This article is taken from Dr Vernon Colemans Health Letter. It gives general material and opinions for information only and is not to be considered an alternative to professional medical advice. Readers should consult their family doctors or other qualified medical advisers on any matter relating to their health and wellbeing.
Genetic Engineering - Special Report
Science has, during the last few decades, presented us with a steadily increasing and apparently endless variety of moral dilemmas and practical threats. Scientists and doctors like to claim that they have enhanced the quality and quantity of human life in many different ways.
The truth, however, is very different. Despite the claims of the medical establishment (and the pharmaceutical industry) life expectancy has not risen as a result of the introduction of new drugs and new medical procedures (I dealt with this claim in detail in VCHL Vol 1 No 2).
Despite the best efforts of thousands of scientists (and the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayers' money and billions of dollars more raised by charities) the incidence of cancer has been rising steadily for decades. Despite (or perhaps because of) the efforts of thousands of doctors and surgeons (and the expenditure of vast amounts of money) the incidence of heart disease (and the resultant mortality rate) has also been increasing steadily throughout the developed world. And, as I have repeatedly reported (see VCHL Vol 2 No 10) the incidence of infectious disease is now rising rapidly again - despite the prescription scribbling enthusiasm of countless doctors and the enthusiasm of a constantly optimistic pharmaceutical industry.
Scientists have given us the hazards of nuclear power, toxic waste, carcinogenic agro-chemicals and an endless variety of pollutants. Scientists have given us undrinkable water supplies, damaged our ozone layer, altered our weather and helped large food companies to grow, package and market virtually nutrient free carcinogenic food. (And just in case any of the food they have given us remains non carcinogenic and contains any left over nutrients they have given us untested and untried microwave ovens with which - who knows - we may be able to remove any nutrient traces and turn harmless food into something toxic).
But the latest hazard produced by scientists dwarfs all these threats. In two decades or so genetic engineering has evolved so rapidly as a branch of science (if science is the right word for a form of alchemy which seems to me to pay little or no attention to logic or research) that the future of our species is now threatened. Genetic engineering enables scientists to transfer genes between species in an entirely unnatural way. Human genes can be transferred to pigs, sheep, fish or bacteria. And genes from bacteria, slugs, elephants, tomatoes and anything else can be put into human beings.
In this special issue of VCHL I intend to show how and why genetic engineering affects every one of us - in many different ways - and why those of us who care must do something now.
A New Science Offers Solutions To All The World's Problems
Genetic engineering started in the 1970s. The technique involves putting genes from one species into another species. In order to do this the genetic engineers put the genes they want to move into viruses. They then put each virus into the animal or plant which is to be the recipient. Genetic engineering is nothing at all like conventional breeding techniques (such as are used by dog breeders who want dogs with very floppy ears or people who want to grow black tulips).
Listen to the boastful, extraordinarily arrogant claims of genetic scientists and you might believe that they have all the answers to hunger and disease. They talk grandly about eradicating starvation by creating new high yield, pest resistant versions of existing foods and manipulating genes to banish physical ailments, aggression and depression. They will, they say, be able to eradicate homosexuality, control the overpopulation problem, purify water supplies, remove crime from our streets and deal with deforestation.
Genetic engineers have promised modified strains of bacteria able to eat up plastics, heavy metals and other toxic wastes. Vast amounts of money (at least $3 billion) have been poured into identifying the human genome (the genetic blue print for human life). There has even been talk that we will be able to clone ourselves so that we need never die. Genetic engineers have talked about identifying the gene responsible for longevity so that we can all live long, healthy lives. Genetic engineering would enable fashion conscious couples to order 'designer' babies with hair colour planned to match their soft furnishings. Genetic engineers offer us a future world populated by beautifully proportioned geniuses (though if genetic engineers are allowed to define intelligence the standard would surely be low).
Moral and ethical questions have been brushed aside as the unnecessary anxieties of ignorant Luddites who either do not understand what is going on or are temperamentally opposed to progress.
But if it all sounds too good to be true - and all rather reminiscent of the sort of cheap promises with which confidence tricksters make their money - that is because it simply isn't true. Genetic scientists don't have the answers to any of our problems. On the contrary, they have created a hugely successful money making myth which keeps them in fat grants and huge salaries. (It is important not to underestimate the importance of money in the world of genetic engineering. The world market for biotechnology products is growing at 30% a year and it has been estimated that by the year 2000 the market for genetically engineered substances will be worth $100 billion.) None of this would matter too much if what they were doing was as harmless as it is useless. But harmless it is definitely not. Fiddling around with genes is an exceedingly hazardous business. Simply inserting a gene from one creature into another can cause cancer.
Genetic engineering is not something we can simply ignore until the thousands who are making the grand claims are exposed as fraudsters, or until their poorly based pseudoscience falls out of fashion.
It is time that the insane burblings of the geneticists were exposed for what they are. I have been writing about the horrors of genetic engineering for many years - since I first realised that scientists were making promises it was clear they couldn't keep - but most doctors, critics and journalists have so far been too frightened (or ignorant) to oppose the torrent of undiluted praise for genetic engineering and point a firm finger at just another invisible suit of clothes for the same old naked Emperor. This special edition of VCHL will put on record the full extent of the dangers associated with genetic engineering. The main hazard of genetic engineering is that no one (including the genetic engineers themselves) knows what will happen to their creations and no one knows how these artificial life forms will interact with existing life forms. The only thing we know with some certainty is that the changes will almost certainly be irreversible.
