Genetic engineering is an issue that touches all of us in some way, and be it only because we end up – willingly or not – eating foods that have been produced either by the use of directly engineered plants (think Flavr Savr tomatoes) or indirectly, such as in the case of chicken and beef fed with genetically modified varieties of corn or soy, or food additives containing raw materials produced by genetically modified bacteria.
In contrast with the ubiquity of genetic modification, the ethical and legal questions that the technology brings to the fore are largely treated with silence.
This interview with Phil Bereano published in the Huffington Post touches upon some of the things the proponents of genetic modification would rather not discuss.
There’s a major ethical issue in the very simplistic reductionist model this technology is based on. The central dogma of GE is this image of the genome as a Lego set, where you can take out the green one and put in a red one. In reality, however, the genome is highly fluid and the parts interact. The Lego model is quite wrong, yet it’s used constantly in public discourse, regulatory submissions, and legislative testimony. Biologists know how the genome actually works, but advancement in the profession rules out of play such subjects of discourse because they would challenge the positions taken by industry funders. Scientists who wish to break that boundary, either by scientific experimentation or by public writings, have largely been isolated and marginalized by the wealthy and the powerful within the academic-industrial complex–for example the experiences of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, Dr. Ignacio Chapela, and Dr. Terje Traavik.
It was quite unprecedented when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the patentability of microbial gene products. The Patent Office ran away with the decision and allowed the patentability of plants and mammals as well. The creation of intellectual property monopolies in agricultural germplasm by large transnational corporations certainly presents a set of ethical issues, and works to the disadvantage of smallholder farms and sustainable agriculture. “Sustainability” doesn’t just mean profitability forever. Sustainability has qualitative dimensions, like justice and distributional considerations–otherwise, a totalitarian society could be called sustainable! So we are having this tremendous transfer of knowledge, power, and control from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations.