Genetic engineering is the process which allows scientists to alter the structure of genes in a living organism. Through the use of deliberate modifications that occur because of a direct manipulation of DNA, it becomes possible to create changes in life forms to benefit each species and any others that may interact with them in some way. It becomes possible to subtract unwanted traits while adding new ones that can help the organism in question become “better” than it was before.
We often look at the science of genetic engineering through the lens of human potential or food access. It is essential to remember that the tools offered through this process can benefit almost every aspect of life in some way.
One of the first ways that we began to benefit from this approach was to use bacterial cells in a way where they could begin producing human insulin. Before genetic engineering made this treatment possible, diabetic patients were being treated with pig insulin. Not only did this reduce the number of adverse reactions to the treatments offered because of the immune system responses involved, but it also made it possible to treat more people while reducing the burdens placed on the animals.
The technology of genetic engineering has the potential to save millions of lives. It also has the potential to cause significant harm. That is why a careful evaluation of these pros and cons is essential as we begin to move forward in this field.
List of the Pros of Genetic Engineering
1. It can improve the nutrition, taste, and growth rate of crops.
Crops like tomatoes, soy beans, rice, and potatoes are currently going through the genetic engineering process as a way to obtain additional strains that provide better nutritional qualities and increase yields. This process would also make it possible for the items to grow on lands which are not presently suitable for cultivation. By shifting the genetic structure of these crops, it becomes possible to engineer the foods in ways that help them to taste better and become better for us.
One important example of this advantage is called “golden rice.” This crop produces higher levels of a Vitamin A precursor as it is growing. By providing this product to regions of the world where populations are not getting enough of this nutrient, we can help people lead happier, fuller lives. A lack of this vitamin can eventually lead to blindness.
2. It can lead to crops which have natural pest resistance.
The genetic engineering process makes it possible to create crops that are resistant to pests even when they are in seed form. An example of this advantage involves the plant gene At-DBF2. When engineers insert this gene into tobacco or tomato cells, the plants can begin to increase their endurance levels to handle harsh climatic conditions and poor soil nutrition. This process can even be used to reduce the levels of food spoilage which occur because the food products last longer on store shelves.
3. It can help use to begin producing new foods.
Genetic engineering gives us the opportunity to begin producing new substances that can enter the human food chain. We can add nutrients, proteins, and other items that populations need when food insecurity exists to encourage a better overall level of health for each individual. We can even use this process to introduce medications to specific populations who may need them, creating the possibility of an edible vaccine.
4. It is a process that could improve human health at the cellular level.
Genetic engineering offers us the opportunity to improve human health because we can correct the sequences and chromosomes which lead to serious health conditions for some individuals. This technology gives us the option to modify genotypes before someone is born as a way to manipulate specific traits in that future human potentiality. It could correct birth defects, eliminate genetic disease before it starts, or become the foundation of treatments to help those who already have a correctible condition.
5. It can boost the positive traits in every life form.
The goal of genetic engineering is to create a better world by boosting the positive traits that every life form has at the cellular level. We would keep these enhanced changes while reducing or eliminating the ones which contribute to our weaknesses as a species. Although the treatment process would certainly address genetic disease first, we could also use this process to reduce cancer risks, prolong life, and provide cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
6. It can be used to help current food resources to begin producing more of them.
When we use genetic engineering on existing food resources, then it becomes possible to increase the amount of production that is available in each sector. Dairy cows can be engineered at the genetic level to produce more milk that farmers would collect each day. Sheep can be altered so that they produce more wool and can need sheering more often. This process makes it possible for us to create more resources from what we already have, making it possible to feed a growing population.
7. It would help to improve the quality of the soil.
One of the ways that agricultural industries have promoted higher levels of food access is through the use of artificial fertilizers in cropland soil. Adding nitrates and other nutrients makes it possible to grow items in places where it would normally be unsuitable. When too many of these items get into the soil, the salts wash through into local water supplies. By creating crops that naturally resist pasts and weeds, we can improve the groundwater tables because each item grown is genetically engineered to adapt to the conditions that are present.
8. It follows the same processes we already use to create new resources.
Have you ever taken the pollen from one flower and given it to another? This process can help you to create a hybrid plant – a new form of life. Although you aren’t splicing cells together in this creation process, you are still creating changes in an artificial way because you are the cause of the cross-pollination. Genetic engineering takes this principle to the next level. By identifying specific traits and seeking them out in others, it becomes possible to create specific results that benefit society in numerous ways.
