Genetic engineers have perfected techniques for altering the genetic biology of plants and organisms. The prospect of new foods, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, pesticides, anti-pollution agents and other "bioproducts" and "biotools" made in this way has attracted billions of dollars of investment. These manipulated organisms could have unintended but devastating side-effects upon the environmental and human health and upon other "natural species". Such unintended consequences are "unrecallable" and may be irreversible.
Genetic engineering in its simplest form is using techniques to modify genetic material—the DNA—of living organisms. Genetic modification is not new. Random mutations in genetic material occur spontaneously or under the influence of mutagenic substances. For centuries, selective breeding has been an indirect way of genetic engineering. These are not normally considered genetic engineering. Rather genetic engineering is genetic recombination under artificial circumstances under laboratory conditions. It consists of isolating and then splicing together DNA molecules in isolation from their cellular environment, although for certain species genetic material can be transferred between cells of the same type or different type.
Genetically engineered cotton, rice, corn, oilseed rape, sugarbeet, and alfalfa crops have entered the American market. Genetically modified soya is already widely used in processed foods, usually unlabelled as to its nature. In 1996 a genetically-altered maize began to be used for animal feed; it reputedly contains a gene which could make bacteria immune to commonly-used antibiotics. In the UK there were reports of a feral tomato, a genetically modified species which had gone wild and could no longer be contained.
Terminator technology, the genetic engineering of plants to produce sterile seeds, has been widely condemned as a dangerous and morally offensive application of agricultural biotechnology, because over 1.4 billion people depend on farm-saved seeds. During the UN Biodiversity Convention meetings in Nairobi in May 2000, the delegates agreed to a moratorium on all field testing and commercialization of Terminator and other similar technologies. Many countries requested an outright ban on Terminator, and others expressed the concern that Terminator could be used as a trade weapon to force them to obey US trade and patent laws. Some countries even see Terminator as a form of biological warfare since poor farmers could become dependent on seeds that they are prohibited from saving.
As we invade the genetic ecosystem with our limited vision, will we pollute and abuse it as we have the physical environment ? Will we continue to use our selfishness as a rationale to dismantle ourselves ?
Processes of genetic manipulation are the source of major technological revolutions that will contribute to the high well-being of humankind. They could breed species of plants and animals which, in size and number, could have a considerable impact on world hunger. The breeding of plants or animals and induced mutation in microbes have long been used to generate genetic variants with useful characteristics. The new recombinant DNA methods now being used to generate variants are no more inherently risky than the older methods. While the species line can be crossed with these methods the changes made in an organism's genetic make-up can be more precise and more limited than that of breeding methods. The accuracy of the methods diminishes the risk of inadvertently producing a dangerous variant. While there is no such thing as a new venture without risk, experiments can be done to test factors, such as persistence and spread of an organism, along with its effectiveness in doing what it was designed to do.