Genetic engineering promises us a healthy, hunger-free world, but a new book on the subject questions whose interests are really being served. Sue Wilson investigates.
‘Trying to get to grips with genetic engineering is not a matter of understanding the methods ofgene splicing and gene manipulation. but ofasking the right questions.‘ The emphasis on asking rather than answering questions is one of the things which makes Pat Spallone‘s Generation Games: Genetic Engineering and the Future For Our Lives such an unusual science book. Having worked for some years as a biochemist. Spallone understands the technicalities better than most. but apart from a few easy-to-follow explanations of rudimentary principles and procedures. the book focuses on the political. social. ethical and ecological implications of the new genetics: its author is less interested in what genetic engineering can do. than in why it wants to do it in the first place.
The proponents ofgenetic engineering make it sound like the key to a new Utopia. proclaiming joyfully that the ability to manipulate the genetic structure of
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plants, animals and micro-organisms. thereby altering their natural functions. will give humankind almost unlimited power over nature — power to feed the (brave new) world, eradicate disease and solve the environmental crisis.
As Generation Games makes abundantly clear, such claims present massive practical and philosophical difficulties. With its ‘technological fix’ approach. genetic engineering does nothing to tackle the root causes of most problems it purports to solve. For example. as everyone knows. world hunger is caused not by under-production but unequal distribution, yet the myth of food scarcity is still used by genetic scientists to justify the resources poured into creating genetically engineered high-yield varieties of crops and livestock.
A moratorium on all releases of genetically engineered material should be imposed until a much greater understanding of genetic and ecological interaction is reached.
Spallone's central argument is that current genetic engineering research is closely tied to the interests of Western governments and their industrial allies. whose ideas of social development are anything but progressive. She presents an impressive volume ofevidence. much of it demonstrating how genetic engineering slots neatly into a self-perpetuating (and highly profitable) cycle. Cattle growth hormones. for example. increase milk yield in highly-bred. concentrate-fed cows but lower
resistance to disease. necessitating higher input ofdrugs (to say nothing of the health risks from hormone-treated milk). High-yielding crop varieties. trumpeted as a solution to Third World famine. often require intensive use of pesticides and heavy irrigation. thus helping to perpetuate developing countries‘ dependence on the industrialised world. The whole business becomes all the more suspect when you realise that it can be the same transnational company
supplying the hormones. the cattle-feed. the drugs. the seeds. the pesticides and the irrigation machinery.
Equally disturbing is the gung-ho. ‘l‘rontier science' approach of many geneticists to risk assessment. particularly with regard to the release ofgenetically engineered organisms into the natural environment. The potential dangers ofthis are literally incaleulable— : CONTINUED ON FOLLOWING PAGE
The List 14 — 27 February :65: 63