Jim Caryl answered on 24 Jun 2011:
It depends what you mean by genetic modification. You see, I genetically modify organisms all the time, all bacteria of course. It is a routine way of finding out what a particular gene actually does. We might do what’s called ‘knocking out’ or ‘knocking down’ of a gene, where we try to see what the end result is after this – does the bacteria behaviour (or look) any differently under the conditions we want to look at it.
The main one that I do is to add a gene, usually one that encodes for resistance to a particular antibiotic drug, with the aim being to see what the fitness cost of that gene is, i.e. does having a gene that is useful to avoid being killed by this drug make normal life more difficult (when there is no drug to defend against).
So genetic modification is a common and everyday aspect of research in the biological sciences.
However, what I think you might be thinking about the creation of genetically modified organisms for release into the environment, such as GM crops (genetically modified plants); this is slightly different and is a big area of dispute. GM plants in the USA are present in a lot of foods, but in Europe they are mostly banned.
I actually find it a little strange that we are so scared of them. My main objection would be that some huge companies create food crops that are resistant to a particular herbicide (a chemical that kills plants), so that when farmers plant that crop, they can spray everywhere with the herbicide, and only the crop will survive (because it is genetically modified). However, the company selling the plant seed is also one making the herbicide, so it ties the farmer into using just that one chemical. There is room for a lot of exploitation of the farmers here.
However, if an academic lab wants to make a food crop that can withstand several weeks of drought, surely this is a good thing in countries where if there is no rain, thousands of people will die? I know of labs who have taken some genes from moss (the spongy green plant you find growing on rocks), as moss is extremely tolerant of dry conditions, and they have successfully put them into a food crop that makes the food crop survive a lot longer without water than normal. The academic lab wants to improve the condition of people’s lives, it is not seeking profit on this, so this is a good thing.
People may also worry whether it is dangerous, but the fact is we’ve been conducting a kind of genetic engineering with plants for centuries, by breeding together different mutant versions to generate vegetables with just the right characteristics. Unlike modern approaches, where only one of two very specific sets of genes are transferred, the old approach can result in the swapping in many different genes – some that are good, and others that can be slightly toxic. Did you know what most of the common vegetables today, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts etc. ALL come from the same original plant, a type of wild mustard. They’ve just been cultivated for hundreds and hundreds of years until we have the things we like to eat – our own little evolution experiment, but rather than ‘natural selection’ it is ‘human selection’, and all a long time before we even knew what evolution (and genes) actually were.
So as a not-for-profit aim to make crops that are more nutritious, and more sustainable on poor soils or in droughts, I think GM is good. I just have ethical concerns when big agricultural businesses restrict (and encourage) farmers to use herbicides indiscriminately.