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Who owns life?Tiki looking at DNA molecule

What about the future?

Genetic engineering is just one powerful tool in the kit of tools which farmers and food producers can use to feed the world. It could also help wipe out some diseases.

The Catholic church — which has over 1 billion followers — has had a change of heart over genetic engineering. They formerly condemned it as "playing God" but in late 2010, Vatican scientists claimed that scientists have both the right and a moral duty to be "stewards of God" by genetically modifying crops to help the world's poor.

But it does need to be very carefully watched and regulated — something the companies don't much like. Wisely and cautiously used, GE has a big role to play. In their scramble for profits, will the big companies bring about the world's end? The GE companies are driven by their need to make big profits for their shareholders. They have been very secretive about what they are doing and, of course, protect everything they do by patenting. If they own the seeds and techniques for making them, they call the shots. It is no coincidence that the makers of herbicide-tolerant crop seeds are also the manufacturers of the herbicides. They cleverly make sure that farmers who buy their seed must also use their brand of herbicide to kill all the weeds. The companies are, first and foremost and like all companies, out to make money, not save the planet or feed the poor. They can help, of course, and some do — but that's not their main aim.

Much GE is now done in universities and institutes and is increasingly open source. This means that farmers — even poor farmers — can get involved in creating new crops by telling scientists what traits (like drought resistance, salt tolerance, the ability to withstand flooding and so on) in crop plants they actually need. The seeds are sold at low cost or even given to farmers who can then save some of them, if they wish, for the next crop. By engineering special traits into food crops, they could be very useful in organic farming. But the organisations that licence organic growers, are strongly opposed to all forms of GE, despite the fact that some GE plant varieties could be very useful in organic growing systems. Some people believe that organic farming needs to get together with genetic engineers and not miss a wonderful opportunity for big advances in, to take just one example, disease-resistant crops.

The future is CRISPR

Everyone's talking about CRISPR. This is the latest thing in GE and is a fast and precise technique which is bringing a revolution in biology and medicine. It is a gene-editing tool based on a bacteria's anti-virus immune system and 'hijacked' by a team of scientists led by Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier back in 2012. This tool includes CRISPR, a protein called Cas9, and hybrid RNA that can be programmed to find, cut, and even replace any gene sequence. CRISPR is easy to use compared to older gene-editing methods, and works for any type of cell. This makes it very powerful and, in the wrong hands, very dangerous. It needs to be carefuly regulated but this could be difficult to organise since it is already being used in several different countries. So keep your eyes on this CRISPR ball!

What does CRISPR mean?
Are you ready? CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. And 'Cas' means CRISPR-associated proteins

People who are against GE think it's unwise to be running GE 'experiments' in the open air on a huge scale. But the experiments have been happening for years in the US, Argentina, Brazil, India, Canada, Australia and China and other countries. Only Europe opted out because of mass protests which began in the 1990s. They didn't wish to be used like guinea pigs for testing new food crops which offered them no obvious benefits. They wanted GM food to be labelled so they could choose whether or not to eat them.

Only time will tell if GE is perfectly safe or whether it is really as dangerous as many of those who are against it believe.

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