Sunday, October 14, 2012

Children growing up in a genetically engineered world

If citizens don't keep putting pressure on the biotech industry and on government, within a couple decades we could easily end up in a world where most of the plants and animals around us have been engineered in some way. Food crops that have been genetically engineered, but not yet approved for commercialization or consumption, include virtually every plant and animal in our food supply. We are lucky that our continued pressure has put the brakes on the biotech industry and that they are releasing new GMOs at a rate much slower than they were intending ten years ago.

But food is actually just a fraction of the genetically engineered organisms being created in labs today. Goats are being genetically engineered to produce material for bullet proof vests in their breastmilk, cows to produce pharmaceuticals in theirs, trees to sequester carbon (to "solve" global warming), and bacteria to clean up human messes.

What is happening is clear: the biotech industry is ushering in a conceptual shift in how we view and relate to the other species with whom we share the planet.

Other species are being altered so that they function as factories for human goals. A factory, assembly line model is not just being imposed on them, as we've already seen in the horrors of industrial agriculture. It is now being imposed through them. Their very meaning and existence on earth, their very physiology and biochemistry, now function for serving the goals of corporate entities and their pursuits of profits and market shares.

While the debate about genetic engineering often ends up as an argument about whether or not eating GMOs is safe, there is a deeper, darker issue that is not often talked about. What will happen if we live in a world where most of the species around us are factories? The biotech industry actually has a word for this, showing exactly what sort of conceptual shift they intend. A cow or pig producing pharmaceuticals in its breastmilk is called a "bioreactor" by the industry.

Ignore for a moment the ethical issues behind usurping the freedom, spontaneity and right to existence of the Earth's biological community, or the cow's right to complete the stages of life, including the right to feed its own calves healthy milk.

Ignore the side effects that might ensue from our food crops becoming contaminated with bananas that produce antibiotics or vaccines and the economic damages that would entail.

Instead, consider for a moment what it will be like for children growing up in a world where every animal and every plant is not a product of the creative forces of the universe, but of the "ingenuity" of human beings. Where the nuthatch flicking down the maple tree has been altered to absorb dioxin from the atmosphere (to "clean" the air) and the maple tweaked to produce brighter leaves in the fall.

Urban children are already suffering from nature-deficit disorder, implicated with multiple cognitive and emotional disturbances. What will happen when there is nothing left that is not... human?

What will happen when everywhere children look, the magic of the more-than-human world that so inspired our hearts when we were their age, that inspiration that teaches us the wisdom of gratitude and grace, is infected with the short-term goals of capitalist profiteers and technocrats?

See also: How should we teach our children about GMOs?

1 comment:

  1. I just read a really plausible novel called The Prophesy Gene and the main characters uncover a number of unintended genetic mutations as a result of the 1980s Aral Sea environmental disaster in Central Asia and the unintended release of a genetically modified strain of anthrax. The author makes a pretty scary claim that mankind is stifling its own evolution by premeditated and accidental genetic engineering and mutations because we can’t possibly understand all of the consequences to ecosystems and dormant genetic sites and the food chain when we monkey with this stuff. For example, some people eat oxen that have grazed on mutated vegetation and their digestive systems irreparably stop working. Or some dangerous fungus that humans eradicate because it causes disease but they don’t realize that it also sequesters carbon monoxide and could reverse global warming. But, I think the best one is that if it wasn’t for scientist’s genetic meddling, humans might one day evolve senses that bats and sharks have like hunting by their internal sonar or the ability that butterflies and some birds have to navigate by the earth’s magnetic field. The book is by Stuart Schooler. His website is and there is a link to a blog and a YouTube video (