Would you be excited about a swiftly growing salmon that yields the same amount of flesh as a normal fish in half the time, yielding more product for less input and saving time, energy, and money? Great news: such fish already exist! But the producer, AquaBounty, faces major opposition in bringing them to market because they carry the dreaded label of “genetically modified.” (Their speedy development is thanks to the introduction of an extra gene for a growth hormone.)
Opponents have two main objections: the dangers of consuming engineered meat (shown to be minimal) and the potential environmental impact if the animals were released to the wild (a much more open question). The FDA is considering both of these concerns and will soon make a decision about the fish, which would be the first genetically engineered animal approved by the organization. You can read more about it at the LA Times, NY Times, and CNN.
I don’t want to argue for or against the fish, or the numerous genetically modified crops currently in use (canola, golden rice, corn, soy, and many more). I do, however, think it’s interesting that this issue engenders such passionate debate, because in many ways it’s an extension of something people have been doing for thousands of years: domesticating crops and animals for human purposes.
It’s this domestication and selective breeding that produced most of the varietals hawked at farmers markets – multicolored heirloom tomatoes, the variety of peaches with unique character and flavor, oranges from navel to blood to valencia. These descendants of many years of careful breeding are no more “natural” than a product that achieves its genetic endpoint through direct DNA manipulation, i.e. genetic engineering.
Modern genetic engineering does differ from traditional breeding in one important way: engineers can move genes between species, for example introducing bacterial genes into crops to provide pesticide resistance. Perhaps this interspecies gene movement does make genetic engineering inherently more dangerous than breeding, although this seems like an overly simplified perspective. Regardless, the history of bending the natural world to our needs calls for a more nuanced view of genetic engineering – after all, it’s been a human endeavor for almost as long there have been humans.
The discussion needs to move beyond the naïve prejudice that many people maintain against genetic engineering by recognizing that, for all practical purposes, essentially every modern crop is “genetically modified.” When we see things along a spectrum, rather than black (genetic engineering) and white (selective breeding), we can evaluate more appropriately the benefits and dangers of each new product. After all, we do have a whole world to feed, and it’s certainly not getting any smaller.