Flawed Science, Dishonest Scientists And Greedy Corporations
Genetic engineering really started to hit the headlines roughly three years ago. Farmers were reported to be feeding their milk producing cows with genetically engineered bovine growth hormone in order to increase their milk yield. Genetic engineers had, we were told, managed to fiddle with a tomato's natural genes so that it would have a longer shelf life. Genetic engineers gave a human growth hormone to pigs to create a breed which would grow faster (and make more profit). (But the pigs produced were arthritic, partially blind, impotent and ulcerous.)
Then we were told that genetic engineers had created a special mouse (the oncomouse) which was 'built' to be especially prone to develop cancer. (Justifiable cries of outrage from animal lovers were brushed aside with the, in my view, nonsensical assurance that the oncomouse would enable scientists to find a cure for cancer affecting human beings. Those who opposed the deliberate tinkering with life in order to produce creatures doomed from birth were accused of caring more for animals than people.)
Vivisectors claimed that by putting a human gene into an animal they would be able to investigate (and find a cure for) conditions which threatened human life. But when a human gene is put into another animal the circumstances change enormously. Cancer is not caused simply by one gene - it is a result of a whole variety of circumstances including genetic susceptibility and environment. When mice were genetically altered to include a gene that causes tumours in the retina of the eye in humans none of them developed any symptoms of this disorder.
Scientists told us that they could, by mixing human and animal genes, produce creatures who would provide an endless supply of organs for transplantation. For several years now scientists have been introducing human genes into other animals and animal genes (including human genes) into vegetables.
Genetic engineering (the enthusiasts have tried to replace this phrase - which they fear may prove frightening - with such bland phrases as 'genetic modification' but genetic engineering is what it is and that is what I intend to call it) has been constantly presented to, and by, the media as an entirely public-spirited alliance between scientists and big business working together for the good of mankind.
Despite the fact that this is rather like trying to present the international tobacco industry as a humanitarian organisation devoted to the health and welfare of mankind, most journalists and observers swallowed this absolutely outrageous lie without a murmur of protest.
Journalists seem ready to believe that geneticists, being scientists, are inevitably honest and honourable people whose motives cannot be questioned. They ignore the fact that the majority of genetic engineers in the world are now working for or with one of the large companies now making vast amounts of money out of genetic engineering. ('Practically all established molecular geneticists have some direct or indirect connection with industry.' says Dr Mae-Wan Ho, Reader in Biology at the Open University, UK and a Fellow of the US National Genetics Foundation. 'This inevitably sets limits on what the scientists can and will do research on, not to mention the possibility of compromising their integrity as independent scientists.')
What has happened in the world of genetic engineering should not surprise anyone. It has, after all, been exactly what has happened in the world of medical research.
Genetic engineering is all about money. The possible advantages to mankind are so slight as to be utterly inconsequential. In contrast the possible hazards to mankind are so great that they are beyond exaggeration.
In the constant search for profit some remarkable things are happening. Bending over backwards, forwards and sideways to be nice to genetic engineers the European Commission has published a directive which allows companies or individuals to apply for and obtain patents on human genes, microorganisms and any plant or animal 'derived from a microbiological process'. (It has been pointed out that if the current patent laws were available when chemists were first identifying the elements then individuals and companies would have been able to patent the elements. Everyone in the world would have then have had to pay a royalty for the right to breathe in, and consume, oxygen.)
Let me give you some simple facts about genetic engineering that may surprise you:
All this is being done on the understanding that by identifying and manipulating genes the genetic engineers (and the companies they work for) will be able to solve most (if not all) of the world's most serious problems (including hunger and disease).
But this is modern mythology.
The first live transgenic food to be introduced to the supermarkets (a tomato) was withdrawn. It was developed in California and didn't grow properly in Florida. A genetically engineered cotton crop didn't grow properly when first planted commercially in Texas because the weather was too hot. The crop didn't grow properly in Australia because it was too cold. And insects rapidly gained resistance to the built-in biopesticide.
Two varieties of genetically engineered seeds were withdrawn from the Canadian market (after 60,000 bags of seed had been sold) when it was discovered that at least one of the patented varieties contained an 'unexpected' gene.
We are told that genetic engineers will be able to identify the genes responsible for some/many/most/all diseases and then, with a little deft gene surgery, remove the genes that are responsible for creating problems and replace them with something more useful. The assumption is that the genetic engineer will remove the gene which would have given your child diabetes/high blood pressure/heart disease/a large nose and replace it with the gene to turn him or her into a chess champion/star tennis player/opera singer/world champion skier.
This myth depends upon the assumption that the development of a disease (and the symptoms it subsequently produces) depends upon a single gene. This is about as well-based in scientific terms as the notion that two slices of treacle tart a day will cure deafness.
Genetic engineers are busily struggling to identify the genes which cause diabetes, cancer, schizophrenia and the genes which turn an individual into a burglar, mugger, alcoholic or homosexual.
There are several reasons why this is a waste of money.
First, we already know what causes many of the major killer diseases. We know what causes (and can therefore prevent) most cases of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Unfortunately, preventive medicine is neither glamorous nor profitable and so little or no effort is put into using this widely available, well established and incontrovertible knowledge.
