In his defence, Mike had just finished reading a particularly dystopian sci-fi novel on the topic, but I had to admit that I didn’t really know much about genetically modified (GM) animals. So it came as quite a shock when I found out that millions of the critters are produced worldwide every year and that they come with some rather troubling potential implications, environmental and otherwise.
GM animals are creatures whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated by scientists, by disabling, removing or adding bits of DNA, in order to give them new characteristics. This is different from cloning, which involves creating an identical copy of adult animals from their genetic material.
The reason why you and I haven’t heard much about GM animals is that until now they’ve been largely confined to laboratory environments. It’s also a lot trickier to successfully fiddle with the genetic make-up of animals than it is to modify plants. In recent years, however, technological advances have started to make the process easier, cheaper and more precise, opening the door to a rapidly growing range of possibilities in the field.
Mice and rats have been the most popular species to attract the attention of genetic engineers. Millions are used in laboratory experiments every year. Some are designed to run twice as far as normal mice or not to be afraid of cats. Others are genetically modified to model human diseases, to test the toxicity of chemicals or the efficacy of new drugs.
Manufacturing GM lab rodents is already a multi-million dollar industry and the potential for profitable commercial applications is driving a lot of the research. In the future, GM pigs may be used to grow entire organs - livers, kidneys, hearts, pancreas - for xenotransplantation into humans. Pharmaceutical companies are turning GM animals into medicine factories. Goats, cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and pigs have been engineered to produce various medically valuable proteins and hormones in their milk, blood, eggs, urine and sperm.
Think goats that generate anti blood clotting drugs and chickens that lay eggs enriched in cancer-fighting proteins. Most of these have yet to be approved for commercial use and with the exception of some ornamental aquarium fish species made fluorescent by inserting jellyfish genes into their DNA, none have made it past the laboratory door.
From an environmental perspective, one of the biggest concerns lies in what some expect to be the widespread use of GM animals in future agriculture and food production. GM pigs with flesh enriched in omega 3 fatty acids; GM cattle resistant to udder infection and mad cow disease; GM sheep that produce more wool; fast growing GM salmon, carp, catfish and tilapia – the possibilities are endless.
But what happens if these manufactured species interbreed with normal and wild animals? What about the ethical and animal welfare considerations? And who will own the patents to these proprietary GM species and through them control a large chunk of our food supply?
GM animal advocates say it’s nothing more than a modern, scientific progression of what humans have been doing for millennia: domesticating, breeding and improving animals. But surely there is a qualitative difference between getting your best bull to mate with your neighbour’s healthiest cow and splicing human genes into a pig!
It’s a complicated debate, I know. After all, it’s genetically altered bacteria that manufacture the insulin which keeps the world’s diabetics on their feet. It just seems to me that we’ve reached a stage in our capacity to modify large life forms that warrants an honest, public discussion between the scientists and companies behind the research and us, the future consumers of their creations. I for one don’t want to live on The Island of Doctor Moreau.
- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.
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