What is this post about?
When you go into the supermarket in Germany, a lot of food packaging contains phrases such as “not genetically modified”.
In general, most people in Germany strongly oppose genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Ironically, the cows that produce this milk or cheese may not have been genetically modified in the lab but they are still the result of at least a hundred years of selective breeding.
I think this stance against GMOs is completely wrong and want to argue why we should be in favor of modifying plants, animals and even humans. Furthermore, I argue that this stance against GMOs is actually harmful since there are still people who die from hunger or suffer from an illness that could easily be solved by GMOs like golden rice.
So if there is a company whose marketing strategy is “Of course, this food is genetically modified, how did you think it became so big/delicious/healthy”, I would be the definition of their target group.
The case for genetically modifying an organism is pretty simple. We want to reduce bad properties and increase good ones. Obviously, as with many other tools, there is misuse, unknown side effects, etc. However, the more I thought and read about the topic, the more I’m convinced that the upsides massively outweigh the downsides. Furthermore, most counterarguments seem rather unrealistic upon closer look and I don’t find them particularly plausible.
- Plants: I’m 99% certain that we should genetically modify plants. Higher yields, better resistances and additional nutrients have already saved possibly billions of lives in the past and hopefully even more in the future. The mutation-and-mixing scenarios seem to be massively overblown and don’t hold up to scrutiny.
- Animals: I’m 85% certain that we should genetically modify animals. We can increase their output, reduce their diseases and mitigate their suffering. The scenario I’m most worried about is that the genetic modifications create a lot of suffering for the animals because they can’t communicate their pain and humans don’t care because it’s not profitable.
- Humans: I’m 95% certain that we should genetically modify humans. I’m excited about reducing the impact of diseases but also hyped about more transhumanist ideas such as increasing our intelligence or happiness set point. The counterarguments of “super warriors” or massive inequality seem less plausible to me on closer inspection.
Before we dive into the details, let’s make a couple of things clear.
Most food isn’t “natural”
Most of the food-generating process has changed a lot over the last couple of hundred years. The chicken, cows and goats that produce eggs, dairy and meat have been selectively bred to increase their output. A standard milk-cow today produces around 28L/day whereas an unoptimized cow would produce about 4L/day. In 1900 hens laid between 80-150 eggs per year whereas today 300-350 is normal. The same story can be told for meat production, where chickens, cows, pigs and co are optimized to grow and be slaughtered as fast as possible.
This trend is not unique to animals. Plants have been selectively bred as well. They give more yield, are more robust to different weather events and pesticides, taste better, look better and much more. To give you a better understanding of the difference consider these five common foods (source).
So in nearly all cases, the alternative to genetically modified is not “natural” but rather selectively bred. For this post, I will endorse both methods, because they basically achieve the same goal through a slightly different path. In both cases, an organism is changed with a specific goal in mind. Breeding takes longer and is less targeted but genetic modifications require more understanding of the organism. In the end, though, you get a more resistant crop or a bigger chicken either way.
Lawmakers apparently don’t share my opinion since food from selectively bred organisms is allowed and GMOs are illegal by default—at least in the EU. Every single GMO has to go through a lengthy legalization process, be explicitly labeled as a GMO to be sold. Currently, basically, only animal foods are GMOs, and nearly no food for human consumption.
I don’t support everything related to genetic modification
Obviously, there are goals and practices related to genetic modifications that are bad or suboptimal. If somebody intentionally wanted to create animals that suffer more, for example, it would be pretty horrifying.
The agro-chemical industry, e.g. Monsanto, has a pretty bad reputation for exploiting farmers. They provide a range of products that only work in combination with each other. So if you buy their seeds, you also need to buy their fertilizer. Furthermore, they only provide seeds that do not reproduce, such that farmers have to buy them again every year. While I don’t support all of these practices, I think they are much more reasonable than their public perception. Firstly, if you genetically change a food, you remove all the stuff that doesn’t increase yield. So all the genes that are used for reproduction are removed such that our eggplants are even bigger. Secondly, if they can’t reproduce, they can also not cross-breed with wild plants to create the wildly feared “mega-mutations”. Thirdly, making better fertilizer and other products is probably pretty hard, so it seems plausible to me that a company would start by creating products that work with their seeds.