Second, when there is no cure available for a disease which has been identified by genetic engineers there is a real risk that the individual will be ostracised, or in some way punished by society - simply on the basis of the genetic test. So, for example, individuals who are known to be predisposed to sickle cell anaemia are likely to be discriminated against by insurance companies. And mothers carrying babies who are likely to grow up with some form of disability will be encouraged to have an abortion. This is nothing more or less than a new, sanitised version of eugenics - something which was popular among the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, in South Africa during the apartheid years and in the US between 1924 and 1974 when hundreds of thousands of citizens were forcibly sterilised because they were classified as 'feeble-minded'.
In 1995 China brought in a new law requiring couples planning to marry to be screened for 'serious' hereditary diseases. If one partner is carrying a gene which is considered defective then the marriage must be postponed unless the couple agree to sterilisation or long-term contraception. In 1996 the Chinese government introduced legislation for the compulsory termination of pregnancies in which a genetic disorder had been diagnosed. You will, of course, have noted the word 'compulsory'. There may not be any similar laws (yet) in the west but a survey in the US found that nearly half of the individuals with genetic disorders had experienced some sort of discrimination. And scientists have already suggested giving prophylactic drug treatment to people with genetic disorders.
Third, and most important of all, it is simply not true that the presence of a particular gene is the only factor deciding whether an individual develops a specific disorder. Other genes also play a part. As does the immediate and general environment in which an individual is brought up. And as does the food he eats. It is bad science to claim that a genetic predisposition to a disease means that that disease is bound to develop. Making things even more complicated is the fact that genes work differently according to the other genes that surround them. A gene which causes a disease in one individual may not cause that disease in another individual. Just because an individual has a gene which may cause cystic fibrosis it is not inevitable that the individual will develop cystic fibrosis. (There are two other huge problems with screening for cystic fibrosis. First, more than 400 variations on the 'this-gene-picture-may-cause-cystic-fibrosis' theme have been found. Second, it seems that a gene which may cause a disease in one ethnic group may cause a different disease in another group. For example, in the Yemenite population genes which might be expected to cause cystic fibrosis cause an entirely different syndrome. My view is that all this means that effective screening for cystic fibrosis is quite impractical. The theory might be attractive to some. But the practicalities are quite different.)
Screening women to see if they have the breast cancer genes has made big news in recent years. But only between 2% and 5% of breast cancer cases are hereditary. Can the expenditure of huge amounts of money on screening for breast cancer genes really be justifiable when we know that if all women are encouraged to follow the right diet their chances of developing breast cancer will be greatly reduced? There is enthusiasm among genetic engineers for screening for cancer genes but I do not see the point in investigating a diagnostic procedure which is potentially dangerous, expensive and ineffective when we already know what causes 80% of cancers - and could, therefore, prevent four out of five cancers safely, inexpensively and effectively. Meanwhile, there may be some advance warning for us all in the news that six genetic engineers working on cancer-related genes at the Pasteur Institutes in France have themselves contracted cancer.
Screening men and women for predisposition to heart disease is likely to become very big business. Heart disease is, after all, a major killer. But we know that it is lifestyle factors which cause heart disease in most patients. And a good family history provides all the 'genetic' information that is needed. As with breast cancer, heart disease can, usually be avoided by following the right lifestyle.
Some scientists have claimed that a gene for schizophrenia has been identified. But doctors can't even agree on the symptoms of schizophrenia (or whether any such disease exists). If schizophrenia is a disease then it seems extremely likely that many other factors (including diet, parents, environment and so on) are also causative factors.
It has been said that it is possible to seek out genes that are responsible for intelligence. But this is high grade phooey.
Gene screening is a potentially huge business but is it really in the best interests of the consumer? I think not.
Immediate And Long Term Hazards Threaten Us All
When genetic engineering first hit the headlines, the public was promised that there would be strict rules about just what could and could not be done. But the rules that were intended to protect us have been bent, pushed aside and ignored. Regulations were, it was claimed, slowing down progress, interfering with the competitiveness of the developing new industry and getting in the way of individual scientists keen to get on with their plans for improving the world. It is wrong, said the scientists, to try to ban new thinking or new research.
Genetic engineers claimed that there was no need for caution, and that only the narrow-minded and the reactionary had reservations about this exciting new branch of scientific endeavour.
The genetic engineering industry even succeeded in 'persuading' politicians and administrators that there was no need to segregate genetically engineered produce from naturally grown produce. I dealt with this in VCHL Vol 1 No 5.
The risks associated with genetic engineering are numerous and widespread. In VCHL Vol 2 No 10 I again dealt with the growing problems caused by antibiotic resistant organisms. There is little doubt that genetic engineering is at least partly responsible for this established hazard. And there is even less doubt that genetic engineering is responsible for some, and possibly many, of the new infective organisms now threatening human health.
Under normal circumstances viruses are species specific. A virus that attacks a cat will not attack a human being. And a virus that attacks a human being will not attack a cow. But the genetic engineers have changed all that. They have deliberately glued together different bits of viruses in order to cross species barriers. These genetically engineered viruses can then become virulent again. Genetically engineered viruses are extremely infectious. None of this happens by accident - this is how genetic engineering works.
For example, consider the humble pathogen Escherichia coli (known to its friends as E.coli). This little bug is traditionally harmless. It lives in the intestines of most mammals including human beings. Because it is harmless E.coli quickly became the darling of genetic engineers who fiddled with it incessantly and put genes from a vast number of species into it.
