Brenda Cooper

Backing into Eden Chapter 16: Transgenic Animals and the Future

This is part three of three.  Now that I’ve listed some of the ways humans use animals (traditional and GM) and talked  about ethics, I want to cover some reasons we may need GMO animals in the future.  I want to remind readers that the highest ground is almost certainly to use conservation and respect to maintain a healthy ecosystem, to rely on care instead of test tubes.  Of course, we haven’t done very well at that.  Instead, we seem to be backing ourselves into a corner, which we will then have to fight out way out of.  This is a very human way of being, even if it’s not particularly mature.  I’m an optimist. We can get to a future we largely like, even though the corner is getting tight.  The tighter we let that corner get, the more likely we are to need more dangerous and more radical innovation to escape.

Before I talk specifics, here’s a quick reminder of the ethics points I brought up in my post about GM ethics:

  • The animal must be no worse off.  At the very least, GM animals should live as well and be as healthy as non-GM animals.
  • No animal slaves.  GM tools should not restrict free will or provide mechanical control over animals.
  • Operate inside the ecosystem.  The balance of ecosystems is critical, and GM animals should not cause major imbalances.
  • Mind the boundaries – GM work is scary as well as exciting. It should be.  Keep boundaries between GM / non-GM animals until extensive testing has been done, and then do more testing.
  • No greed – no long-term ownership of DNA or other design elements of created or changed beings.

We don’t know how much the growing population and increasingly unstable climate will affect us, but I am certain life will not be business-as-usual.  Here are a few of the ways that we may use GM animals in the future.

iStock_000016643014XSmallPollinators:  Bees are dying from colony collapse disease.   Scientists have pointed to multiple possible factors, the latest of which is simply the stress of modern living.  Seriously – it appears that any combination of diesel fumes, neonicotinoids (from pesticides), habitat loss, or parasites may cause entire bee colonies to disappear.  I empathize with the poor bees – some days the stress of the modern world does seem tough to just keep going through!  But seriously, we need pollinators for most crops and we may have trouble keeping enough healthy bees to manage all of the work.  Perhaps bees can be helped so that they are more resistant to stress, parasites, and poisons.  We need bees.  Without them, we won’t be able to produce enough food to feed the world.  Other key pollinators such as bats are also endangered.  We may be able to make robo-pollinators, but bees are natural carbon-based beings that melt back into the earth for easy re-use, and I shudder to imagine stepping on the dead carcasses of pollinator nanobots on a hike through the woods.  There is work being done (linked below) that may help create stronger bees without GM tools.  That would be safer.  Any useful deployment of GM bees will stretch the ethical constraint about minding the boundaries.   Nevertheless, pollinators are so critical we should be working on every technique we might need.

Ecological Niche-Keeping:  As mentioned early-on in this series, we appear to be heading right over the biodiversity cliff into a mass-extinction.  In many ways, it has already started.  Pollinators are only one of the  wriggling and breathing parts of the ecosystem under severe threat.  There are others.   GM tools may help us bring back extinct species (including recently or not-yet-but-soon-to-be-extinct species).  Think critical and sensitive layers of the food change, like krill.  Think predators or prey necessary to keep a balance.  We might prop up existing species (for example, by adding a unique biological marker that helps us track bears so we can be sure we know when they are outside of our door, or something that makes ivory trackable back to the originating elephant).  We might have to bring back species after we drive them to extinction.

Adaptation Assistance:  Some species may have a thin line between them and extinction as their habitats change in response to climate change.  Making a bird a bit more resistant to cold might help it survive, for example.

To improve the health of the animal:  Even when there’s no need to change an animal because its habitat changes, we may be able to simply improve some animal’s health.  For example, we might find a way to eradicate collie-eye in dogs.  In a current case, the Roslin Institute just published a paper on using DNA editing to create pigs that are more resistant to illness, and hoping that their work will migrate to wild populations (see the Pig 26 article linked below).

Improving food animals:  Part of how we manage our wild animals is to manage the parts of land and the sea that are spent feeding us.  That means getting more efficient and doing less damage with our farming.  Many of the examples so far are either under heavy attack from the far left (think Monsanto corn) or stuck in a waiting game for approval (think AquAdvantage Salmon).  Orange crops in Florida are threatened by citrus greening, and standard eradication methods are persistently failing.  There is work underway on a GM solution.  Yes, I know an orange is not an animal. Most GM food improvements are not animals, yet.  I suspect there are a lot more corporate lab experiments waiting to see what happens with the salmon currently under consideration (they grow faster).  I personally prefer we switch to others sources of proteins, but I’m a minority, at least at the moment.

iStock_000020645412XSmallThanks for reading this, which is the third entry in a three-post series on GM animals.  If you missed the others, they are Human use of Animals: Lists and GMO Ethics.   I didn’t spend so much time on this topic because I think it will be a major part of what we need to do the preserve and enhance our ecosystems in the future.  I hope it isn’t.  I hope it’s a small part of a program driven far more by protection of our existing ecosystems.  I chose to spend this many words on this topic because it’s interesting, it’s emerging faster than many people seem to be aware of, and there are a multitude of questions we should be asking.  I am also hopeful that we can avoid labeling all things related to GM animals as bad.  Some will be bad, and should be fought in the legal system and online.  But others may be critical to the future success of humans and animals alike.

As usual, here are a variety of related links:

Stress alone can lead to bee colony collapse, Discovery Channel News, October 7th, 2013,  Gayathri Vaidyanathan

5 things that probably aren’t killing honeybees – and 1 thing that definitely is, Mother Nature Network, May 8, 2013, by Stacie Boschma

Building a better bee, Maclean’s, Thursday, October 7th, 2010, Tom Henheffer  Note that I couldn’t find a 2013 follow-up to this topic

A race to save the orange by altering its DNA, New York Times, July 27th, 2013, by Amy Harmon

‘Pig 26’: Can this little piggy win over the enemies of GM? The Independent, April 15 2013, Steve Connor