Genetic engineering is defined as the practice of purposely altering genes to achieve a specific outcome. This alteration is a modification that directly manipulates the genetic material of a living organism. It is usually reserved for plants and animals, but genetic engineering as led to specific medical treatment opportunities in humans as well.
The modern practice of genetic engineering goes beyond cross-breeding different species to create a new outcome. Scientists take the DNA from an unrelated plant or animal and insert it into the DNA of another organism. This process makes it possible to create stronger plants, healthier animals, and reduce the effects of disease.
There are many advantages that genetic engineering can bring the world today. There are also several disadvantages that must be considered. Here are the biggest key points to consider.
List of the Advantages of Genetic Engineering
1. It follows the same scientific principles that have been practiced for generations.
Humans have been manipulating plant and animal life since the beginning of our history. That is how we have so many different types of dogs, for example, or have access to different types of crops. Genetic engineering just increases the speed at which this progress can occur. Selective cross-breeding, based on specific traits, that work with similar traits in other species, is how we’ve achieved results. DNA insertion allows us to take this concept to new levels.
2. It makes agricultural practices much safer.
Before genetic engineering, farmers would often use heavy amounts of herbicides or pesticides to maximize their yields. Before herbicides and pesticides were invented, workers spent countless hours in the fields, often without skin protection, removing threats by hand. With modern scientific practices, we can reduce, if not eliminate, the need for anything to be applied to crops. That makes the work safer, creates healthier soils, and reduces the risks of groundwater contamination all at the same time.
3. It creates greater yields.
Workers have used pesticides and herbicides to maximize yields. We can also use genetic engineering to create larger yields from our crops. We can manipulate the DNA of plants to create more fruits per tree or more vegetables per fine. A larger yield means more profits for the agricultural worker, which means more innovation in this sector can be funded. Greater yields also create the potential for new products, such as ethanol from sugarcane or corn, because we’ve created enough food for society and still have leftover products.
4. It allows us to create better food products.
Genetic engineering allows us to create food products that have a better nutritional profile. That means we can get what we need nutritionally from fewer food products. In return, more food can be shipped to areas of the world where food insecurity is a major problem. Not only do we all get to eat healthier foods, but more people get to benefit from nutritionally dense foods when they are properly engineered. We can even use genetic engineering to extend the lifespan of foods, allowing them to be shipped further because they can survive longer and in harsher conditions.
5. It can improve the growth rates of crops.
Genetic engineering can also increase the rate of maturity that can be achieved for products within our food chain. This applies to plants and animals. We can see this practice working when looking at the history of broiler chickens. In the United States, the average slaughter age today is 47 days. In the European Union, the average slaughter age is 42 days. In 1925, the average slaughter age was 110 days. In 1940, the average slaughter age was 85 days. At the same time, the average market weight has increased from just over 1 kg to 2.6 kg.
6. It allows specific traits to be developed for plants and animals.
Genetic engineering does more than create healthier and faster products for our food chain. It can also create specific traits that make food products become more attractive. Scientists can use DNA manipulation to create different food colors. A wider range of produce can be created by combining different items, like tomatoes and blueberries. Cows can be developed to produce more milk. Poultry can grow more muscle tissue at a faster rate. Even sheep can be manipulated to improve the quality of their coat for sheering.
7. It can improve disease resistance.
Genetic engineering can preserve crops as well. Bananas are constantly threatened by different types of disease. Fungal diseases, Panama disease, and other influences have negatively affected banana crops over the last century. Most bananas at the grocery store come from one developed species, called Cavendish, because it was immune to the devastating diseases that affected other bananas. By engineering new types of bananas, additional disease resistance can be added to a species or crop and help it stay within the human food chain.
8. It can increase the amount of available crop land for growing.
Genetic engineering makes it possible for plants to grow outside of their normal growing seasons. They can also be modified to grow in harsher climates compared to plants without genetic engineering. An example of this is plant gene At-DBF2. When this gene is inserted into a tomato plant, it increases the plants endurance in difficult climate conditions. It can even support growth in low-nutrient soil conditions. At the same time, the fruits or vegetables produced with this gene have a longer shelf life. This provides more profit potential while being able to feed more people.
9. It could stop genetic diseases in humans.
Genetic engineering could open a new field of medicine for humanity. We already have genetic testing in place to test for certain cancers. We could use DNA manipulation to help treat or cure people who are born with genetic disorders. Even some cancers are considered hereditary and could be identified, even treated, through genetic engineering technologies. Over time, this could mean longer lifespans, a better quality of life, and faster disease treatment.
10. It could produce novel medical treatments.
Genetic engineering is already used in medicine to create a variety of treatments. We have vaccines, insulin, and even hormone treatments available because of genetic engineering. As this science progresses, we can create more treatments that allow us to be proactive more often against pathogens that can have life-threatening characteristics.
