April 03, 2006

How the Biotech Tail is Wagging the Pig

The last guest post from Dr. Autumn Fiester of Penn stirred up a fuss (as she wrote, "The last blog I did for you on pet cloning was clearly the most widely read piece I have written and it is being reprinted into two different volumes (it's a hell of a blog you've got going!!"). So when she sent us a guest post on piggie biotech based on her interview on NPR, we jumped into the slop. Here's Autumn:
The new omega-3 pig is the perfect example of what is terribly wrong with American animal biotech research: scientists pursue whatever interests them, and then they try to find a problem for which their results can be hailed as the solution. Instead of having the animal biotech agenda driven by the public’s true needs and values, we have an agenda-less agenda, with individual research teams expending vast resources on frivolous projects the public doesn’t want or need. The backdrop here is that Americans are, at this point, overwhelmingly opposed to this science, and much of this research is federally funded, so the American people actually pay for the research through their tax dollars. We need a biotech strategy that serves the public’s collective interests and conforms to their values.

For the majority of Americans, we could stop right here. Given the level of opposition to this research, this is all the argument they need to demand more federal planning and regulation. But you might say of the super-pig, “So no one will buy them or eat them. Scientists learned a little something. What’s the harm?” Let’s lay it out.

First: the omega-3 pig represents the worst type of “research waste:” precious scientific resources of time, mental energy, and money that could be used to tackle serious human and environmental threats are being devoted to frivolous causes. The list of devastating problems begging for a scientific solution include: chronic, genetic, and infectious diseases, famine, food and water safety, global warming, the destruction of ecosystems – the list goes on and on…

Second: the one problem we don’t have is a shortage of omega-3. Not only is it found naturally in readily available foods like walnuts and fish, but it can be found in supplements and nutritionally supplemented foods like Smart Balance Peanut Butter. We certainly do have a very serious problem of obesity and nutrition in this country, but neither are problems science needs to solve. We are fat because we eat too much, and we are unhealthy because we choose to eat the wrong foods. It’s not that we need new foods; we have all of the foods we need to be well-nourished at the proper weight. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that none of science’s other recent “answers” to our obesity or nutritional woes have done us any good. We have Olestra, Snackwells, Splenda, and NutraSweet – and we are still fat and unhealthy. Offering us genetically modified pork to provide us with a plentiful nutrient is an obvious attempt to drum up a need that justifies the science.

Third: unlike research on peanut butter, omega-3 pork requires extensive research on animals. At a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about the general use of animals in scientific research, the animal biotechnology industry needs to limit its work to projects necessary for the achievement of important health, safety, or medical goals. There are surely worthy goals to pursue in biotech agriculture, but this isn’t one of them. The concern about animal welfare issues is exacerbated in this case by the widespread unease with conventional husbandry practices for this species: pig farming is one of the most highly criticized areas in the ag sector. Let’s adopt universal humane farming practices for this intelligent species before we make animal welfare matters worse for the pig.

Finally, and for many people, most worrisome: There is something profoundly amiss in our unreflective stampede down the biotech path. We are now able to alter sentient life radically and rapidly by directly manipulating a living being’s genome. The level of the change now possible, the speed at which we can make these dramatic alterations, and the potential consequences for animals, the environment, and ourselves – for the world as we know it – ought to give us great pause. We need to ask fundamental questions: who are we becoming, and how are we changing the world we inhabit? It is naïve to think that this research, unbridled, will have only a trivial impact. Will we still recognize ourselves or our world if we stay on this path, if we allow any and all modification of animal life for any and all reasons? This latest work already says a great deal about us, not all of it flattering. One scientist commented about the omega-3 pig: “People can continue to eat their junk food. You won’t have to change your diet, but you will be getting what you need.” We are altering the genome of animal to enable Americans to continue in their reckless, self-destructive ways. What kind of people are we that this seems reason enough to manipulate sentient life?

All of this is not to say that animal biotechnology can never be morally justified. There may be great good that can be accomplished with a reflective, cautious approach to this science. But instead of the default position being “anything goes,” it ought to be “proceed only with extreme caution.” American opposition to animal biotechnology is highly correlated with the problem that the research is intended to solve: the more pressing the problem, the lower the opposition. If we conceive of animal biotechnology as a powerful tool that ought only to be used in overwhelmingly compelling circumstances (e.g., treating serious disease, increasing the food supply in famine-struck areas, improving food safety), the public would very likely get on board and we could be proud of this new science and all that it can do. Then, the pig would finally be wagging its tail.

Dr. Autumn Fiester is Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics.

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