Recently (at the time of writing) it has seemed that you can't open a newspaper without seeing an argument about Genetically Modified (GM) life - protests, demonstrations, and government speeches. This is a debate about whether we should carry on growing genetically modified crops. A slightly more disturbing aspect of genetic engineering is modifying animals, and eventually humans, to have desirable traits.
This is unlikely to happen for many years, but when it is possible, we will be able to modify a human foetus to make them immune to diseases, and cancel out any genes that might give them cancer, HIV, etc. in the future. To go even further, parents would have the opportunity to decide how tall the child would become, what colour eyes it would have, and even whether it would be a boy or girl.
Although enough food is grown in the world to feed everyone, there have always been problems with distribution; the food cannot be transported to the Third World and economy, and they often can't afford it. New types of wheat and barley have recently been 'invented', by adding new genes into seeds, to make them resistant to drought, frost or pests. However, there is the concern that, with a very delicate balance of life in the ecosystem, a reduction of insects who would eat these crops might also cause a drop in the numbers of birds1. A recent example of this was a virus, called the papaya ring spot virus which was infecting trees in Hawaii which were important to the local economy. Most trees were cut down, and farmers could not afford to plant replacement trees. However, researchers found a solution by providing GM trees that were resistant to the virus, and these were planted with little cost to the farmers.2.
This can be repeated with almost any other type of plant and the seeds could be distributed to farmers in developing countries. The problems I mentioned before are overcome, because the grain transported will be planted, giving a higher yield because of its genetic improvements, and the grain will be much cheaper because little of it will need to be imported after the first crop has been grown. Moreover, fewer crops would go to waste because the seeds would be modified to stay fresh longer. Scientists backing this point of view believe this could be the best step to solving world hunger, if it were not stopped by the governments of 'First World' countries.
Similarly, it has been argued that growing GM crops is beneficial for the environment. Having plants that resist pests and fungi means that fewer artificial chemicals will need to be used. The same is true of fertilisers, which will not be necessary if the crop will grow well because it has been genetically engineered to retain water in times of drought, for example. Greenpeace have been protesting against excessive fertilisers being used on the land, seeping into the ground and polluting animals and river life. The people with this point of view say that GM crops should be tested, and will not be found unsafe.
With the modifying of humans, it will be possible to cancel out genes that produce diseases, make them immune to bacteria and viruses, making the population healthier than ever before. The brain could be modified at an early stage to make people more intelligent. 'Ugliness' will also be a thing of the past, no-one will be unhappy about their appearance. Altogether the world could be a better place.
Many people, however, take the opposite side of these arguments - large organisations and people such as Friends of the Earth, and Prince Charles back them. They say that we have no idea whether GM crops are safe to eat or not because the process of making them is so unnatural, and the environment is likely to be affected.
That GM crops should harm the environment is a total contradiction to the opposing point of view. Here the people believe that since we really have no idea what we are doing to the plant when we change its DNA, so we cannot know what its effects will be. A popular theory is that cross-pollination with weeds will become an extreme problem in the UK. One useful way of changing a plant is to make it resistant to weed killer, and then when you spray the crop with a powerful herbicide, all the weeds will die but the crop will be totally unharmed. However, if the crop cross-pollinates with a weed, the result could be a weed that is resistant to a very powerful weed-killer. These weeds have been called, 'superweeds'. The only way to stop these from spreading would be to invent an even stronger herbicide, which could destroy all plant-life in the area, and probably kill off wildlife. This worries environmental groups like Greenpeace, who are calling for more testing of GM foods.
Nevertheless, the reason that most worries the public is the as-yet unknown health risk. It is true that nobody can say for certain that GM food is safe to eat. Botanists criticise it because swapping genes in nature is something that cannot be done naturally. Tomatoes have been changed by both. Tomatoes have been bred to be juicier and bigger, but many people were concerned to discover that a new type of tomato has been made by inserting the gene from an arctic fish that stops it from freezing. This could never happen naturally, and scientists are worried that the fish gene could affect the other genes in the tomato, perhaps producing a toxin, which could make the tomato poisonous to eat. Other foods have been altered in this way, using animal genes in plants.
On the whole, it is obvious that far more research must be done into GM crops before it can be decided whether they are safe. In many people's opinion, we should be concentrating on finding ways to produce crops for undeveloped countries where there are food shortages, and less on simply making food taste better in the Western world where the standard of living is already high, and many people are fighting the plantation of GM crops.
And what about engineering animals? In the past, genetic change has usually been gradual, giving time for adaptation. GM is a shortcut, but can the food web keep up? And if it doesn't, what parts of the jigsaw are we going to lose? A vital microscopic link in our chain? While 'life' as a whole is resilient, not all species survive all upheavals - the dinosaurs didn't. Will humans survive the next one? It's not necessarily true that GM is equal to whatever destroyed the dinosaurs, but it is true that species have limits to which they can be pushed without becoming extinct.