The real cost of genetic engineering is, as a matter of fact, given by the cost of the LOSS of it. Those who oppose genetic engineering often mention the novelty of this science and our imperfect knowledge of genetics to claim that we may be bringing doom upon ourselves by manipulating the genomes in order to artificially improve our crops and they cry outrage upon the possible ethical implications of this branch of science when applied to human health.
However, let us explore the alternative. What would happen if we did NOT have this technology?
Human population is sky-rocketing, which means that our need for food is growing exponentially. However, the land fit for agriculture is unlikely to increase, as a matter of fact, it decreases as human settlements encroach upon what once was farmland. Therefore, it is essential to produce as much food as possible per unit of cultivable land.
Pests and disease can wipe out entire fields, and the constant growing of crops depletes the soil nutrients. Up until the development of genetically engineered crops, we could only spray our crops with pesticides and apply fertilizers to achieve maximum productivity. Now, biotechnology has found a way to reduce our dependence on these chemicals.
As a relevant side-note here, while some genetically modified crops are -suspected- to be harmful, even though it has never been proven satisfactorily, pesticides are -known- to be harmful. Furthermore, fertilizers leach out into rivers and lakes causing problems like algal blooms that have profound effects in the local ecosystems.
Of course, organic foods are now heralded as “the safest way to eat”. However, most organic foods are still contaminated (it takes more work than just planting your vegetables and not using pesticides to ensure that they are free from pollutants) and they are not cost-effective. Would it be worth-while to cause world-wide hunger in the name of “safe food”, when it has not been proven that the genetically modified alternative is unsafe?
Furthermore, while it is not yet within our reach, genetic engineering brings about the possibility of healing and preventing genetic disease. There are certainly ethical implications on this field; after all we may someday be able to genetically modify all genes so that “perfect” babies are born. However, that is not only extremely unlikely to happen within our lifetime. It is extremely unlikely to happen at all.
Often genes are compared to a “blue print”. They code for everything that our body produces on its own. However, a more realistic analogy would be “A compilation of blue-prints in many different languages and using many different conventions, each which codes for an essential piece that interacts with others to give the final machinery of the human being”.
There are thousands of genes in our genome and almost all of them interact with others to give the traits that we see. While we may sometime soon be able to alter a single gene to prevent disease, whole-genome alterations would take a level of technology and understanding of the genome that is nowhere near sight.
So, much like my previous example about world hunger, would it be worth-while to give up the possibility to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s, leukemia or cancer in the name of ethical considerations of the RAMIFICATIONS of that technology>
So you ask about the REAL cost of genetic engineering, but I ask you; What would be the cost if we lost that technology?
In this writer’s opinion, disease and world hunger.