I remember being horrified when I first heard that E.coli was being used in this way. It always seemed clear to me that fiddling with such a widespread bug would almost certainly be disastrous. Twenty years ago my fears were scoffed at by scientists and doctors but I was not surprised when I heard that E.coli had changed and that new dangerous versions of it had appeared.
In 1982 a brand new version called E.coli 0157:H7 appeared. This new bug, a direct consequence of genetic engineering, caused dangerous bleeding in the colon, bowel and kidneys of human patients. The first cases occurred in America but outbreaks have appeared all over the world. An outbreak in Japan in 1996 affected 9,000. In 1997 an outbreak in Scotland killed 20 people. To begin with E.coli only affected meat eaters (since it came via infected cattle) but E.coli has apparently now been found in contaminated soil - and, therefore, in plants grown in the soil.
The whole sorry scenario has been made even worse by the fact that strains of E.coli have also acquired antibiotic resistance. There are varieties of E.coli available now which are resistant to all but one antibiotic. When E.coli becomes resistant to this antibiotic (as will surely happen soon) the bug - one of the commonest known to mankind - will become a major killer. E.coli can acquire antibiotic resistance very quickly. One experiment showed that E.coli can acquire multi drug resistance within twelve days.
As I have consistently and repeatedly reported in recent issues of VCHL (and my books) infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria which were once thought of as defeated are now back with a vengeance - resistant to many of the once effective antibiotics used to control them. A variety of staphylococcus found in Australia is resistant to 31 different antibiotics.
Medical researchers have already found infectious diseases which are resistant to all antibiotics.
For a while doctors were comforted by the knowledge that the antibiotic vancomycin could be used to defeat otherwise resistant organisms. But Japanese researchers have now identified a version of staphylococcus aureus that is resistant to this drug.
I last discussed the two obvious causes of this problem (the use of antibiotics by farmers and the overprescribing of antibiotics by doctors) in VCHL Vol 2 No 10. But there is, as I mentioned then, another reason for this problem: genetic engineering.
It has been found that the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria is associated with something known as 'horizontal gene transfer' - in which genes move from species to species. You will, I suspect, not be surprised to hear that 'horizontal gene transfer' is exactly what genetic engineers do. Genetic engineers have spent years, and much money, finding ways to break down the natural barriers which prevent the transfer of genes from one species to another. Genetic engineering has enabled bacteria to share their acquired ability to resist antibiotics and to grow stronger and stronger.
Even more frightening is the fact that once horizontal gene transfer starts it is speeded up by the use of antibiotics - which encourage the exchange of genes between different species. So, the more we use antibiotics to try and deal with these new and resistant organisms the more resistant organisms there will be. Things aren't helped by the fact that genetic engineers use antibiotic resistant genes to tag and mark the bits and pieces of genetic material they are moving about.
For a while scientists believed that horizontal gene transfer was something that only happened between bacteria. But this isn't true. It is possible for genes to move from virtually any species to any other species. Genetic engineers have made this process faster and more efficient.
Naturally, the men and women in white coats who are convinced that they know best ('Trust us - nothing can go wrong') have been releasing the genetic material into the environment for years. A year or two ago we thought that the dumping of waste chemicals was bad news. But the dumping of genetic mis-shapes and off-cuts will, I believe, create a problem infinitely larger than the dumping of chemical waste or even nuclear waste. Genes, once they start moving and reproducing, can keep spreading, recombining and affecting new species for ever. Once the door has been opened it cannot be shut. And the door has been opened.
'Don't worry!' said the genetic engineers, when this problem was identified. 'Genetic material is easily digested by gut enzymes.'
Sadly, they were wrong about that too.
Genetic material can survive a journey through an intestine and find its way, via the blood stream, into all sorts of body cells. And once inside a new body the genetic material can begin to affect host cells. Cancer is an obvious possible consequence of this. Exactly what are the risks? I'm afraid that your guess is as good as mine. And our guesses are just as good as the guesses made by genetic engineers. They don't have the foggiest idea what will happen. But they know that something terrible could happen. Readers will, I am sure, have realised that this poses a new and startling question: what about the altered genetic material in new types of food? What happens to genetically altered food when it is eaten? Will the altered genes find their way into our own genetic material? Asking the questions is easy. But no one knows the answers for sure. If you eat a genetically engineered vegetable, could the foreign genes in the vegetable end up in your cells?
As part of their research, genetic engineers have deliberately created new viruses that can cause disease. And they are deliberately (and, sometimes, accidentally) releasing new, genetically engineered organisms into the environment without any controls. The organisms they are 'manufacturing' and releasing are, in many cases, themselves deliberately designed to be strong and resistant to disease. It is therefore surely no coincidence that doctors have begun to identify numerous new diseases (such as AIDS and hepatitis C) in recent years. (I pointed out in my book Betrayal of Trust that AIDS almost certainly developed as a result of experiments on animals.) New strains of the rabies virus have recently emerged and new versions of other disease have suddenly been identified.
Genetically engineered foods have already been shown to produce allergy problems - and to be toxic. One major hazard is that plants which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to disease may be more likely to produce allergy problems. A soya bean genetically engineered with a gene from a brazil nut was found to cause allergy problems when eaten by people sensitive to brazil nuts. A strain of yeast, genetically altered in order to ferment more quickly, acquired cancer-inducing qualities. Contaminants in an amino acid produced by a Japanese company led to 1,500 people falling ill and to the deaths of 37 individuals.