In the end, they are still a profit-driven company and they won’t gift the farmers anything but I would say they are probably not the evil corp that is often depicted in the media (at least in Germany). Rather, they are just as good or bad as most other companies. They provide a value that people are willing to pay for but they also have some problems.
Whenever you talk about genetic enhancements, there is someone saying we shouldn’t do it because “we would be playing god”. Clearly, we are interfering with nature all the time. We build damns to stop floods, we use medicine to combat sickness, we use cars, planes and trains to move faster, we use the internet to communicate globally in real-time. So clearly we are changing the environment in major ways.
Ok, but these are not changing the DNA of an organism, you might think. But even that we do all the time. We selectively breed farm animals and plants to give higher yields and be more resistant. The cute little pets we have are the result of hundreds of generations of targeted breedings efforts. So we also change the DNA of some organisms.
Ok, but we don’t change humans, right? Well, actually we do. For example, gene therapy is used to treat the genes of somatic cells to eradicate diseases. So if you are happy that your friend’s cancer can be treated with gene therapy, why wouldn’t you be happy, if we could remove some diseases from the gene pool altogether?
To me, the “playing god” argument is mostly a manifestation of the status quo bias or the naturalistic fallacy. Clearly, there are some counterarguments to gene editing and I will discuss them further down the post, but the “playing God” argument is a really bad one. If you had the chance to feed millions of people or to eradicate diseases and you choose not to do it, you’re still making an active decision—you’re still playing god, just the old testament version.
I think genetically manipulating plants or selectively breeding them is a complete no-brainer. But even this, some people oppose. So let’s look at the arguments.
There are a ton of things we can do to improve plans by selective breedings or genetic enhancements. We can increase their yield by a lot. We can make them more resistant to diseases. This not only increases yield but also means fewer insecticides are needed. We can add certain components such as vitamin A in golden rice. We can make wheat smaller such that fewer nutrients are wasted in the stem and more go to the yield. We can make them more resistant to changing climate conditions which comes in handy with climate change. The list goes on … for any problem that you can think of, somebody probably tried to solve it already. Of course, that doesn’t always work but the improvements we already have are astonishing.
The consequence of this is more food, improved food security, lower malnourishment and much more. Norman Borlaug “was often called ‘the father of the Green Revolution’, and is credited with saving over a billion people worldwide from starvation.” What a legend!
About one billion (!) people suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and about half a million children under the age of 5 could be saved annually just by providing sufficient amounts of vitamin A. In the 1990s, somebody made golden rice which is engineered to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. They ran trials and confirmed that golden rice was effective in treating the vitamin A deficiency, did not lead to undesired side effects in humans and did not mutate or cross-bread. However, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations lobbied governments to ban golden rice because it would “open the door for other GMOs”. In 2021, over 30 years after its creation, the Philippines were the first country to fully legalize the production and distribution of golden rice as the first developing country.
Honestly, this might be one of the most overlooked catastrophes in human history where we sacrificed millions of children for some nonsense concern that was neither backed by data nor by experts.
There are a host of possible negative consequences of GMOs (see e.g. this UN report from 2003). Most of them are concerned with the interactions of genetically manipulated foods and conventional plants. They include: a) Gene escape, e.g. that herbicide-resistance genes could escape to other plants, b) potentially negative mutations from the genes, c) Reductions of biodiversity by expansive species, and d) impact on birds, insects and the general eco-system.
Regarding the cons, there is a list of Genetically modified food controversies on Wikipedia which states that “There is a scientific consensus that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food” and “The risk of horizontal gene transfer between GMO plants and animals is very low and in most cases is expected to be lower than background rates”. Furthermore, there are no noticeable examples of gene escape from GMOs. So all of the cons neither have a strong precedent, nor a strong theory of change, nor the backing of the scientific community.
Furthermore, all of these concerns are also true for most other stuff we do in agriculture. If we do selective breeding, we change the gene pool of a plant of animals in uncertain ways. If we apply fertilizer or insecticides, we could negatively impact the biosphere. I would go even further and say that the current legal alternatives are even worse because they are the result of random changes whereas genetic modification is usually targeted and thus more predictable. Additionally, most GMOs cannot reproduce. Therefore, the likelihood of cross-breeding is even less likely than with organisms resulting from selective breeding. I would expect the risk of changes to the ecosystem from accidentally imported foreign plants is much much larger than from GMOs since the changes are much bigger.
