Genetic Engineering In Food Production

Over the past couple of decades much debate has been going on about the use of
advanced technology in the field of biology. Ever since the first gene was
cloned in 1973, genetic engineers have been pursuing at break-neck speed the
"unlimited possibilities" promised by biotechnology (Davidson 1993).

Their excitement, which has generated billions of investment dollars for the
industry, is understandable. Bioengineering allows scientists to identify
specific gene sequences responsible for particular characteristics and then to
transfer the genes -- and the specific trait -- into entirely different species.

One of the more current and controversial issue in the field of biotechnology is
the use of bioengineering in food production. Scientists are experimenting with
many different plants, but the genetic engineering of the tomato, dubbed "Flavr

Savr" has been the most highly publicized project by far. The new tomato is
supposed to boast more "flavor" and be tastier due to its longer
staying time on the vine, thereby giving it more time to accumulate sweetness;
yet, it will not rot or spoil because of its new genetic makeup. (Davidson

1993). With this advanced technology scientists argue that it could offer the
greatest hope in the aid to stop hunger in Third World countries. This new
technology could be used to make bulk levels of food production more efficient
and less costly. However, despite all of its advantages in creating better
crops, many people are very skeptical about its safetiness and possible
long-term health effects. Moreover, the social issue lies deep in the realm of
ethical and moral concerns. Do people really want to eat meat that is leaner and
tastier but contains genes from humans? Or, would individuals (like vegetarians)
be able to eat certain vegetables that may contain genes from animals?

Personally, I would not support the use of genetic engineering in food
production based on moral and ethical reasons: I do not think that scientists
should be able to use their knowledge and social prestige in society to be able
to play the role of "God" in creating new or better living things even
if their justification is for the purpose of serving mankind. Although we still
have much to learn about genes, recently developed techniques have already given
rise to a new technology of molecular genetics. Genetic engineering, also known
as "gene splicing/manipulation" and "recombinant DNA
technology" is a set of techniques for reconstructing, or deliberately
manipulating, the genetic material of an organism. Operating at the molecular
level, this process involves the addition, deletion, or reorganization of pieces
of an organism's DNA (known as genes) in order to alter that organism's protein
production (Arms et al. 1994). The use and applications of genetic engineering
range from medical and pharmaceutical to industrial crops and food products.
"Its applications, today or in the future, include...creating improved
strains of crops and farm animals (Arms et al. 1994)." All of these
applications rely on the ability to transplant genes into a cell's makeup, or
genome. The new gene may come from another organism, of the same species, or it
may contain DNA produced in the laboratory. One example, the new "Flavr

Savr" tomato, developed by Calgene, a biotechnology company based in Davis,

California, was subjected to years of scrutiny before the FDA (Food and Drug

Administration) agreed that it was safe to eat. They found, copied, and rebuilt
a gene that lets these tomatoes stay on the vine without softening and spoiling.

That means that the fruit can develop more of the sugars and acids that make a
home-grown tomato taste so sweet and rich. Conventional tomatoes sold in the
stores are often hard and flavorless because they are picked while green and
firm enough to transport, then 'ripened' by spraying with ethylene (Wood 1995).

This turns the tomato red but does nothing to develop a riper flavor. Ethylene,
a colorless, odorless gas that once kicks in, so do all the problems of
perishability (Wood 1995). Since tomatoes have a "softening" gene, it
produces RNA (Ribonucleic Acid) to help manufacture a protein that causes
rotting. To stop the tomatoes going soft too soon, the researchers devised a way
to block production of the enzyme polygalacturonase, which breaks down cell
walls and eventually causes the fruit to rot (Miller 1994). The Calgene
scientists inserted a mirror image of the softening gene that produces a reverse
copy of the RNA. This reverse RNA blocks the action of the regular RNA and helps
to preserve the fruit. All in all, Calgene seems to have produced a good but
hardly outstanding tomato using "antisense" technology, given all the
propaganda and advertisements. A couple of the reasons for why the tomato failed
were because: (a) the manipulation of the ripening gene had unintended
consequences (soft skin, weird taste, compositional changes); and (b) the high
price -- they tried selling it at first for $2.99 a pound (as expensive as
organic tomatoes), then later dropped the price to $2.49, then $1.99, then .99.

