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Genetic Meddling: A Step Too Far

ChickenThe news that scientists think it is possible to genetically modify a chicken to make it resistant to avian influenza–also known as “bird flu”– had me spitting feathers. Talk about treating the symptoms and not the cause!

A BBC news piece on January 13 highlights the gallant efforts of scientists to cure the scourge of bird flu using GM technology. Researchers from a joint project between Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities have inserted an artificial gene into chicken cells that would make a chicken resistant to bird flu. The scientists go on to say that they think the potential to protect any farm animal from any viral disease is now only a test tube away. Professor Helen Sang said, “This is really exciting because bird flu is a real challenge to poultry production and if it were introduced to poultry breeding it would protect our large scale production flocks from avian influenza.”

The fact is during the outbreak of bird flu in 2006, which spread in Europe, most of the epidemiology actually pointed to vertical transfer in integrated industrial farming systems. In other words, it is the industrial farming system – where hundreds of thousands of birds are confined together in inhumane conditions – that encourages the spread of diseases like bird flu. What can we expect from a farming system in which the sole aim is to produce meat as quickly as possible, and at the lowest possible cost, with no thought to the consequences and damage that the system does to the animal, the environment, the farmer or the consumer? At this point it’s important to remember that avian influenza is a virus of chickens and this should remain the case unless, of course, Big Ag forces it to mutate.

From start to finish, industrial agriculture is – by design – a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Selective breeding programs choose animals purely for their rapid growth rate and meat-producing characteristics at the expense of other key traits such as natural resistance to disease. As a result of Big Ag’s efforts to breed the fastest growing, heaviest and largest-breasted birds, crippling leg disorders and heart failure are all too common. We then pack these inherently frail animals by the thousands into cramped, highly polluted, toxic conditions found in intensive poultry units. Then we push the birds to their absolute physical limits to maximize their growth in as short a time as possible to the point that their immune systems are almost totally destroyed. As a result we need to feed huge quantities of antibiotics in a desperate fight to keep the inevitable bacterial diseases at bay. Yet it is a war we can never win–industrial farming systems are the perfect Petri dish for viruses to mutate into ever more virulent strains. The very farming system is the problem here, and no quick technofix will ever solve this system failure.

While I applaud their energy and focus, I often wonder if GM scientists are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. We already know that there are several different mutations of avian influenza in circulation. Do the scientists seriously think that we will be able to develop and breed new GM animals quickly enough to keep up with viruses, which are some of the most rapidly evolving organisms in the planet? Never mind carry out all the necessary safety testing to ensure there are no unintended consequences from the meat and eggs the GM birds produce! And that’s before we even accept the claims that this technology will actually work in the real world. So many of the claims and promises made by the GM industry over the years have either failed to materialize, or have been exposed as nothing more than lies. Look at our experiences with GM crops so far and just how quickly multiple herbicide resistant superweeds have mutated, and how other unpredicted pest problems have emerged to cause real problems. This is despite the GM industry’s early promises that these very problems would never occur. You might also ask if the GM industry plans to keep the intellectual property rights for these new GM birds, just like they do for their GM crops.

My greatest concern is that we are now tampering with animals that are much closer to the human world. Chickens can carry diseases which have the potential to mutate into a very real and direct threat to humans. Now I am not naïve enough to say that what has happened in the plant world will definitely happen in the animal world. But based on Big Ag’s track record, who knows what unpredicted problems might occur as a result of our meddling here? In the case of the GM chicken resistant to bird flu, what are the chances that the viruses could evolve to become even more virulent in response to the GM challenge? As someone recently said, “Mother Nature always bats last.”

In truly sustainable farming systems we don’t get the same disease challenges that industrial farmers do. This is because our animals eat a natural diet, have the space they need, and we adopt good farming practices that minimize stress and maximize positive health, thus avoiding animals getting diseases in the first place.

The fact is that the industrial agriculture model is broken. Genetically modifying chicken to be resistant to bird flu isn’t a solution at all. It’s simply another quick technofix to patch up a failing industrialized farming system. We’ve already allowed Big Ag to misuse precious antibiotics in the pursuit of profit and the production of ever-cheaper meat, to the point where many vital antibiotics no longer work in treating human diseases. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In human medicine, we might treat the symptoms of the disease but we also do our best to discover the real causes. Wouldn’t it make sense to apply the same logic here? Or is this all about intellectual property rights once again? Because it’s worth noting that this GM chicken research was partially funded by one of the largest poultry breeding companies in the world.

Antibiotic resistance threat to human health
GM genie out of the bottle

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