The Dangers of Genetic Engineering
from No Compromise Issue 17
 

 

In the US, genetic engineering has primarily been considered a food and product labeling issue. However, with a deeper understanding of biotechnology, it is increasingly known to be an issue within all issues. People from diverse movements like: environmentalism, indigenous rights, save our organic standards, forest and biodiversity preservation, animal rights, organic farming, ending corporate rule, primitivists, social equality, and anti-industrial technology have all been working to stop genetic engineering. With an increase in genetic engineering of animals, it is now time for US animal rights activists to get involved and face this heinous beast of gene brutality. If the suffering of animals in labs, farms, agribusiness, and in medicine is going to be stopped, genetic engineering (GE) must be stopped.

One reason GE has not gotten much attention is that it is complicated. GE is discussed in extremely scientific terminology that is hard to understand. Also, it is so insidious that it is hard to recognize as one of the most important biological hazards we face today. Corporate control has allowed this run-away industrial technology to proliferate without the public noticing before it was already too late. According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, "there is, even at this early stage of the era of agrochemical genetic engineering, a wealth of scientific data which more that justifies an international ban on the new technology " a ban, which would in any case be justified by social and ethical considerations alone."

Fortunately people are increasingly becoming aware of these issues and action is taking place. In Britain, for instance, Uncaged Campaigns took action against xenotransplantation in Cambridge, at the home of Imutran (a corporation in conjunction with Novartis who has multi-million dollar investments in xenotransplatation). 400 concerned people from around the country joined together in a massive ring-around-the-roses. Ring around the roses is a medieval children's rhyme commemorating the devastating effects of the Great Plague. The aim of the even was to highlight the danger of creating a modern epidemic posed by xenotransplantation. The Health Secretary in England has received 20,000 postcards from members of the general public expressing opposition to xenotransplatation on public health and animal welfare/rights grounds.

By this time you may be asking: "What the hell is xenotransplatation?" or "What does GE really mean?" Xenotransplantation is simply transplanting organs from one species into animals of a different species, i.e. baboon heart into a human baby. Genetic engineering is the reshuffling of genes usually from one species to another. It is an artificial laboratory technique that allows for the cutting, joining, and transfer of genes between totally unrelated species that would never occur in nature.

Genes are the blueprints for proteins, the building blocks of all organisms from bacteria to humans. Geneticists still consider 95% of the genetic code to be "junk." Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century explains why GE is a threat to life with the statement, "Imagine the wholesale transfer of genes between totally unrelated species and across all biological boundaries: plant and animal and human, creating thousands of novel life forms in a brief moment of evolutionary time. Then, with clonal propagation, mass producing replicas of these very creations and releasing them into the biosphere to propagate, mutate, proliferate and migrate. This is, in fact, the radical scientific and commercial experiment now underway."

Questions that are only now being addressed: How do we know that GE won't produce new toxins and allergenic substances or increase the level of dormant toxins and allergens? What are the effects on the environment and on wild life? What about gene silencing and gene instability? What about the sacredness of life?

Genetic Engineering is a test tube science. A gene studied in a test tube can only tell what this gene does and how it behaves in that particular test tube. It cannot tell us what its role and behavior are in the organism it came from or what if might do if we place it into a completely different species. Genes for the color red placed into petunia flowers not only changed the color of the petals but also decreased fertility and altered the growth of the roots and leaves. Salmon genetically engineered with a growth hormone gene not only grew too big too fast but also turned green. These are unpredictable side effects, from an unpredictable science.

It is pretty common knowledge now that 60% of processed foods contain traces of GE ingredients. This includes fish genes in tomatoes and other animal genes in fruit/vegtables, making veganism virtually impossible unless you eat an all organic diet. Vegetarians consume Monsanto's GE Bovine Growth Hormone, which causes mastitis and other painful infections in about 30% of dairy cows. Meat eaters devour human genes in pigs for more tender meat! More than 45 million acres of US farmland are planted in GE crops a year, but what about GE animals?

Harvard University in the US revealed how GE experiments had helped create the first three-legged chicken. The news was hailed as a breakthrough in efforts to help humans with limb defects, but it also has implications for chickens reared for the diner table. In the US pigs, cattle, chickens and fish are all being produced with genes that speed growth and improve the quality of meat. Closest to reaching the market are transgenic salmon. These have had a flounder gene introduced with speeds their growth rate by up to 400%. Some GE experiments have already had unpredictable and alarming results. In 1985 US scientist inserted human growth hormone into a pig to make it grow bigger and more quickly. It was crippled with arthritis, developed ulcers and was impotent. Researchers in Australia injected sheep with a GE hormone so the fleece fell off without shearing. The animals suffered severe sunburn and heat stress and an increased chance of miscarriage.

