Humans have been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years through selective breeding. Since the discovery of DNA, humans have been genetically modifying organisms far more rapidly than selective breeding would. This has lead to breakthroughs such as herbicide-resistant crops, so-called golden rice which is enriched with beta-carotene, and crops that produce pesticides themselves. These genetically modified crops are advantageous for the food supply – they contribute to faster and more efficient crop production and more nutritious food sources for more people around the planet. However, there are risks and certain drawbacks to GMO that have to be understood.
The primary concern with using genetically modified crops on a large scale is gene flow. Essentially, this means GM crops mixing with non-GM crops and introducing unwanted characteristics. For wild plants, this can reduce genetic diversity in a region, which negatively affects the environment. Genetic diversity is required for adaptation – which is crucial in our ever-changing world – and without this, entire populations of plants could be threatened by one pest or disease. This actually happened before, the Irish potato famine in the 1800s was because of a lack of genetic diversity. All potatoes were clones of one parent plant – meaning they had almost no genetic variation, and thus fell susceptible to one disease, to the detriment of the entire country. There is a chance this could have been prevented if the potatoes have greater genetic variation; perhaps some plants would’ve had a natural resistance to the fungus responsible for potato blight.
There is a proposed solution to prevent gene flow between GMO and non-GMO crops – so-called terminator seeds. These seeds grow sterile plants that when mature, produce seeds that are unusable, and thus will not grow another plant. This would prevent gene flow, but itself is an argument against genetic engineering. Using terminator seeds would force farmers to purchase seeds from the supplier year after year to have a crop. This is especially disadvantageous in developing regions where money for farmers may be more scarce. This is an issue with golden rice – it’s engineered to aid developing countries, but may be too expensive if terminator seeds are used. Anti-GMO campaigners claim this ‘enslaves’ farmers and makes them dependant on re-purchasing seeds from big biotech companies. So it seems the solution to prevent gene flow is not such a solution, as just another roadblock on the path to GMO crops becoming widely used.
Finally, a more speculative and ethical argument for genetic engineering. Our technology has become increasingly advanced, with the advent of CRISPR we are able to insert desirable genes and remove undesirable ones. This has lead to an ethical debate on whether this technology would be acceptable for use on humans. Say a lab test is performed on an embryo and the gene for cystic fibrosis is identified. Is it ethically sound to remove that gene, or discard the embryo, or is there some sort of obligation to carry it through? If this is deemed acceptable, would inserting a gene to immunize the child from certain diseases be acceptable? How about giving the child perfect vision too? Or perhaps even immortality. This creates a grey area. A line needs to be drawn somewhere – but where? If editing embryos is ever legal, would full-on designer babies with 20/20 vision, a perfect appearance and great intelligence be a prospect? This paints a concerning picture for a future where babies are created to be the best. Imagine a society where every baby born is a prodigy. Would this be a blessing or a curse? Of course, desired traits would not just be cosmetic. Genetically modifying humans could be a great benefit to our society. Creating a society with digestive systems equipped for high-energy food would eliminate obesity. Giving humans bolstered immune systems could eradicate many serious diseases that haunt us today, like HIV and malaria. Viewing this through a more sci-fi lense, we could equip humans for different conditions on planets, or equip them for long spaceflights. Of course, this is rather far-fetched, as genetic modification is currently in its infancy, but it is interesting nonetheless to speculate on future uses if in the future we deem designer babies to be acceptable.