Unnatural Selection

by Chris Desser
Women's Spring 2001

My grandparents lived in Mexico when I was growing up and I spent part of every summer with them at the beaches of Guaymas, Mazatlan and Acapulco. I loved to sit on the warm sand, lean against a palm tree, and sip coconut milk from a coconut just plucked from the shadow of the fronds high above. Today 29 percent of the palms in the world are endangered.

Everything is connected. Patagonia has fought for 25 years to protect wild forests and salmon streams, and to stop pesticide spraying on agricultural lands. Each of these habitats affects the other. Now we face an environmental menace that threatens them all. That menace is genetic engineering: the scientific process of forever altering wild organisms by rewriting their genetic code. Supporters say genetic engineering may cure some diseases and increase farm efficiency, but at what cost? Eminent scientists warn that genetically modified organisms should stay in the laboratory until we know how they will affect human health and the environment. Industry has ignored this warning.

My grandmother loved roses, from the big, blood red and lustily overripe cabbage roses to the small, fragile pale pink dog roses on climbing vines. When I went to Russia as a teenager, the only thing she wanted me to bring back was an attar of rose that could only be found there. Since that trip, 14 percent of rose species, with their unique fragrances, have joined the endangered species list.

Right now one out of every eight plants on the planet is imperiled - nearly 34,000 plant species at last count - including 14 percent of the cherries, 32 percent of the lilies and 32 percent of the irises. But a plant doesn't disappear without wider ramifications: the whole web of relationship within which it exists is affected. We are part of that web. We are affected, too. The experiences that shaped my grandmother's life and her character - and through her my own life and character - may be unknown to her great-grandchildren.

My interest in these extinct and disappearing experiences is not nostalgia. It is rooted in my concern about how our choices, individually and socially, are re-shaping the world - the actual environmental, sensual and conceptual context that is larger than ourselves. I am concerned about who we are, what we are becoming, what it means to live a human life.

The newest threat to our environment and ourselves is genetic engineering, the process which transfers genes between organisms that would not naturally interbreed. Today, with scant understanding of its health and environmental consequences and insufficient public debate, genetic engineering is proliferating. It is being used to grow crops, alter foods, manufacture biological and genetically targeted weapons, create fuel, and develop medicine and medical procedures. It will leave no aspect of our world or our lives untouched. Here are some examples:

• To preserve strawberries for storage and during transportation over long distances, scientists have implanted flounder genes into the fruit, reasoning that the gene that allows flounders to survive in icy cold water would confer the same benefit on strawberries.
• Spider genes have been inserted into goats to enable goats to produce silk in their milk for the production of "Biosteel," a hardy fabric used in aerospace, engineering and medicine.
• Human sperm-producing genes have been inserted into rats. The rats have then generated human sperm. Scientists are now seeking permission to use this rat-man sperm to fertilize human eggs. This apparently has something to do with enhancing male fertility.

The Gene Giants - Multinational corporations including Monsanto, Aventis, Astra Zeneca and Novartis - create these new, designer species for particular commercial purposes. They include resistance to predators and greater tolerance for heat or cold, but there are many others: faster growth, bigger or smaller size, better shape for shipping, more pleasing taste or color, to name a few. Those species are patented and then become private corporate property and replicable economic commodities. Without public debate and authoritative overview, biotechnology represents the worst combination of the mad scientist and the unrestrained capitalist.

The Gene Giants disregard the impact of their actions on the web of relationship that constitutes our global ecosystem when, in fact, neither they nor we have any idea how altering a species will affect complex ecosystems or evolution. The designers concern themselves only with the first generation of these plants and animals, but how will subsequent generations be affected? Having changed the genetic structure of an organism, how has the course of that organism's evolution been altered? How will the ecosystem be changed?

Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College in London believes that genetic pollution is inevitable, that genes from genetically manipulated plants will mix with other plants with potentially devastating consequences. "Everybody knows that," says Professor Jones, "and we have no idea what is going to happen." Should the gene be one that confers resistance to insects, "...suddenly we have no insects. With no insects you have no ecology, no ecosystem, no pollinators, no flowers, God knows what."

The proliferation of genetically modified organisms will have grave and irrevocable consequences. Humans, like every other living thing on the planet, will be affected in unpredictable ways. Certainly, the simple pleasures of the fragrance of a rose or the flavor of a coconut will become extinct experiences. The depth of what it means to be human will be horribly diminished. The web of relationship that defines our ecosystem could be destroyed beyond hope of restoration. We will be consigned to live in a genetically modified world, and unless we take action now, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

About the Author

Chris Desser is a Commissioner on the California Coastal Commission and is the Coordinator of the Funders' Working Group on Biotechnology. She also serves as President of the Board of Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in the Carson National Forest, a retreat center for environmental and social justice activists.