Some examples of genetic engineering experiments on chickens include efforts to create chickens with extra legs, cloning to create identical animals, insertion of gene to create featherless chicken, insertion of gene to allow hens to eat grass, introduction of gene to make them more amenable to factory farming techniques.

Experiments on sheep include: cloning to create identical sheep, creation of sheep whose wool falls off without shearing, sheep witch have more lambs, sheep which grow more quickly, insertion of human genes to create milk and blood to treat illnesses.

Goats are being altered to produce milk containing insulin or antibodies. Rabbits, mice, and rats are part of GE research for increased breeding. Vivisectors are trying to genetically alter baboons to make bone marrow for AIDS patients to boost immune system. Experiments on pigs include: introduction of human growth hormone to create bigger animals, human genes to provide a source of organs for humans, cloning to create identical animals, genes to make them more amenable to factory farming techniques, insertion of genes to allow them to eat grass, cells used to help humans suffering from liver failure, and fetal cells used in treatments. Fish: Introduction of gene in salmon to speed growth by up to 400%, genes to enable farming in colder waters.

Cows are being subjected to GE hormone that boosts their milk yield, cloning, and the introduction of genes to produce milk containing insulin or antibiotics.

In 1998 figures by the Home Office in England revealed that 20,499 more animals died in UK vivisection labs compared to 1997. A total of 2,593,587 animals were killed in experiments. The increase was largely driven by a rise in the use of genetically altered animals. The exploitation of GE rats doubled between 1997 and 1998. Experiments using animals with harmful genetic defects rose by about 10% to 259,318. Most experiments used mice, with 1,588,859 (61.2%) of the creatures sacrificed, an increase of 72,952. The Home Office minister George Howarth tried to defend the expansion in the abuse of GE animals by claiming: "The figures reflect the growing importance of GE animals in allowing new areas of medical and other scientific research to be explored." However, distinguished British biologist Dr. Mae-Wan Ho condemns these troubling developments: "The cloning and "pharming" of livestock, the creation of transgenic animals for xenotransplantation and to serve as animal models of human diseases are all scientifically flawed and morally unjustifiable." (From her book, Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare?, Gateway Books)

At the same time that GE is increasing animal suffering and experimentation, 9 million "surplus" animals are killed a year in the UK, and the number of animals killed without being experimented upon is hidden from public view. A study published in the Independent reported on an investigation by the BUAV which revealed that a staggering 6.5 million mice and 2.4 million rats were destroyed because too many of the animals were bred.

Scientists have created an embryo of a frog without a head, raising the prospect of engineering headless human clones which could be used to grow organs and tissues for transplant surgery. The London Times reported, "The headless frog embryos have not been allowed to live longer than a week, but the scientists believe the technique could be adapted to grow human organs such as hearts, kidneys, livers and the pancreas in an embryonic sac living in an artificial womb." Jonathan Slack, professor of developmental biology at Bath University UK, says he can now create headless frog embryos relatively easily by manipulating certain genes. Using the technique, he has been able to suppress not only development of a tadpole's head, but also its trunk and tail. Under current Home Office rules, they are not considered animals until they are a week old, when they have to be destroyed. Professor Andrew Linzey, an animal ethicist at Oxford University, denounced this research, "This sort of thinking beggars belief. It's scientific fascism because we would be creating other beings whose very existence would be to serve the dominant group. It is morally regressive to create a mutant form of life.

It was the cloning of frogs 30 years ago that led to the cloning of Dolly at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland. Cows, sheep, pigs and monkeys in labs around the US and Europe are now pregnant with clones created by methods similar to those used to make Dolly the sheep. These animals are used to fulfill long-standing goals of cloning animals that produce medical drugs in their milk. However, many pregnancies involving clones have already ended in miscarriages, and evidence is cropping up that many cloned fetuses have subtle genetic alterations that affect their development in mysterious ways. Tanja Dominko, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, said a team there had taken skin cells from the ears of adult cattle, inserted those cells into cattle egg cells whose genetic material had been removed, and then applied an electric current to fuse the two cells and make them start dividing into an embryo.

In Scotland, Dolly was the sole survivor of 277 sheep embryos made from adult cells. No one know why most of these attempts failed and only one succeeded. From a technical viewpoint, cloning presents different obstacles in every species, since embryo implantation, development, and gestation differ among different species. Are 276 "failed" lamb attempts acceptable losses? In recent studies, some of Dolly's chromosomes underwent subtle structural change usually found only in cells from older animals, evidence that they have retained a molecular memory of the fact that they are derived from a skin cell taken from a 6-year-old animal. A more pressing potential problem among cloned animals, described by several researchers, is the tendency for them to grow overly large in the womb, at significant risk to newborn and mother.

