Genetic Engineering

So this is a bit of a change for my blog however this is something I have been thinking a lot about lately and so I decided I would but a quick blog post together on it and see what people thought.

I used to think the genetic engineering (GE) was a good thing.  I have read a few books lately, not explicitly denouncing GE but they got me thinking.  I conducted a thought experiment of kind, the results are below.

  1. In our society money is very closely related to power.  The political system has become ever more dependent on expensive campaigns.  Recently in the US the courts have just decreed that unlimited donations may be made anonymously.  This is clearly only a small part of the money power connection but it was one that I thought was particularly powerful.
  2. GE is developed by companies to make money.  Those companies exist within a competitive system where successful companies survive and unsuccessful ones do not.
  3. GE companies do not make the food more nutritious, it is designed to increase yield or reduce costs.  This is a fact, the majority of GE foods are designed to have natural resistance to a certain predators or be able to tolerate certain fertilisers that they are not able to in their original form.
  4. GE companies make more money the more widespread the problem that their product solves is.  If you develop wheat that is resistant to all bugs you are going to make a lot more money than if you make wheat that is resistant to a fungus that only exists in a small area of japan.
  5. It is clear looking at corporate history that the law and the greater good is no boundary.   In the competitive system it seems to be an inevitability that a company will ignore both laws and societal good in order to try and get ahead.  I am thinking of Enron and sub prime loans in the current GFC as examples but there are countless others.  Logically there are more examples that are not discovered.
  6. So we have GE companies working in a competitive market that make more money when problems are more pervasive.  The more diseases and problems there are with the human food system the more opportunity there is for them.
  7. Imagine a company that comes up with solution to the fungus problem in the small area of Japan.  Their income from this is limited.
  8. Imagine that the fungus then spreads to another area, say in England that has a similar climate.  Their income increases.
  9. Imagine two companies, both of whom have come up with a solution to separate fungal problem that exists in a small areas of the world.  Both companies discover that there are other areas of the world where the fungus could be introduced.  One decides to release the fungus in that other area and the other doesn’t.  The one that is prepared to act immorally will make more money and out perform its competitor.  The better performing company will dominate the market and eventually either push the more moral company out of the market or take it over (an over simplification but roughly correct).  Inevitably some companies will be caught but the damage will be done and it is possible that nobody will find out.
  10. Now imagine that the company finds out, say accidentally at first, that with a small genetic tweak the fungus will spread rapidly to many other areas.  It is still easily controlled by their GE technology.  Now the more successful company will be the one that is prepared to introduce this new fungus into the wild.  It could even be disguised as an accident which would take huge amounts of time and money to prove to be a lie.
  11. Now the GE companies will be dominated by even more ruthless practices.
  12. GE companies are now solving problems that they themselves are producing.
  13. After enough small steps of increased genetic manipulation it is possible that entirely new diseases will be introduced into the world followed shortly by the GE variety of wheat that can combat it.  The companies that are willing to do this will become rich and powerful.
  14. Imagine the success of a company that could produce genetically manipulated virus that would fight AIDS.
  15. A similar argument applies here.  Eventually, through many small steps it is possible that a company may release into the community a disease that can be deadly to humans that they have the GE solution for.  The power that that company would wield would be immense.
  16. There is a possible future where GE companies wield more power than governments because they control life and death through diseases they invented and it can be reached through thousands of small steps that in a competitive system lead to success.

This is a particularly scary idea of the future.  It is by no means a certainty.  However for it to be avoided the GE system has to be completely transparent, accountable and highly regulated by an incorruptible body.  If these companies are allowed to operate in secret the above scenario becomes vastly more likely to occur.  The political system (which is ultimately the regulator of such companies through its agents) needs to be transparent also and unable to take large, anonymous donations.  If GE companies are allowed to lobby government in secret and hold power over those making decisions it becomes easy for laws to become weaker and less likely to stop the above events.

If you think that all this is completely absurd, that no scientist would ever deliberately produce a product that could kill humans below is a link from a recent story where a group had to be stopped from publishing the details of how they made bird flu (which has a mortality rate of 50%) more infectious. I am surprised this did not get more coverage, it scared the shit out of me.

Killer flu story



About jeromepink

I am slightly taller than average, have brown hair, enjoy rock climbing, and got told I would be dead within 5 years in 2010. I have chosen to disregard this :P
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3 Responses to Genetic Engineering

  1. sam says:

    That is an interesting thought. We are constantly creating things that can be used for harm, from a nuke to a hammer to the bird flu #2, and we constantly have the choice to use it in a harmful way or not. I imagine also that, like the hammer, understanding bird flu #2 has some positive aspects that the researchers can build on.

    After that first decision process, if someone chooses to use it for harm, which is likely if money is involved, regulators and governments come in to play to try and prevent or stop the harm, for which transparency is critical.

    Regardless though, I quite enjoy learning new things, and the research into bird flu probably started out being something that I would have encouraged as a research project.

  2. Jason says:

    Opps, I hadn’t updated my contact details from last time Sam was over.

  3. The world is certainly a complex place and it’s a worry how much we don’t know about what goes on. I don’t know whether to say thanks or not for your scenario!

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