And yet, amazingly, the manufacturers of genetically engineered foods do not have to identify foods that have been genetically engineered. No one tests genetically engineered foods to see whether or not they are particularly likely to cause allergy problems. The new food is tested when it is put onto the market. You and I are the unwitting test subjects. Even drug companies have to do some tests before they can launch new products. Food companies seem to be entirely free of controls.
Amazingly, the politicians and administrators who we pay to protect us allowed the manufacturers to get away with the argument that it would be impossible to separate and identify genetically engineered foods! 'Segregation of bulk commodities is not scientifically justified and is economically unrealistic,' said the industries involved in genetic engineering. 'Certainly!' said the politicians and the bureaucrats. 'If you say so.' The US Government announced that it would not tolerate segregation or labelling of genetically engineered crops.
The problems are only just beginning but already they are already frightening. Potatoes and oilseed rape were genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicide. The resistance spread to weeds within a single growing season. And a genetically engineered soil bacterium, believed to be harmless, turned out to slow down the growth of wheat seedlings.
An area of genetic engineering which has attracted a great deal of public interest (and, to a large extent, uncritical media support) has been the growing of animals to provide organ donor material for human patients (known as xenotransplantation). It is not surprising that genetic engineers have been attracted to this area. The market for human organs is worth an estimated $6 billion a year in the US alone.
One of the big problems faced by transplant surgeons has always been the rejection of the donor organ because of an immune reaction produced within the recipient patient's body. In an attempt to overcome this difficulty pigs have been bred with human genes. People who care about animals obviously find this use of animals offensive and morally unacceptable but there are also other questions to be considered.
First, of course, there is the point that the cost of providing transplant programmes is absurdly high. Whether we like it or not there will always be limited amounts of finance available for health care. Is it justifiable to spend so much on this area when many people are dying of diseases which could be prevented or cured for very little money? According to the editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics the entire transplantation programme in wealthy countries adds a minute 0.003% to life expectancy. Second, it is important to recognise that it may be possible to treat these patients without surgery at all. As I showed in VCHL Vol 1 No 4 heart disease can be cured without drugs or surgery. Xenotransplantation may, in the majority of cases, be entirely unnecessary.
Third, and perhaps most important there is the fact that the risks involved with using animal organs may well outweigh any possible advantages. Can pig viruses cross over into human beings? Putting human genetic material into other animals could produce all sorts of horrific problems. We just don't know what will happen and what will develop. What sort of creatures are we trying to breed?
Breeding human-animal hybrid animals is also being used for producing animal milk that contains drugs. The animal being used is given hormones to make her lactate early and then made to lactate permanently. Naturally, all this puts the animal concerned under a great deal of stress. The people breeding animals for this sort of purpose will, of course, claim that their animals are clear of possibly hazardous pathogens and are kept in a disease-free environment. But I get extremely suspicious when a man or woman in a white coat says that something is safe. How can anyone be sure that an animal is free of possibly hazardous pathogens when genetic engineering means that new organisms may be developing? And I simply do not believe that it is possible to keep animals in a disease free environment. To all this must be added the additional problem that engineered genetic material, when taken into the human body, may then move into human cells.
Surely the use of animals in this way is far too dangerous to allow? It is certainly morally and ethically repugnant. Have we as a species really sunk this low in our desperate search for wealth and eternal life?
Genetic engineers do not seem to me to regard 'risk assessment' as something within their responsibility. Hazards to humans, wildlife and the environment are ignored when new 'products' are being engineered. The risks of spreading antibiotic resistance or creating new allergens are not assessed by the genetic engineers. And naturally politicians and bureaucrats, not wanting to annoy this new, wealthy and enormously powerful industry, (or to spend any money themselves) do not allocate any funds to assess risks either. Regulations are weak and kept weak and when there are changes the changes are usually made to accommodate the industry and make the rules weaker still.
THE MORAL ISSUES:
Ethical Dilemmas We Cannot Ignore
A scientist in the US has announced that he intends to start cloning human beings. There is no doubt that unless human cloning is made a criminal (and imprisonable) offence scientists will go ahead. I feel pretty safe in predicting that the first 'clone' baby will be 'born' within a year or two. (If it hasn't secretly happened already.) Will a cloned baby be entitled to marry, have children and vote? Or will cloned babies be produced (as has been suggested) to act as servants and organ donors?
How many human genes does a tomato have to contain before it acquires human rights? When does a pig with human genes stop being a pig and become a human being? When does a human being with organs from pigs stop being a human being and become a pig?
Is it ethical for a large international corporation to patent a seed that has been used for generations by third world farmers? Is it ethical for a company to patent a human cell?
In Argentina a new rabies vaccine was tested on cattle without authorisation. Farm workers, who were not told about the experiment, were later found to be infected with the virus. Was this ethical?
What about the animals produced by genetic engineers? Some are designed to develop specific diseases - such as cancer. Is it moral and ethical to deliberately create a living creature which has an enhanced chance of suffering? Is the creation of a mouse which is more likely to develop cancer something we can be proud of? Genetic experiments on animals have produced many horror stories and much suffering.