Cloning encourages the commodification of animals. Though industrialized societies commodify animal labor and animal lives, the biological commodification involved in animal cloning would be of a vastly different order. Cloning would turn procreation into a manufacturing process, where animal characteristics become added options and offspring become objects of deliberate design. Such a process of commodification needs to be actively opposed. It produces no benefits and undermines the very basis of our established notions of animal individuality and dignity.

Residents of Craig County, Va. fear a proposed transgenic cattle farm will pollute their groundwater with mutant cow dung. They oppose Pharming Healthcare Inc.'s plan to bring to Craig a herd of 200 cows capable of producing human proteins in milk. If the proteins, used to make medicines, are in the cows' milk, they could end up in the cows' urine and manure. Pharming President Otto Postma said residents have nothing to fear: The cows are genetically designed to excrete the proteins only in milk. Earlier this year, Pharming, a subsidiary of Dutch pharmaceutical company Pharming Group, N.V., announced that it would build $37 million worth of plants in Craig and at Virginia Tech to make medicines from genetically altered cow's milk.

"There are really two areas of concern," said Krimsky, author of the book "Agricultural Biotechnology and the environment." "First, are the proteins localized? Are they just expressed in the milk, or do they come out in other aspects? If they're being expressed in other ways from the animals, then that's a concern. Also, another issue or area of concern is the spread of antibiotic resistance factors. Sometimes, in the laboratory, you attach antibiotic resistance to cells. Could this create bacteria resistant to antibiotics?" The biggest concern about antibiotic resistance genes is the possibility that they could be transferred to bacteria in the guts of animals or humans, or to bacteria in the environment.

Strains of farm-bred fish developed to grow fat quickly are threatening to drive Britain's majestic wild salmon into extinction. Millions of modified fish have escaped into the Atlantic from offshore farms in Europe and America. The new strains are mating with wild salmon, polluting their gene pool and producing hybrids that can't survive in the open ocean. Don Staniford, of the Scottish office of Friends of the Earth, stated, "Wild salmon are nearly extinct in a number of Scottish regions and rivers where they used to be plentiful." "There's certainly a link between the decline of our wild salmon and the escape of these farm-bred fish. It's genetic pollution," says Sue Scott, of the Atlantic Salmon Federation in New Brunswick, Canada and "the farm fish are bred to be fat and lazy. Their genes have been manipulated by crossbreeding to produce a fish that grows quickly." They are kept in huge pens in the open ocean off the coast of New Brunswick and the coast of Maine in the States. And over the last few years millions of them have escaped into the Atlantic.

Animals are not only being subjected to transgenic research, but are also being force fed GE feed right along side us human animals. Animal feed is the dumping ground for otherwise unmarketable waste from the food industry. The BSE crisis in Britain had its origins in contaminated animal feed; the recent dioxin crisis in Belgium had its origin in contaminated animal feed The lesson is simple: contaminated animal feed may in turn contaminate the meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products we eat. GE animal feed risks pollution of the food chain, is the principle market for GE crops, and there is no regulation of GE animal feed. Unlike a food in the human diet, an animal feed derived from a single plant, corn or soy, may constitute a significant portion of the animal diet. Therefore, a change in nutrient or toxicant composition that is considered insignificant for human consumption may be a very significant change in the animal diet.

In an unmarked warehouse in the middle of a wheat field in central Ohio, a hulking 300-pound pig lies on her back, her legs tethered to a crude iron gurney in a bare, well-lighted room. The animal has been sedated into a light state of sleep, and the pale pink expanse of her belly rises and falls rhythmically with each breath. A young man in green hospital garb has just sliced a six-inch incision between the sow's nipples; now he pokes around her innards with latex-gloved hands. The pig on the table is pregnant.

The young man, a veterinary technician named Bruce Close, is about to remove her newly fertilized eggs. At 26, Close is an old hand at pig surgery; he has performed this operation more than 600 times in the two years he has been employed by Nextran, the Princeton, N.J., biotechnology company that runs this warehouse as a breeding center. This, however, is no ordinary pig farm. For the past decade, Nextran has been locked in a high-stakes race to build the perfect pig: an animal with human genes, whose organs can be transplanted into people.

In the medical lexicon, this is known as xenotransplantation, and it has been an elusive dream of scientists for nearly 100 years. Today, despite fears that pig-to-human transplants could unleash a deadly new virus, the dream is closer than ever to reality. Unlike human organs, which are donated, pig organs will be sold, and in a climate in which demand far outstrips supply, the seller will name the price.