9. It would reduce the cost of food for the average household.
Genetic engineering gives us an opportunity to increase the amount of food that is available to communities around the world. It also gives us a chance to create products that have a longer shelf life to reduce waste in the agricultural industry. This combination of factors influences the law of supply and demand. When there is more available, then the prices for each item cost less. That means countries where 10% or more of discretionary income is spent on grocery purchases could begin to funnel resources toward different needs.
10. It would ensure that our food supply remains accessible.
When the state of Texas endured one of its most significant droughts beginning in 2010, the agricultural losses were staggering. Ranchers and farmers were losing up to $5 billion per year because there wasn’t enough rainfall occurring. Global warming is a trend that is happening, no matter what we may think is causing it. The science of genetic engineering makes it possible to develop food resources that can counter these changing conditions without requiring a significant alteration in lifestyle or working habits.
11. It gives us access to additional products that are useful.
When we have crops that produce higher yields, then it becomes possible to create additional products that fall outside of the human food chain. When there is an excess of corn or sugarcane available in the market, then these items can be used to create fuels like ethanol. We can grow enough food to produce feed for livestock that support our modern nutritional food profile. Because we have access to more, it allows us to create innovative items that can help the world in a variety of ways.
12. It allows patients to be treated with their own cells.
Although medical science is progressing by leaps and bounds, we are still running into one critical issue. When someone receives a transplant, then the body’s natural immune system can decide to reject the item as a foreign invader. Any treatment process that involves a difference in genetic material creates this possibility. We currently treat individuals in the situation with immunosuppressants as a way to help them regain their lives. By taking a genetic engineering approach, we would be able to create outcomes for patients by using their own cells, thereby reducing the risk of rejection.
Although immunosuppressants are effective at what they do, this medication can also put people at a higher risk for certain illnesses and infections. Reducing the need for this treatment option could help to restore health while also reducing the overall cost of treatment over the lifetime of the individual.
13. It can be used to improve our current pharmaceuticals.
We can also use genetic engineering processes as a way to improve the drugs which are currently available to patients right now. The science behind this approach could help make these pharmaceutical options become safer and more effective. We are already seeing the benefits with this tool in human growth hormone treatments. When this technology applies to the thousands of potential drugs that people use daily, it becomes possible to treat health issues with fewer resources. That could eventually reduce the cost of care for everyone.
14. It can increase the number of croplands we have available.
There are two potential ways to benefit from this advantage of genetic engineering. The first advantage is an ability to produce more food on less land. Farmers could create a similar yield using fewer resources, allowing them to plant a variety of crops that can diversify their product line for the season. It could also be useful in allowing certain areas to remain fallow for a season to help with natural soil restoration.
The second advantage is that when seeds are specifically engineered to work in a unique environment, we can start using spaces that would normally not be considered an arable region.
List of the Cons of Genetic Engineering
1. It can create less nutritional value in some foods.
When we create products through genetic engineering that make it possible to bring new products to the market faster than before, then there is an excellent chance that the item in question will have a lower nutritional value instead of a better one. When we develop products that grow big fast, it takes more food to create the same nutritional response. Broilers from the chicken industry are an excellent example of this disadvantage. Their time to market has reduced by 30 days in the last 100 years, but this benefit has come at the expense of higher fat content in the food.
2. It creates the potential for problematic pathogens.
With the introduction of antibiotics, and we have seen how quickly bacteria can adapt to changing circumstances. Viruses adapt just as quickly. When we create changes to the genetic structure of life, then we are encouraging an evolution in the pathogens that surround us every day. When these agents are unable to get through the natural repellents which engineers create for each life form, they can work on becoming stronger and more resistant to the changes made, creating new issues for plants and animals which are not benefiting from the genetic engineering process.
3. It creates the potential for unwanted side effects.
Penn State University suggests that when genetic engineers try to tackle one problem with plant or animal cellular structure, it creates an opportunity for additional side effects to occur which may be unanticipated or unwanted. It may become possible to modify an organism so that it requires less water for survival. This outcome occurs at the expense of creating a life form that is now intolerant to direct sunlight. Even though our predictive qualities in this field are increasing, we still do not know what happens when we artificially advance the evolution of life.