International companies are testing genetically engineered drugs and foods on millions of people - without ever testing them for safety. Scores of different genetically engineered crops have already been marketed, sown, harvested and sold. Is it ethical to do this without knowing what the future consequences might be? Is it ethical for parents to have an unborn baby aborted because it has the wrong hair colour or may turn out to be a homosexual? Is it ethical for an insurance company to refuse life or sickness insurance (and therefore the access to money to buy a home) on the basis of a genetic screening test? (Life insurance companies have announced that people applying for life insurance cover will have to report the tests of genetic screening to their insurance companies).
These may sound like stupid questions. But that is exactly the problem: they really aren't stupid questions at all. They are questions which the genetic engineers don't want us to ask because they know that there aren't any answers. Huge international conglomerates are planning to take over every aspect of our lives and neither they nor we know exactly what is going to happen next or what the consequences of their endeavours are going to be.
Our babies, our health, our food are all now being controlled (or going to be controlled) by international companies whose sole raison d'tre is profit. Now there is nothing wrong with profit. But when profit is the only driving force it is usually comforting to know that someone is doing a little regulating. In the world of genetic engineering regulation is no longer effective. The industry has grown big enough and powerful enough to squash all fears with promises of vast profits, cheaper food and reduced expenditure on health care. Survey after survey has shown that consumers don't want genetically altered food - and they particularly don't want it mixing up with natural food (so that they have no choice about whether or not they eat it). But the politicians and the administrators have ignored the views of the public.
Most of the scientists currently working in the world of genetics seem to believe that they have no personal responsibility to investigate, assess or consider moral and ethical issues. Many scientists believe that science can do no wrong and that it is the responsibility of other members of the community to decide what to do with new scientific discoveries. Some research scientists claim that there is a difference between science and technology. This is unrealistic and far too simplistic (although it is undoubtedly an argument which allows some scientists to continue receiving their pay cheques without losing too much sleep). Science cannot be segregated from the rest of society. And individual scientists must take personal responsibility for the work they do.
It is, after all, usually only the scientists who know what is going on in the laboratories. Secrecy (often maintained in the interests of commerce or that catch-all excuse 'security') means that outside observers have to rely upon the honesty of scientists to know exactly what is going on.
(I should point out, perhaps, that not all scientists working in genetic engineering are able to cut themselves off from the moral values of the work they do. In her book Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? Dr Mae-Wan Ho points out that the Chief Executive Officer of a biotech company told her that he didn't feel happy about his company's involvement with biotechnology but that his mortgage had to be paid. He coped, he said, by practising Transcendental Meditation. Most of his colleagues, he reported, were taking Prozac to help them cope.)
On the relatively few occasions when ethical committees have been set up to question and regulate genetic engineering they seem to have worked on the assumption that genetic engineering is both acceptable and necessary and that all that needs assessing is the small print. Fundamental questions about the scientific value of genetic engineering (and the value to the community) are rarely, if ever, asked. No one asks whether we should be messing around with genes. Big moral and ethical questions are ignored and the assumption is that science must go on and cannot be stopped. Decades ago French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said: 'Of course we can split genes. But can we not split genes?' The answer to his question seems to be a clear and resounding 'No'.
Governments don't like to interfere because of the huge profits to be made. Consumers may have made it clear that they don't want genetically engineered products but politicians want companies associated with their countries to be at the forefront of the new technology. Britain and the US are two of the countries which stand to make most out of genetic engineering. Politicians in both countries seem to be steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the existence of any problems or hazards.
Safer, Cheaper And More Effective Solutions Are Available
The genetic engineering approach to the world's problems ('We can fix everything by fiddling with the genes') has already resulted in products which consumers don't want and is now threatening the very safety of the world in which we live.
Politicians have responded to the promises made by genetic engineers in much the same way that so many people respond to the promises made by slimming pill and vitamin manufacturers.
People who want to lose weight are seduced by the prospect of losing weight without having to eat less of the foods they like. And people who want to be healthy are attracted by the thought that they can maintain good health by swallowing vitamin and mineral pills rather than by having to go through the inconvenience of finding, preparing and eating good, wholesome food. It is, perhaps, not surprising that politicians are similarly seduced by genetic engineers' promises that they can solve the world's problems, save government money and produce large, taxable profits too.
By concentrating on the magical 'quick fix' solution politicians have overlooked, and taken money and resources away from, alternative solutions that really would help deal with hunger, malnutrition and avoidable disease.
When politicians and scientists talk about the overpopulation problem they are invariably referring exclusively to the developing countries, the Third World. But this is another nonsense. There is no more overpopulation in the Third World than there is in the developed world. There is, however, a severe shortage of food in the Third World. More than 800 million people are hungry at the moment and over 80 countries (around half of them in Africa) do not grow enough food to sustain their own population. In India 85% of children under the age of five are malnourished.
Oddly enough, the shortage of food in the developing world is matched by an excess of food in the developed world. If the food surpluses were moved from the north to the south of the globe there would be far less obesity (and obesity related disease) in the developed countries and no hunger in the developing world.
Talk about a need for new genetically engineered crops to help combat hunger and starvation is nonsense. Between 30 and 40 of the nations where there is most hunger export food to the US so that people who already eat too much can continue to eat hamburgers. (The food that is exported to the US is used to feed cattle).
Farmers in the developed world and the Third World have already shown that they can dramatically improve their output if they are given a little help in combating drought and other difficult conditions. In Latin America when soil conservation programmes and organic farming methods were introduced yields were tripled or quadrupled within a year. Years of use of agrochemicals and poor land husbandry has led to declining soil quality (and, therefore, declining food quality). But organic farming does work and we can produce the food we need without chemicals. Sustainable, organic, agriculture avoids all the problems created by mechanised farming - and is more profitable too!