List of the Disadvantages of Genetic Engineering
1. It is a technology that can be easily abused.
We currently have laws and treaties in place to prevent genetic engineering abuse. That doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. The reality of genetic engineering is that DNA insertion could be used to create severe problems for certain groups of people. Imagine that someone is allergic to shellfish. Someone could insert shellfish DNA into a regular crop, like corn. The person with the allergy would eat the corn and potentially have an allergic reaction trigger because of it. Over time, we could also take the approach we have to altering plants and animals to altering humans. If done, the consequences to our society would be numerous and unpredictable.
2. It is a process that can be copyrighted in the United States.
The judiciary in the United States has ruled that genetically engineered DNA sequences can be patented. That makes it more profitable for organizations to study DNA manipulation instead of working for the general good of humanity. Although this makes new plants or animals possible with self-sustaining revenues, it also means fewer people are studying human DNA sequences to seek out health benefits simply because there isn’t as much profit to the practice.
3. It creates difficult legal liabilities with unintended consequences.
It isn’t just DNA sequences that can be patented through genetic engineering practices. Seeds and crops can also be patented. That has caused issues for farmers who live near fields where genetically modified crops have been grown. The crops which have been genetically engineered have had their seeds spread to other fields, causing unintended growth where they land. Numerous property owners have been ordered to pay royalties and compensation for product loss because of this issue in Europe and North America because of the patenting process. Because of this liability threat, fewer farmers want to work their fields because it could cost them more than they might make.
4. It limits the amount of diversity that is available.
Although genetic engineering seems like it would increase diversity, it actually decreases it. That is because one preferred product becomes the focus of the industry when it performs well. This has been seen numerous times. There are hundreds of banana types, but only Cavendish bananas tend to be shipped to global markets. There are many different orange species as well, but navel oranges use grafting and cutting techniques for growth, so there has been no change in the product for over 200 years.
5. It may have negative consequences when interacting with other species.
We also know that genetically engineered plants and animals do not stay within a contained, controlled environment. They eventually interact with domestic species that do not have any genetic manipulations to them. We also know that, over time, the species with genetic engineering tends to be the dominant one, removing the traits from domestic species over time. This also works against species diversity and create problems, such as a lack of disease resistance, in the future.
6. It can have unintended negative consequences.
Genetic engineering may be a proven science, but outcomes are not always predictable. Dolly the Sheep is credited as being the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell. What is not often publicized is that Dolly was the only lamb that was born out of 277 attempts at the cloning process. There were only 29 early embryos created, and 13 surrogate mothers were used in the effort to create Dolly. Genetic engineering can be very destructive when it wants to be and the attitude toward the outcomes that are possible is that the ends justifies the means to get there. That can be problematic when considering genetic engineering for human-based purposes.
7. It only prolongs the resilience effect.
Genetic engineering does create a natural barrier against disease and harsh environmental conditions. It also just prolongs the resilience of plants and animals. The changes made are not permanent benefits. More modifications are required over time because nature eventually adapts. Pathogens become stronger to affect the stronger plants and animals. Our own experience with antibiotics and pathogens is evidence of this fact. Several bacteria have gained resistance to the antibiotics that were used to treat them. It has even led to the development of multi-resistant organisms that fight almost all easily available antibiotics. MRSA, VRE, MDR-TB, and CRE are all examples of this happening.
8. It does not guarantee higher nutritional values.
We can genetically engineer plants and animals to have higher nutritional values, but there is no guarantee that the outcome will match what has been envisioned. Poultry grows at record paces today, but fat striping within the muscle tissue has affected the overall nutritional value of the meat being consumed. Some chicken products have more than 200% additional fat content compared to chicken products consumed a generation ago. Rapid growth can also reduce protein levels and overall nutrient levels.
9. It could create new pathogens.
When horizontal gene transfers occur, there is a known risk of new pathogens forming in response. The goal of increasing resistance to certain pests or disease may happen through genetic engineering, but the genes of resistance can also be transferred to the pests or the pathogens. That creates a spiral of increasing risk to the human food chain, especially if the pathogen can affect multiple species. The threat of bird influenza is a good example of this risk.
10. It can lead to more birth defects.
Genetic engineering may create stronger, healthier plants and animals. It may also create more plants and animals with mutations or birth defects that can harm the species. We have already seen in humans that gene therapies can lead to additional genetic conditions, even if the targeted condition is improved. Cells are responsible for several different characteristics, so the complete isolation of a cell for a specific trait is difficult to do. This may be improved with new technologies or practices in the future that do not exist now.
11. It turns animals into commodities.
Genetic engineering can make animals healthier. The purpose of the engineering, however, is often done to serve human needs. The Belgian blue cow is an example of this practice. Scientists inserted a gene into the species that inhibits the productions of myostatin in the animal. Because muscle growth is no longer suppressed, the breed is able to essentially double its muscle mass, giving it a larger body size that is ideal for meat production, but not necessarily good for the overall health of the animal.
The advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering show us that we must carefully manage the science of this process for it to be beneficial. It is not a process that we should rush into with the hopes of quick profits or fast results. Being able to support a growing population in a changing world is important. By taking a responsible approach to limit the potential for a negative outcome, we’ll have the best change to have this science do amazing things for us in the future.