Furthermore, the general public does not seem persuaded or have caught up with
this "trend" yet. For one, people are greatly concerned about the
safety of the product since the FDA does not insist that genetically engineered
foods carry a special label, even though the FDA assured consumers that they can
be "confident" in knowing that "foods produced by genetic
engineering are as safe as food in our grocery stores today," stated FDA

Commissioner David A. Kessler, MD (Miller 1994). However, critics have cited a
case in which at least 31 people died and 1500 contracted a fatal blood disease
after ingesting a genetically engineered batch of L-trytophan, a dietary
supplement (Davidson 1993). Without proper labeling it will be impossible for
consumers to exercise their right to choose what kind of foods they eat. Another
issue among consumers and environmental activist groups is that of moral and
ethical concerns. Many people feel that scientists might have gone too far in
terms of experimentation. We have now come to the end of the familiar pathway of
leaving everything to the creation of "Mother Nature." With the rise
of advanced technology in genetics, scientists now possess the ability to
manipulate genes, and redirect the course of evolution. They can reassemble old
genes and devise new ones. They can plan, and with computer simulation,
anticipate the future forms and paths of life. Hence, the old ways of evolution
will be dwarfed by the role of purposeful human intelligence. However, just as
nature stumbled upon life billions of years ago and began the process of
evolution, so too would the new creators of life find that living organisms all
have a destiny of their own. To evaluate the validity of the
"benefits" of this technology, we need to answer three simple
questions: Is it safe, is it wise, is it moral? (Sinsheimer 1987). To answer the
first question about whether it is safe, if the technological developments are
kept open to public knowledge and scrutiny, I think in the short term it could
be. This way the general public can monitor the hazards of any new product
introduced into the biosphere, and can probably cope with any immediate problems
or consequences. In answering the second question of whether it is wise, I would
say that it is not. Through decades of research, scientists have learned of the
different pathogens that prey on humans, animals, and major crops. But I believe
that their knowledge is still very limited in trying to understand what led to
these organisms' existence and modes of adaptation. Thus scientists cannot
really predict whether all their new "discoveries" and creations might
somehow lead to a new and unexpected group of harmful species since potential
organisms that could be converted by one or more mutations be transformed from
harmless bugs to serious risks. Finally, to answer the question of the
advantages of genetic engineering in terms of morality and ethics, I can only
say that the more we create, the more problems we will have in the long run in
trying to solve them. Life has evolved on this planet into a delicately balanced
and fragile network of self-sustaining interactions and equilibrium (Sinsheimer

1987). If we try to change or replace the creatures and vegetation of this earth
with human-designed forms to conform to human will, I believe we will forget our
origins and inadvertently collapse the ecological system in which we were found.

Moreover, do we really want to assume the full responsibility for the structure
and make-up of our world? I think that we seriously need to intervene between
the scientists and engineers to consider a solution that will help slow down all
of these experiments so that we could step back and look at what we are doing.

If not, I think that these practicing scientists and researchers should be more
broadly educated in our humanistic values and traditions. They need to
understand the implications of what they are doing in order to be able to
balance the concerns of the natural environment and that of society's humanistic
needs; to bear in mind that technology exists only to serve and not create.

Human beings, are of course, sprung from the same DNA and built of the same
molecules as all other livings things. But if we begin to regard ourselves as
just another group of subjects to test our experiments on by altering or
tampering with the foods we eat, just like another crop to be engineered or
another breed to be perfected, we will surely lose our awe of humanity and
undermine all sense of human dignity.

Bibliography

Arms, Karen et al. (1994). Science in Process: Genetic Engineering. In:

Biology: A Journey Into Life. 3rd ed. Field, Carol, ed. Harcourt Brace

Publishers, New York, 174-175. Davidson, Osha G. (1993). Attack of the Bionic

Tomatoes. Utne Reader, 55: 26- 28. Miller, Susan K. (1994). Genetic First Upsets

Food Lobby. New Scientist, 142: 28. Nash, Madeline J. (1990). A Bumper Crop of

Biotech. Time, 136: 92-94. Sinsheimer, Robert L. (1987). Genetic Engineering:

Life As a Plaything. In: Contemporary Moral Controversies in Technology. 1st ed.

Iannone, Pablo A., ed. Oxford University Press, New York, 128-131. Wood, Marcia.
(1995). Bioengineered Tomatoes Taste Great. Agricultural Research Science, 43:

20.