And, of course, if grain from developing countries was not used to fatten up cattle so that people in the developed world could eat steaks and hamburgers there would be plenty of food to go round. If more people in Europe and the US became vegetarian, starvation in the developing world would be a memory.
One big cause of malnutrition (and this is particularly true of malnutrition in the developed world) is the replacement of varied crops and varied dietary habits by the mass growing, and consuming, of single crops. When this is done the soil becomes poor and the nutritional quality of the food is low. By the year 2000 the world will have lost 95% of the genetic diversity utilised in agriculture at the start of the twentieth century. In India, in the past, farmers grew 50,000 different varieties of rice. If the genetic engineers have their way there will be just one type of rice available. When there are 50,000 types of rice the chances of a bug wiping out more than a few species is low. But when there is only type of rice the risk of a bug wiping out an entire nation's crop has to be high. Agricultural diversity is in every way better than a single crop culture.
As I pointed out in VCHL Vol 1 No 3 and VCHL Vol 1 No 5, genetically engineered crops of a single type which are grown in vast quantities are extremely prone to disease. Genetic engineering in agriculture creates exactly the right conditions for new, mega destructive pests to develop. When a variety of rice was introduced with resistance to eight common and important diseases it was quickly attacked by two brand new diseases.
To deal with this problem allegedly pest-resistant, genetically engineered crops have to be protected with vast quantities of pesticide. To stop the crops being destroyed by the chemicals genetically engineered crops are usually made to be resistant to herbicides. (Naturally enough the companies making these crops make sure that they put in resistance to their own herbicide. This enables them to sell their herbicide when they sell their seeds.)
One snag to this clever little policy is that the herbicide resistance is passed on to the surrounding weeds. The resulting superweeds then need to be attacked with some even more powerful chemical.
(Because their crops are herbicide resistant farmers automatically spray their crops with herbicide, potentially damaging the farm workers who do the spraying and the consumers who eat the contaminated crop.)
Genetic engineering, when allied to the exclusively materialistic ambitions of the pharmaceutical industry, offers solutions to health problems through the development of an endless list of new (and expensive) 'wonder' drugs. But the development of modern drugs has done very little to help treat illness.
Consider the two biggest killers of our time: cancer and heart disease. Billions of dollars have been spent developing new anti-cancer drugs, and billions are spent on buying these products, but the incidence of cancer is continuing to rise. Similarly, billions of dollars have been spent developing new drugs for the treatment of heart disease, and billions are spent on buying these products, but the death rate from heart disease continues to rise.
As I have shown in my book Betrayal of Trust , the pharmaceutical industry has helped doctors do more harm than good. According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association prescription drugs kill 100,000 Americans every year. This is more deaths than are caused by diabetes or pneumonia. An additional two million Americans in hospital suffer non fatal reactions to drugs. These figures do not include drug incidents resulting from mistaken prescriptions by doctors or the administration of the wrong dosage by nurses. One in six patients in hospital are there because they have been injured by doctors. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that genetically engineered drugs will be any more effective, any safer or any less likely to kill than other pharmaceutical industry products.
The concentration of effort into the production and purchase of yet more drugs is totally misguided. As I have pointed out already in VCHL four out of five cancers can be prevented. And heart disease can be cured (as well as prevented) by adopting the right diet and lifestyle. Unfortunately, there is no profit to be made out of preventing cancer or heart disease. (And no profit for the drug industry out of curing without drugs.)
A Problem That Should Terrify Us All
For years we've been told about the wonders of gene therapy. We've been told that by messing about with genes scientists will be able to eradicate disease and create wonderful new foods.
But there has been far too little discussion about the dangers of gene therapy.
Scientists, pundits and commentators all seem to have accepted gene therapy as a 'good thing'. On the contrary I believe that messing about with genes is one of the greatest threats to mankind.
And now that genetic engineering has been given the green light our future is firmly in the hands of scientists (and to a probably even larger extent their corporate paymasters).
If you have children then I think you should be particularly worried: for the world you bequeath them may not be the world you know.
What worries me is not simply the prospect of a mad gene manipulator producing a human baby with fins, a tail and horns (and don't believe anyone who tells you that that is impossible), but the fact that once we start messing around with genes we can, if things go wrong, change the whole nature of the human race.
What, for example, if someone makes a mistake and slips in a dominant gene that ensures that all white baby boys grow to be eight foot tall? Or what if somehow a gene that causes a rare disease gets mixed up with a gene that causes blue eyes?
What if politicians work hand in hand with genetic scientists and decide that some races should be 'altered' or even 'eradicated' in some way?
What if a group of doctors, politicians and social scientists decide that in future everyone should be six feet tall - and have blue eyes and blonde hair?
(Those of you old enough to remember another Germany may have heard of something like that in the past.)
What if the scientists decide that all women should have the same size breasts? What if it is decided by decree that all children will look the same?
What if the scientists impregnate a female monkey with human sperm in order to create a 'slave' being that can do routine daily tasks? (Scientists may have already done this.)
Genetic scientists claim they will be able to tell you what diseases you'll get as you get older. Even if that claim is true (which I very much doubt) do you really want to know what horrors await you?