So if people think that genetic enhancements are categorically different or worse than current methods, I feel like the burden is on them to provide a strong reason. I currently don’t see it, but I’m willing to change my mind if somebody presents me with one.
Ignoring the weakness of the cons for a second, the pros are also just insanely strong. Being able to feed billions of people and preventing tens of millions of child deaths are probably among the best possible interventions out there. I can’t think of many medications that are responsible for that many lives saved. So I feel like the default really should be “LET’S SAVE THE CHILDREN” and the burden is on the critics to provide evidence for the negative effects of GMOs.
For this article, I really wanted to understand why there is so much hesitancy around GMOs and uncover the hidden reasons I haven’t considered before, but the deeper I dug, the more one-sided the picture became for me: GMOs can have an insanely large upside and usually have no or a small downside.
Just to be clear, I would prefer a world in which we would be vegan or vegetarian. Then, a lot of genetic changes and selective breeding wouldn’t be necessary to begin with. Unfortunately, this is not (yet) the world we live in. Meat and dairy consumption is rising globally and thus I think it is necessary to talk about animals.
Firstly, genetic modifications of animals have led to drastic increases in productivity. Cows give much more milk, hens lay more eggs and chickens for consumption grow much faster. Also, most animals are more disease-resistant now, so fewer resources are wasted. The consequence of this is not only more productivity, but also fewer resources per product, e.g. less animal feed, less space and less CO2/methane per output. So if we assume that people eat a lot of meat, we at least reduce the amount of waste from side effects.
Secondly, we can modify the animals in other beneficial ways. For example, we could change cows such that they produce less methane and thereby reduce their climate footprint. We can increase disease resistance further such that the animals live happier lives. Lastly, we might be able to modify them to experience less suffering someday. I would obviously prefer abolishing factory farms and people becoming vegans/vegetarians but in a world where factory farms exist, I would at least not want the animals to suffer.
There is also the possibility to genetically modify animals to use them as organ donors for humans. In January 2022, the first person received a heart from a genetically altered pig.
Most genetic modifications that increase output likely also increase animal suffering as a byproduct. If a cow produces more milk, there is more pressure on its udder which can cause pain. The chicken that produces more and larger eggs likely also experiences more suffering. And, sadly, broiler chickens likely lead absolutely terrible lives. Their body weight increases so fast, that their bones break from the pressure which renders them unable to move. There are additional sources of suffering coming from the lack of space, sickness and many more. These are mostly a result of factory farms and not genetic modifications but they still imply suffering.
The higher productivity leads to lower prices which increase consumption. The fact that you can grow a chicken to full size in a couple of months means that it costs less. And if 1kg of chicken costs like 2€ more people will buy it. Therefore, there are more chickens in factory farms to satisfy the increased demand at a lower price. If there were no genetic modifications of meat and dairy, they would be so expensive that fewer people would be able to afford them and thus there would be less animal suffering. This would also reduce the carbon footprint, water use and land use of meat consumption.
I find the weighing for animals much harder than for plants but would still conclude in favor of genetic engineering.
Whether genetic modifications increased demand or increased demand lead to genetic modifications is a classic chicken and egg problem. My intuition is that more people wanted to eat more meat and thus farmers came up with more efficient ways to produce it. Thus, in an alternative world, there would be more inefficient animals to meet the demand. The consequence would be even more suffering, land use and emissions. But I’m a bit uncertain about this trade-off.
Secondly, there is the question of how strong the negative output of genetic modification is compared to the negative output of a larger number of animals. For example, are 7 cows producing 4 liters of milk per day worse than one cow producing 28 liters, or is one genetically modified fast-growing chicken suffering more than 5 unmodified chickens? My intuition is that less cows are better, just because every additional cow produces more GHG emissions, needs more food, water, etc. For chickens, I’m less certain because I would imagine that they suffer intensely. But even then, as long as people still want to eat cheap meat, the alternative is factory farming with unmodified chicken, not a free-range paradise. So the net suffering of more chickens is probably worse just because factory farming is horrible.
