Thursday, February 14, 2008

Better Living Through Genetic Engineering

Originally Posted by OpDDay2001:
Kind of hard to watch, but it's an example of selective breeding. It's not evolution but it's the closest man has come since the domestication and breeding of the dog. The creation of a breed of "super cows". It's really quite interesting, at the same time disturbing.
Originally Posted by 128hoodmario:
One of the reasons we have time to play and talk about computer games is because we (and most other people in the West) are no longer forced to work on a farm to grow enough food to survive, which was the case only some 100 years ago.

The invention and adoption of farm machinery is a large part of the reason why the West is no longer in survival mode where food is concerned. But another important factor is the ongoing -- and, especially since the 1950s, scientific -- breeding of new and better kinds of food, in particular "high-yielding varieties" of cereals. We have in fact been so phenomenally successful at increasing crop yields through methods including selective breeding that only 2% of the U.S. population in 2002 was directly involved in farming (USDA fact sheet) while still supplying not only its own population with more food than they can eat, but supplying much of the rest of the world as well.

There are valid concerns about this process. Relying on a few high-yielding varieties of foods means increased difficulty if one of those varieties falls prey to pests, disease, or climatic variation, for example. There's also a question of whether having more food available may increase world population beyond sustainable levels. There are hard questions that need to be asked about the patenting of the biological results of genetic modification -- is it proper to allow the ownership of entire new species? What about the dangers of creating new lifeforms that we can't control? And any reasonable person can be concerned whether our technological abilities to create new kinds of life are outstripping our understanding of whether it is wise to do so simply because we can.

All of these could be the basis for a principled objection to modifying the genes of some lifeform. But to issue a blanket statement that "genetic engineering is wrong" is to completely ignore the realities of what our lives would be like today without improving food breeds over thousands of years (perhaps starting with the domestication of emmer).

Using technology to move beyond food-based survival is what has allowed humanity to accomplish wonders in the arts and sciences. We ought to be able to acknowledge that.

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