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Reasons for optimism – Genetic Modification

Summary:
One of the leaders in our ability to make the future world a brighter and better one for humanity is the ability to engage in genetic modification. By introducing genes from one organism into another, we can create new organisms that serve our purposes. Humans have done genetic modification for centuries. Our distant, and in some cases, recent, ancestors turned Brassica oleracea into cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and the others. They turned wild wolves into domestic dogs. We have modified animals, vegetables and fruits to do what we want them to do.It used to be done, and still is, by selective breeding, but now we have a new option, that of selecting the qualities we want that one species has, and giving it to another by one of several scientific techniques that move genes across

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One of the leaders in our ability to make the future world a brighter and better one for humanity is the ability to engage in genetic modification. By introducing genes from one organism into another, we can create new organisms that serve our purposes. Humans have done genetic modification for centuries. Our distant, and in some cases, recent, ancestors turned Brassica oleracea into cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and the others. They turned wild wolves into domestic dogs. We have modified animals, vegetables and fruits to do what we want them to do.

It used to be done, and still is, by selective breeding, but now we have a new option, that of selecting the qualities we want that one species has, and giving it to another by one of several scientific techniques that move genes across the species barrier. We have modified crops to give higher yields, to be saline tolerant or drought resistant. In some cases we have made them self-fertilizing, in others insect repellant. Too large a proportion of the world’s food, especially that grown in poorer countries, is subject to the depredation of pests and parasites, and GM crops give us the ability to cut those losses dramatically. These advances have enabled us to grow food on less land, on otherwise infertile land, and to put less fertilizer and insecticide into the environment.

These developments all advance human utility and enable us to reduce our footprint on the planet, but potentially the uses of genetic modification in medicine could be amongst the most significant. Already there is “golden” rice modified to incorporate vitamin A so that children in poor counties can be more protected from malnutrition and blindness. The use of plants as drug factories is well established, with even GM tobacco plants used to produce antibodies against Ebola, but the prospects are literally limitless. A generation of crops can be grown that will not merely produce drugs for us to use in medicine, but will incorporate life-protecting drugs into the food we eat.

There are voices raised in caution against genetic modification, claiming that we cannot be certain that its products are risk free. The answer is that nothing is risk free, and that we should proceed as we do in other areas, assessing the known benefits against the known risks, and going ahead where the one significantly outweighs the other. All we can do with unknown risks is to test what they might be, and experiment cautiously to evaluate if they do pose problems. Thus far with genetic modification they have not, which is a further reason for regarding genetic modification with optimism for what it offers.

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