4. It would create an unfavorable level of diversity.
Have you heard that diversity is what gives us strength? This observation is generally true because having differences in our genetic structures reduces the chances of an unwanted mutation occurring. This positive outlook occurs naturally through the evolutionary process. When we make changes to a species that gets out into the wild, then we can have a negative impact on those which are not modified. It is a process which eventually decreases diversity because the strength of the “artificial” species would overwhelm the other.
5. It could create unpredictable outcomes.
Creating crops and food supplies which are genetically tailored to grow in specific geographical areas makes it possible to do more with fewer resources. It also creates a potential problem for agricultural workers if the environmental conditions change in the future. France is experiencing this issue with its vineyards right now because weather pattern changes are bringing frost and cold not seen since 1945. It caused harvests in the Bordeaux region to shrink by 40% in a single year – and that was for non-genetically engineered products. If the grapes were created specifically for that region’s regular conditions, then this outcome would have been even worse.
6. It might make it possible for companies to copyright our food.
Because genetic engineering is an artificial process, our current copyright laws make it possible for these organizations to obtain a patent on the structures they create. This format is in place as a way to help organizations recoup their research and development losses through future profits. When this issue applies to food supplies, then it creates a world where we must go through specific businesses to obtain what we need for basic survival unless there are alternative resources to use. A company could refuse to let anyone use their product as well, theoretically cutting off an entire industry at its knees to advance its own agenda.
7. It can put agricultural workers at risk for financial harm.
The reality of genetic engineering is already here. Over 53% of the global commercial seed market is already controlled by only three companies: DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Monsanto has already sued dozens of small farmers who are growing the seeds that they genetically modified without permission, earning verdicts totaling $23 million. In some cases, the seeds came from an authorized farmer and blew into neighboring fields because of regular growing conditions. In total, over 140 patent infringement lawsuits against 410 farmers have already been filed in at least 27 states.
8. It can reduce the amount of diversity in our food supply.
Although the purpose of genetic engineering is to improve diversity in positive ways, the outcome can be far different when a quest for profit is involved. Genetically engineered commodity crops, under the influences of patent protection, have become overwhelmingly dominant in our food supply already in the United States. 93% of soybeans and 86% of corn fall into this category.
9. It could be used for abusive purposes.
We currently look at the process of genetic engineering as a way to save people from the various maladies that can affect them through no fault of their own. Using corrective tools to repair a chromosome issue in a fetus increases the potential of that human life. The issue is that the same tools can target specific sequences that could change the way a child looks, such as their hair or eye color. It may be possible to alter the intelligence of an individual through this process as well. By creating an outcome where “designer babies” are a real possibility, this scientific process could create new socioeconomic classes in our global society that would be challenging to address.
10. It could interact negatively with other species.
Genetic engineering could create a series of unknown hybrids through the natural cross-pollination process that would provide unpredictable results for society. Our efforts to create food products might result in crops that we can no longer consume. Creating medicines in plants could cause bacteria and viruses to become more resistant to them when doctors try to treat an infection in a patient. The resilience effect is never permanent. We must either continue investing in scientific resources to stay one step ahead of nature when using this process or we will experience a significant disadvantage in future generations where our efforts to solve food scarcity actually create more problems with it.
11. It could create new diseases.
When we treat genetic conditions, then there is always the possibility that an outcome does not occur. Many of the modern approaches in this field have created temporary benefits at best. Then there is the issue of new disease development which may occur. Influenza is notorious for its ability to change how it infects people. Our efforts to reduce disease may end up causing more of them to develop.
These genetic engineering pros and cons show us a world where we can potentially create more food resources while reducing our risks of suffering from many of today’s worst diseases. The benefits of this work are not without potential risk. We could change the world in unpredictable ways with this science, and we might create outcomes which might make it challenging (if not impossible) for life to continue existing on our planet. That is why we must take each point under consideration before pursuing this process in its entirety.
Crystal Ayres has served as our editor-in-chief for the last five years. She is a proud veteran, wife and mother. The goal of ConnectUs is to publish compelling content that addresses some of the biggest issues the world faces. If you would like to reach out to contact Crystal, then go here to send her a message.