Moving quickly and in silence, he tears at layers of pig fat until he can feel the pig's uterus. Gently, he extracts the slippery pink-and-purple mass, palpating it until his fingers reach a cluster of 10 blood-rich pustules -- the ovulation points." Each contains a single egg so recently joined with a sperm, through artificial insemination, that it has not yet divided from one cell into two. This is the optimal moment for creating " transgenic" piglets -- animals that, at least in a genetic sense, look ever so slightly like people. It is a bizarre, almost creepy sight, this big, fat pig upside down on an operating table, her head dangling backward over a bucket in case she vomits, her insides splayed out on a blue- paper surgical drape as a scientist rearranges the DNA of her unborn young.

In a moment, the animal's eggs will be flushed out of the ovaries, collected in a tiny vial and smeared onto a glass slide; then a "microinjectionist" will examine them under a high-powered microscope and, with a needle finer than a strand of hair, insert a single human gene into each. Later this afternoon, Close will return to the operating room to implant the growing embryos into a foster mother sow. In roughly 114 days, if all goes as Nextran hopes, she will deliver a litter that includes at least one transgenic piglet. Across the Atlantic Ocean, at an undisclosed location in the English countryside, Imutran is running its own transgenic pig farm. Like Nextran, which was purchased several years ago by Baxter International, one of the world's largest medical-products manufacturers, Imutran is owned by a drug- industry powerhouse, the Swiss-based Novartis Pharma AG, a company with three times the annual revenue and nearly seven times the research budget that Baxter has. While Nextran has been testing its pig hearts and kidneys in baboons, Imutran has been running tests in monkeys and baboons, and reporting longer survival times.

Like Nextran, Imutran is facing mounting criticism as it moves closer to testing its organs in people. Animal rights advocates, predictably, lament the fate of the poor pigs that will be used as spare-parts factories, a charge the companies shrug off by pointing to refrigerators stuffed with bacon and pork chops. What they cannot shrug off, however, are the very real safety concerns. The Campaign for Responsible Transplantation, a coalition of scientists and public-health professionals, has asked for a ban on cross-species transplant research. And one prominent xenotransplant expert, Dr. Fritz Bach, of Harvard University, who is a paid consultant to Novartis, has called for a national commission to study the risks

Harold Vanderpool, a medical ethicist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, has a term for the visceral reaction these pigs evoke. "I call it 'the gag factor,"' he says. "We are thinking across a barrier that should never be crossed." And in point of fact, there may be a very good reason -- the viruses -- it should not be. Pigs have become the animal of choice in xenotransplant research for a variety of reasons. They are plentiful, and they breed easily. They are physiologically similar enough to humans. And pigs and people have lived side by side, in relative health and harmony, for centuries. Three years ago, the Institute of Medicine calculated that if animal organs made it possible to offer a transplant to everyone in the United States who needed one, annual expenditures would rise to $20.3 billion, from $2.9 billion. Already, the Mayo Clinic has entered into what its director of heart and lung transplantation, Dr. Christopher McGregor, calls a "strategic alliance" with Nextran. McGregor is busy testing pig hearts in baboons, and the company has built a state-of-the-art breeding facility not far from the clinic so Mayo doctors can have a ready supply of pigs in the event that xenotransplantation takes off.

The Campaign for Responsible Transplantation, the group pressing for a research ban, has lately been threatening to sue Shalala if she does not respond to its petition. "The prospect of a global health pandemic doesn't seem to be concerning anybody," warns Alix Fano, the campaign's director. "And the people that are voicing their concerns are either being silenced or ignored."" - Sheryl Gay Stolberg: The New York Times October 3, 1999, Sunday, Late Edition - Final Could This Pig Save Your Life?

Animal liberators play an important role in ending genetic engineering. GE animal labs must be targeted, crops for GE animal feed must be destroyed, human-centered and elitist xenotransplantation must be eliminated, and GE animal "pharming" must end now! Don't be fooled by "frakenscience," this technology is based on suffering, mutations, greed, corporate power, and a lack of understanding about biodiversity and the natural world.

One note of caution. Warning!!! GE animals have already been released from the confines of biotech hell, and the sentiments behind these actions are very powerful. However, please keep in mind that any GE animals released into the wild will scar the genetic heritage of all wild beings. This must not be taken lightly. Please do the research necessary to find out if lab animals are GE before any liberation takes place. Even in the lab, there is no real secure place for GE "experiments." It is important for us to recognize life's natural prolific tendencies, and we must be sensitive to the fact that GE animals must be dealt with as a unique situation. Please be careful out there! Life is in our hands.

ANIMAL GENETICS ("Pharm"ing) INDUSTRY

ABS GLOBAL (farm animal genetics in WI.)

DIVERSA, (Bio-patenting firm in San Diego)

INFIGEN (farm animal genetics company in WI.)

PHARMING (animal genetics, in WI and MD.)

ROSLIN INSTITUTE (Dolly the clone)

JACKSON LABS, ME (Cloned Mice)