Genetic engineering is the rearranging of genes, often from one species to another. Many types of genetic engineering exist in our culture today, but one of the most obvious examples is that of food crops and farm animals. Millions of acres of genetically engineered crops of corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola have been planted in the United States within the last decade. Since over sixty percent of processed foods contain one or more of these products, genetically engineered crops take a large role in the American diet. Farm animals such as sheep, pigs, and cattle are also being genetically engineered, both for food and for medical experiments.
Genetic engineers have focused on three main plant characteristics. First of all, they have attempted to make crops tolerant to herbicides so that farmers can use weed killers without worrying about damage done to their crops. Unfortunately, this means that more chemicals are being used on food crops than ever before. Secondly, crops have been engineered to produce a bacterial pesticide that will kill insects. However, insects eventually develop resistance to the toxin, which makes the pesticide ineffectual. Also, the pesticide kills the good insects, such as bees and ladybirds, not just the bad insects. Last of all, plants have been engineered to resist viruses. Though this helps farmers to raise more, healthier crops, new viruses develop every day, and therefore this form of genetic engineering is not very helpful either.
Scientists have also started experimenting with the genetic engineering of animals. Animals such as cows and pigs have been engineered to produce more nutritional, leaner meat; however, this has not worked very well. Pigs given a human growth hormone in hopes that they would produce leaner meat had extremely distorted metabolisms and deformed organs. Salmon given a growth hormone gene did not only grow too large too quickly, but also turned green. These unpredictable side effects are known as pleiotropic effects. A point of great controversy is the idea of xenotransplantation. This is where animal organs, namely those of pigs, are used in humans who are in need of a new organ. Many people don’t believe that it is right to use an animal organ in a human body, and others believe that it is wrong to raise pigs for this purpose. There are many technical problems as well; multiple gene changes need to be made to the pigs so that the human body won’t reject the organ. There is also the risk that a pig retrovirus could be transferred to the organ receiver and then spread into the wider human population. Though there are many problems with genetic engineering, there are some good points to it. We are now able to add genes that produce certain proteins, such as pharmaceuticals, to the milk of goats, sheep, and cattle. A gene that has been added to sheep’s milk causes the production of a protein that treats certain lung diseases. Geneticists are also researching the possibility of producing pharmaceuticals in the eggs of poultry. This is a good way to use genetic engineering, since the animals aren’t harmed in any way and the human medical need being dealt with is great.
There are many ethical issues that must be dealt with when discussing the genetic engineering of plants and animals. God created nature the way He did for a reason; in our attempt to change things, we are stopping His creation from working the way it was made. In some cases, such as adding pharmaceuticals to sheep’s milk, it is very ethical to practice genetic engineering. However, in many other cases, there is risk of medical issues and harm to the environment. It is important to consider these issues when deciding whether genetic engineering is right or not.