Food scientists will breed hens who lay cubic eggs and grow tomato plants that grow cubic tomatoes so that sandwich making becomes easier. Do we need that?
I know the 'experts' will dismiss my fears as nonsensical.
'They' will, of course, insist that nothing can go wrong - and that there will be committees and regulations to make sure that nothing frightening happens. But accidents happen.
Experts said the Titanic was safe.
And remember that one in six hospital beds are occupied by people who have been made ill by doctors. Since those medical errors weren't produced on purpose they must have been a result of medical accidents.
Remember thalidomide? And the scores of other drug related health problems which have hit the headlines during the last few decades?
Time and time again scientists assure us that nothing can go wrong. And time and time again something does go wrong.
The truth is any scientist who claims that a procedure is entirely safe is both unimaginative and intellectually impaired. Only fools believe in fool-proof systems. Science in general does not appear to me to attract the brightest of minds. And it seems to me that research scientists are the least intelligent of scientists. (I wish I could find just one to debate these issues with me in public.)
To the risk of accidental disaster we must add the risk of fraud and corruption. Surprise, surprise, not all scientists are honourable and well meaning. Fraud and dishonesty in science are now commonplace. It was recently estimated that 12% of all research work in America is fraudulent. And there is plenty of evidence that fraud in genetic research is certainly not unknown.
With fraudulent and incompetent scientists playing around with our genes we could all be in big, big trouble - soon.
The idea of mad scientists using genetic experiments to create a master race, or inter-breeding men and gorillas to create stronger workers used to be just science fiction.
Now it is no longer science fiction.
As writer Andrew Tyler put it in a paper in the European Medical Journal: 'The new gene technologies have the capacity to change everything - to alter the actual physical fabric of every species on earth, our own included.'
Or consider leading economist, Robert Beckman. Writing in his book Into the Upwave he said: 'Theoretically, we can take the genetic structure of a rabbit's reproductive capacity and transfer it to a man, giving him the sexual reproductive capacity of the rabbit...'.
Genetic engineering now enables scientists to alter the genetic constitution of any animal or plant.
But is that really what we want?
What You Can Do Now To Help Fight This Threat
The awful future we are creating for ourselves is not the result of any evil mind. There is no single 'bad' guy to be blamed for what is happening.
The decisions and actions which seem bound to destroy the world as we know it are the responsibility of thousands of individual genetic engineers and their corporate colleagues. These people are not driven by a desire to take over the world. They just want to get rich. And although some of them may be intelligent enough to realise the horrors they are unleashing on the world they are too obsessed by greed to stop. I wonder how many excuse what they are doing by arguing 'If I don't do it someone else will'.
And the politicians, and their bureaucratic subordinates, who are allowing all this to happen, are concerned only with their own personal futures. They buckle under when pressurised by the genetic engineering giants because it is the easiest, solution. The US Government spends twenty times as much on genetic engineering as it does on investigating sustainable agriculture and organic farming. The pressure from the genetic engineering corporations is stronger and more effective than the level of protest from the voters and so the politicians take the easy route.
I believe and hope that the level of protest from citizens has been low because most people simply do not yet understand what is going on. And it is my hope that this issue of VCHL will help to change that situation.
We have to do something. And if you and I don't do something I don't know who will.
Genetic engineering is changing the world in a way that no branch of science has ever changed the world before. Chemical pollution, and even nuclear waste pollution, are short term problems compared to the changes which are being made by the genetic engineers. Genetic changes are self perpetuating. The whole process of change builds upon itself and will soon be impossible to restrain. Once a gene from one species has been put into another species it becomes particularly instable. Genetic engineering deliberately encourages horizontal gene transfer (from one species to another). The problem is that once horizontal gene transfer has been started it keeps going. Genetic engineering is not just morally outrageous and scientifically unsound it is also pointless and exceedingly dangerous.
It may already be too late but we have to do something. If we do not try then there will be no future. Citizens in some countries are already making their voices heard. In Austria and Luxembourg the voters have made their voices heard and bans have been brought in. The Swiss are holding a referendum on the subject. But most of the world is still ignoring this problem. Under pressure from the US the European parliament has accepted genetically engineered foods.
What can YOU do?
I believe that the most important thing to do at the moment is to make information about genetic engineering more widely available.
I have seen dozens of books on genetics in the last few years. Most have been unreservedly and wholeheartedly enthusiastic about genetic engineering. Written by geneticists with a vested interest in their branch of 'science' and published by bandwagon jumpers who ought to have at least introduced a note of caution, most of these books have been consigned to my rubbish bin. I did not regard the vast majority of modern books on genetics as worth their place on my bookshelves and I felt it would have been contrary to the public interest to donate them (as is my usual custom) to libraries or charity shops. However, if you want to know more on this subject I can and do recommend one book on genetics. Genetic Engineering - Dream or Nightmare? by Dr Mae-Wan Ho, (subtitled The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business ) is not in my view an easy read for the non-scientist. But it is an important book and an excellent source of information and reference material on genetic engineering and Dr Ho's passion (and compassion) shine through. When I first read the book I found myself concluding that the only way to safeguard mankind might be to identify and isolate all genetic engineers and have them quietly and humanely put to sleep. The book is published in the UK by Gateway Books, The Hollies, Wellow, Bath BA2 8QJ and in the US by Access Publishers Network, 6893 Sullivan Rd, Grawn, MI 49637, US.
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