is that the term "modification" can blur the boundary between modern biotechnology and traditional breeding.

And so we see biotech companies continually claiming that "we have been genetically modifying plants and animals for ten thousand years. What we are doing is nothing new. Why such an uproar?"

Those concerned with genetic engineering see a different problem with the term. For them, "engineering" evokes a precision, planning, and understanding that the genetic engineers simply don't have. They point out that the "shotgun" method genetic engineers use fires the desired gene into the host's DNA in a random way. There is no control over where the genes will land. They may land in the middle of another gene or in the middle of an important regulatory section. And yet, where a gene lands matters because how it functions depends on its context. Since the context cannot be controlled or predicted, the shotgun method is like gambling in a card game based on pure chance.

This certainly does not sound like what my Oxford dictionary tells me "engineering" is: "to skillfully or artfully arrange for (an even or situation) to occur".

Other candidates terms have cropped up, such as "transgenic", but for now we only have these two terms in common currency. I will continue to use the word "engineering" because it best expresses the goals and motivations of the modern biotechnology.

But I do want to address some of the consequences of the biotech experiments that are hidden away under the term "engineering". Specifically, I want to discuss what happens to all those creatures who have had genes shot into them in the "wrong" places, leading to deformity, pain, and death.

Here's the statistics for genetically engineered animals: Most embryos are so damaged that they spontaneously abort before the engineers can even implant them into the mother's womb. Of those that are implanted, 96 to 99.5% of genetically engineered fetuses die before being born from developmental disfigurations leading to physiological and anatomical malfunctions (Ammann & Vogel, 2000). Of those that are born successfully, most die from severe malformations and organ defects (Christ & Schurkens, 2003). Finally, of those that live past infancy, 85 to 99% of the animals do not exhibit the desired trait anyways, and are killed of as "rubbish".

277 sheep had to suffer premature death and deformation to produce Dolly, the first cloned sheep. But these 277 tries were not "experiments" in the scientific sense. Because they were based on random applications, nothing was learned. They were shots in the dark. To produce another Dolly would take more or less the same number of tries.

The poor success rate is not just evidence of a heartless, institutionalized practice. It is also evidence of how imprecise and unscientific genetic engineering really is.
Animals do not only suffer during this R&D stage of bringing a product to the market. Those few animals that live to adulthood are created to suffer: they are genetically engineered to produce the most amount of meat or milk that is physiologically possible. Or, they are genetically engineered to produce bizarre compounds in their biochemistry, such as spiderweb silk or pharmaceuticals in their breast milk.

Vegans and vegetarians might consider themselves "in the clear" on this issue because they are already minimizing or eliminating their consumption of products derived from animals. However, they must be careful here. Most "meat alternatives" in North America are derived from genetically engineered soy. Each time we consume genetically engineered soy, we are giving money to biotech companies that engage in genetic experimentation on animals.

Those who maintain a sharp divide between humans and other animals will insist that any amount of animal suffering is justifiable as long as it leads to some gain, however small, for humans. In many cases, the human benefits are not even medical. They involve production efficiency, the satisfaction of non-essential consumables, and warfare. But a benefit is a benefit and the ends justify whatever means.

As biologists continue to uncover the diverse intelligences, empathic capacities and social behaviour of other species, the sharpness of this divide is being called into scientific question. We may need time to catch up and re-conceive what other species mean to us.

Are any of you readers concerned with GMO animals? Have you read about any experiments that you'd like to share? Please tell us and provide the links if you can!

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