Genetically modified crops is not a special interest of mine, which is a good thing because once you get into that controversy you are like the worker who gets his sleeve caught in the machine: before long you are dragged into the gears and badly mauled. I’m not reflexively against it. I recognize that what GM advocates have been saying has more than a grain of truth: we’ve been engaged in genetic engineering of crops since agriculture was domesticated. Modern genetic techniques have amplified that ability by orders of magnitude, but the result is the same. We are purposely altering the genetic make-up of an organism to serve human purposes. But of course it isn’t as simple as that. I am broaching the subject, with some trepidation, because now the subject of GM chickens designed to be resistant to avian influenza has entered the argument:
John Lowenthal is praising chickens – in particular the broiler variety which takes just 42 days to grow from egg to maturity. The extraordinary bird, bred to grow big, fast and plump for our dinner tables, could undoubtedly play a significant role in fighting world hunger.
Especially because the Australian scientist and his CSIRO research team at the high security Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Victoria may just have the technology to breed an avian flu-resistant chicken.
It’s early days, he tells his audience at last week’s 10th International Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms in Wellington.
But the proof of concept project signals the cutting edge of genetic modification – gene silencing to create a resistance to viral infection which is then integrated into DNA, so it’s passed on in future generations through normal breeding.
If it works, the avian influenza virus – which in its H5N1 strain has led to 240 reported human deaths in 15 countries – could be stopped in its tracks. (Chris Barton, New Zealand Herald)
These are the first four paragraphs of a pretty long article, so I kept reading to find out exactly how this was to be done. It turns out, however, this article is a puff piece for GM advocates and uses the bird flu example as a typical bait and switch tactic. You want to be protected against avian flu? Then let us march full bore into a GM future, few strings attached. There are 37 more paragraphs and avian flu is not mentioned again, not even once. Instead we get a steady diet of GM advocate talking points, with occasional anti-GM counterpoints (usually with a swift rebuttal quote).
This is by way of saying that while I am not anti-GM (it is used to make useful pharmaceuticals, as the article observes, and the anti-bird flu scenario is a possibility, although apparently still a long way off), I don’t trust most GM advocates. Talk is cheap, but their products aren’t. And they don’t want anybody to interfere. The article complains that New Zealand’s regulations are far too strict:
The legislation – the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act overseen by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) – is seen by many as a defacto [sic] moratorium on genetic modification. Since provisions relating to new organisms took effect in July 1998, just 16 GM contained field tests have been approved. Prior to this 50 GM field tests had been approved by the Minister for the Environment.
I agree this is good evidence that the regulations have slowed (but not stopped) field tests of GM organisms but not that the regs are too strict. If anything, the 50 field tests done prior to regulation seem far too many. The promise of this technology comes from its great power. And its great power is the best reason I can think of to go cautiously.
The problem of commercial chicken monoculture is now a concern for agricultural scientists. It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen if Monsanto or another GM behemoth came up with a single chicken breed resistant to avian influenza. We’d have one chicken breed all over Africa and Asia. Until, that is, that flu or another virus figured out how to get around it. Then we’d have no chickens. Anywhere.
The chances it would turn out that way may be small. We really don’t know. How big a risk do we want to take? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? It’s all about balancing one risk against another, and as the situation changes so does the risk – risk equation. Right now, it’s not even a question. And the bird flu promise is a Trojan horse for too much stuff I don’t trust.