Genetic Engineering – A Short Essay

Here is last weeks college essay, hopefully it interests you enough to look into G.E, GMO, and your food supply. 

Genetic Engineering could be considered by some to originate with selective breeding. For thousands of years humans have selected desirable organisms from livestock or plants and continued to breed them to keep that blood line alive or they cross bred animals or plants to create desirable traits. Examples could be keeping a blood line of heavy milk sheep, rams that produce twins in their bred ewes, or sweetcorn with large and full corn kernels. This however is not really engineering genetics, it is enhancing what COULD happen in nature. Ancient farmers only brought two animals together that might have found each other in the wild or they saved seed from naturally occurring and desirable mutations that proved beneficial to humans.

The practice of genetic selection in American history is probably most known with the Native Americans and corn but it is also known in more recent history with cattle. America, previous to settlement by Europeans, used to be vastly populated by bison. They were the native and largest grazing beast of the day. When Europeans settled in the U.S they brought with them Cows (among other European bloodlines and species). The Bison were nearly hunted and destroyed to extinction for one reason or another [sport, food, and to hurt the Native Americans prime food and material commodity] and cow herds gradually spread across the states from the east. Ranchers practiced genetic selection by breeding particular steers with cows to create a livestock with desired traits. Perhaps a livestock that produced more meat on poorer grazing or that could survive winter and birth strong calves.

Until 1883, the science of animal husbandry and veterinary practice was questionable and basically did not exist. Animal medicine was practiced by self-proclaimed veterinarians that often merely bought a certificate from for-profit style schools. They did not practice in laboratories and were not even required to attend lectures. The ‘science’ of animals was non existent with medical treatments consisting of harsh and to todays standards, inhumane treatments. However, in 1883 the USDA answered the call of farmers to find the cause and treatment of diseases that had the potential to nearly wipe out herds and profits. Thus the advent of veterinary science and medicine in America was born. Agricultural colleges became scientific and dedicated to a legitimate and effective education and research.

Today, in a relatively short 130 or so years, animal science has far surpassed the witch-doctor like torturous medical treatments prior to 1883. Now, science is able to manipulate human and animal DNA to produce living organisms with desired traits. Insects, bacteria, and plants are also subject to  genetic engineering (G.E) but the G.E of animals is something that more people have emotion about. Scientists, for whatever reason, are finding ways to change the DNA of animals to produce or switch off desired or undesired traits respectively. The purpose could be for human medical research or for agricultural needs. The cross breeding of different breeds of cows is not enough today. Scientists and farmers are striving to produce more and more to “feed the world”. Most of us have heard about dairy cows being bred and given hormone to allow them to make far more milk than they ever would in the wild. We see this in relatively cheap milk prices. What we do not often see is the cost to the cows life and the environment that this selection and manipulation of the cows DNA causes. Nor do we see or know what affect these and other such G.E could have on human health in years to come.

The future of G.E [or this could already be happening now] could be the altering of pest DNA so that swarms released into the wild, breed with natural pests and infect the entire population with a desired trait. Could this be a way to mass extinct “undesired” insects? What if the Colorado potato beetle was altered to automatically die upon breeding before eggs can even be laid, over time this would wipe out that bug. GREAT! Some may say, no more chemicals on our potatoes to keep away the Colorado potato beetle. But is wiping out or messing with nature ever a good thing? The reason we have problems with pests is because modern agriculture relies on mass monoculture crops that are a haven for vast plagues of bugs that affect that crop. Why is the answer in modern science and agriculture to get into DNA, change things, and even hurt whole food chains for the sake of humans? Why do humans see it as acceptable to alter nature for our own gain? It is argued that we have the ability to feed everyone on the earth without manipulating nature and that the problem behind malnutrition in developed countries and starvation in developing nations is food distribution and NOT availability. There are many theories as to why governments are supporting G.E, one being control of the masses. That is for another discussion but I have to question why have we come to the point where people think the answer to our food supply is something as complicated, expensive, and possibly devastating to ecosystems as acceptable?

For the sake of a broad view on the subject we should consider some pros and cons of G.E. Pros that are popularly toted in favor of the G.E of animals is disease resistance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our cattle never caught certain disease or illness that are currently treated by antibiotics or the slaughter gun. The problem is, disease and bacteria evolves just as quickly as we prevent it. Eradicating the susceptibility to one disease will not stop new diseases from evolving or becoming the controlling factor of livestock health. Further pros of G.E include: fast growth, higher fertility, greater milk production, larger egg production, and heavier muscle growth on meat animals. Cons, [and in my opinion should be on everyone’s mind and not the embellished and false pros] would include new disease, possible temperament disorders, poor health, and even dangerous changes in the edible products of animals that could be a risk to human health.

The future of G.E is sure to expand whether encouraged by governments or not. The practice is sure to continue with government support or none because private investors will support G.E for monetary gain and even if our governments see sense in the dangers I am sure now G.E is a known science the practice would go “under ground”. I do not see any real benefit in altering nature. There is no change that we can make that wont inevitably cause change elsewhere. If we change nature, nature will fight back or possibly a more devastating effect, she won’t be able to fight back. I foresee that G.E will become more and more popular in my lifetime but by the time my children have grandchildren I hope that this manipulation of nature will be recognized to be a poor management practice. If G.E continues, my fear is that new disease, new viruses, and possibly unhealthy animal products will get into the food chain. The animals that are subject to G.E in the name of agriculture may contaminate wild animals and breeds and these small changes could have a devastating and existential affect on whole food chains. In an attempt to be modern “land stewards” and manage our livestock we could wipe out entire populations.  I don’t think that G.E is even truly useful as a disease management tool because there will always be new strains of disease that beat the odds against them. We are humans, and we are not truly capable of controlling nature. We will either fail in our attempts to do so or we will find ourselves with reduced diversity and great dependence on a small handful of large corporations.

G.E is magnificent and has to be admired for the hard and thorough work of scientists…but that does not make it a positive discovery.

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