& opinion


Science is about breaking boundaries. For most scientists, the opportunity to work within ground breaking discovery should certainly not be ignored. However should science be regulated, and is this possible?

In 1997, British scientists created the first clone of an adult animal - a lamb called Dolly. It was named after the singer Dolly Parton, because the cell used to create her came from the "impressive mammaries" of another sheep. Back then it was realized that this technique could be applied to humans with the human embryo used to treat cancer and other diseases. British Nobel prize-winning physicist Joseph Rotblat then warned that such experiments represented science out of control. Such sensitive genetic engineering could result in "a means of mass destruction." Bill Clinton said, "I feel, however unpleasant it may be for scientists, that science may have to be controlled. We have got to tackle it because I think the whole future of mankind is in jeopardy." Such warnings have been ignored.

Five years later, not only do you have a situation where you could have a ‘sister’ embryo to help you with all kinds of diseases, but we have also allegedly cloned the first human baby. Only time can tell whether this baby will end up like Dolly and suffer from complications associated with premature ageing. It seems that boundaries cannot be placed upon scientific research, no matter the consequences. A view commonly held by scientists is that if they hadn’t made the breakthrough, somebody else would. It is up to society to decide how it should be used.

What happens when society doesn’t know what’s going on? When the ‘frankenfood’ headlines hit this country, the fact that the public had not been told that they were guinea pigs in the GM movement angered many. GM food was seen as being ‘unnatural’ and potentially dangerous. However, genetic tampering just by mating two breeds of animals together to get an ideal ‘in-betweener’ has always occurred. This has lead to some very unnatural looking poultry. Perhaps what is more worrying about GMOs is the potential environmental and economical effects.

Economic fears arise from the stranglehold large Western biotech companies have over poorer countries’ food supply. Last year the Zimbabwean authorities rejected a United States government donation of 10,000 tonnes of maize, worth $6 million, because it has not been certified as free from genetic modification. The country was facing the worst food shortages in a decade. This decision was made to protect Zimbabwe’s own crop and its ability to export certified hybrid maize seed throughout Africa. However, the US did have plenty of GM-free stores to feed the entire Zimbabwean population and all of the surrounding countries also facing starvation. America’s food programme, funded by companies such as Monsanto, know that the seeds they give will be planted by farmers for next year’s harvest. Contamination will be widespread, and the governments of those nations will no longer be able to sustain a ban on the technology. This in turn will create major markets for American agricultural goods, not Zimbabwe’s. However, it is possible for countries to bypass these Western biotech firms. India has created its own genetically modified ‘protato’. A gene known as AmA1 was added to a potato which gives it a third extra protein as well as added essential acids. This potato doesn’t have any added pesticide genes, and so may not have adverse effects on the environment whilst helping the malnutrished ansdstarving children of India.

The discontinuties across the world about the use of GMO is fairly worrying. In New Zealand, they’ve made a strain of parasite that will sterilise all female possoms it comes into contact with. In Australia, however, these bush tailed possums are extremmely endangered. If the strain got across, then such possoms would be wiped out. There is a wide range of ethically challenging research going on, from human cloning to biological warfare. But who can divide the line between the splitting of the atom to release massive amounts of energy being an amazing scientific breakthrough, to the use of it to destroy the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It is not the scientific research that should be regulated, but what it’s used for and who’s using it.