Professor John Hodges
Measured by scientific, economic and military power, the West is the most advanced society in human history. In these terms, other societies in the world today have less clout; but they are nevertheless longestablished and sustainable with their own cultures, lifestyles, values and world views. In these economically simpler rural communities several billion people are still dependent upon livestock as aprimary resource for life – just as in the West not so long ago. The agenda of this Symposium examines the transfer of molecular biology technology and products to those societies for use on the genomes of livestock. While offering total support to the objectives of improved livestock production and health, enhanced food security and alleviation of poverty, this paper raises some serious reservations on scientific, socio-economic and ethical grounds about using molecular biology techniques for genetic manipulation of livestock in developing countries at this early stage of knowledge. The paper advocates caution alongside the exciting potentials most of which remain exploratory, untested and speculative. Real uncertainty lies in contemplating action programmes in developing countries for these novel molecular techniques which are not accepted by many in the West. For ten years, more than 60 percent of EU citizens have consistently rejected GM foods (EuroBarometer website) and, in 2008 through their parliamentary representatives, EU citizens overwhelmingly rejected milk and meat products from cloned livestock. These reservations call for deeper examination of using such technologies and their products in rural societies where livestock are the major foundation of life and of society.
There is a vast difference between research and application of molecular biology. This paper fully supports research and affirms that this Symposium will advance knowledge of the livestock genomes thereby contributing positively to scientific research. But, logically, there is something incongruous about importing unproven technology to change extensive livestock systems of Africa, Asia and Latin America when intensive farming systems are themselves proving unsustainable in the developed West. Wisdom demands answers to some deep questions in these circumstances. The question is not about researching the potentials; it is about use in the foreseeable future. Responsible use must be built upon sound scientific knowledge which, at present, is sparse on the molecular universe of the mammalian genome.
Effective use of scientific knowledge must be accompanied by a deep understanding of human values upon which civilisation has been built. This duet of scientific knowledge and social wisdom goes beyond the protocols needed in a research laboratory. Human societies in rural settings, though simple and based upon livestock, have proved to be sustainable over millennia and deserve respect. Scientific knowledge and social wisdom must proceed together to understand the local and global matrices of human affairs. This has always been the posture of good science – until recently. Today the newly emerged worldview of many scientists sets caution aside and moves into immediate use of the new molecular genetic techniques in food. Scientists who question this position are often seen by their peers as heretics.
Why Address Genetic Manipulation of Livestock at this Time?
This paper addresses the foundations, fallacies and assumptions of science in the context of genetic manipulation of the livestock genome to produce transgenic animals. Why? The reason is that society today is poised on the brink of using these techniques to produce human food. So far as publicly known, no milk and meat products from cloned or transgenic animals have yet reached the market. But the scene is being actively prepared, as shown by the following facts:
• clones and transgenic animals have been produced in all the major livestock species since Dolly, the cloned sheep, was born in 1997;
• in 2006, the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved milk and meat from cloned cattle, pigs and goats for the human food chain without labelling;
• large biotechnology companies are already engaged in promoting transgenic livestock as a means of improving animals and their products for human consumption (Biotechnology Industry Organization, 2008);
• some of these companies already hold patents on transgenic livestock in the USA and the EU;
• further, this International Symposium raises the possibility of using these techniques in developing countries.
This paper opposes the use of transgenic livestock in practical farming and in the food chain because release of such animals would irreversibly change the agro-bioresources and the environment; also these manipulated resources cannot easily later be withdrawn. These changes would be particularly hazardous in developing countries. This paper does not oppose the use of molecular biology in the field of animal health where new products for old animal disease problems are being generated for diagnosis, prevention and treatment. These biotechnology products can be researched and produced within controlled conditions. The products come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but normally do not include tissues containing DNA itself. Further, use is targeted and limited to specific animals and the choice rests with the owner of the livestock.
Wisdom and Knowledge
As scientists we are tempted to think that the scientific method has such a firm foundation that it can answer all the issues of life. After all, science has yielded phenomenal progress in understanding the material world and by improving the quality of life. We must beware of confusing the objective scientific method with scientists who are human and fallible. In 2008, at a European conference, a top animal scientist was describing and advocating immediate use of cloned livestock for food; when asked about consumer resistance he said it was not an issue as “scientists think: others feel”. That is a dangerous and arrogant world view that elevates scientists to an elite position as decision-makers for society because they “know”. Doubtless within a narrow field, one can be rational, objective and superintelligent in processing knowledge in the abstract. Reality, however, is much more complex. The application of knowledge requires wisdom, balanced judgement and concern for the larger consequences on the whole community of life today and in the future. The 2008 global banking and financial collapse was brought about by a small group of professionals who used highly rational and thought-intensive processes to create complex financial instruments – but the values they used were those of self-interest. This scenario clearly demonstrates the dangers of the concentration of power in the absence of basic human values. Those who neglect the values that build community lack wisdom. They cut off the branch that supports them. We violate community at our peril.