My biggest worry is that we completely underestimate the harms that genetic modification does to animals. For example, I would estimate that the pain from a really full udder is mild but since we can’t ask the cow it’s hard to really know. My hope is that we would actively modify animals to feel less pain to reduce their suffering but since this is just a cost factor for the farmers and most consumers don’t care about animal welfare, I don’t see this happening on its own. So the horror scenario would be that genetic modification causes intense suffering and nobody cares about it. But given the weighings above, I’m in favor of genetically modifying animals and more campaigning to reduce their suffering.
I want to emphasize again that there is a simple superior alternative, i.e. just not eating animal products. My reasoning above compares a bad world with another bad world and I argue why one is slightly less bad.
I wouldn’t overestimate the capability of human gene editing in the next 20 years or so. For example, we might be able to change genes that have a very clear correspondence to a particular disease but most of the high-level features such as intelligence, happiness and so forth are probably very complex and it will take a while until we figure them out. Therefore, many of the public horror scenarios such as designer babies or Frankenstein will not be around for quite a while.
However, for this post, I want to indulge in these more futuristic scenarios as well. For the discussion to be complete, we also have to talk about Transhumanism.
Firstly, we want to reduce the bad things. There are a ton of diseases that have a genetic component. These include Down syndrome and Huntington’s disease but also potentially various forms of depression. This does not mean that disabilities make a live not worth living, just that most disabilities reduce your quality of life in some aspects.
We could also improve our resistance to some diseases. Imagine if we didn’t have to get vaccinated but we were just immune to a lot of things by default. But it doesn’t stop at diseases. Basically, everything we dislike, we might one day be able to change—at least to the extent it is determined by genetics. We could reduce the urge to procrastinate, we could reduce certain biases, … your imagination is the limit.
Secondly, we want to improve the good things. Humans are decent at math but they are terrible compared to a computer—at least for fast simple computations. Why not make them faster? Humans are physically weak compared to a lot of animals such as monkeys. At least for some jobs, it would probably be good to be stronger. Being more intelligent would likely solve a lot of problems faster. We would improve the speed of research, cure diseases, etc. We would also raise our happiness threshold and thereby reduce the likelihood of severe depressions.
Like I said above, many of these are a bit futuristic and it isn’t even clear yet whether we will ever be able to disentangle the genetic makeup of a concept such as intelligence or happiness. But at least the simpler stuff like specific diseases should be solvable eventually.
I think the most common counterargument is inequality. These technologies will be expensive and thus, only rich people will be able to afford them in the beginning. Therefore, they will get a head start compared to poorer people which is unfair by some definitions of fairness.
Secondly, we could be changing people in bad ways. This includes bad qualities for themselves, e.g. we could create a human that suffers intensely. But it could also be bad for the world, e.g. when a country might genetically engineer a superhuman for their military and try to take over the world.
Lastly, we change people against their will. They never consented to participate in this experiment and thus we should not interfere.
I think it is possible to hold a nuanced view of disabilities even when it rarely exists in public debate. For example, a society can at the same time be inclusive and therefore improve the live of currently living people with disabilities AND try to reduce the occurrence of genetic markers that negatively affect peoples life. If you are pro genetic engineering you can still be nice to the disabled and vice versa.
It is also possible to distinguish between different degrees of disability. I would for example, assume that nobody would be against removing auto-immune diseases from the gene pool if that was possible. For Down syndrome, on the other hand, it is more complicated. Some people think those who have trisomy 21 are just as happy as those without disabilities and others don’t. My guess would be that some parents would genetically modify their child not to have Down syndrome and others would not choose to do so.
I think the consent argument doesn’t hold. Nobody ever consents to be born in the first place, so having them in the first place is a much larger violation of their consent. Furthermore, just because we don’t control the experiment doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. There are lots of random variations and mutations in every child. Without explicit editing, they are just due to randomness rather than design. That seems worse as long as the intentions of the experimenter are good.
The “changing people in bad ways” argument is a risk. There is the possibility that parents would want their child to have bad traits but why would they want to? They could already reduce the development of their child in the status quo by intentional malnourishment or negligence. I think most people want the best for their child and they would still want that when gene editing exists.
Countries could try to create the perfect fighter or the perfect spy and that could create problems. But I guess the power of even an exceptionally good human is pretty limited compared to most weapon systems. Even the fastest, strongest and smartest human could just be killed with a pretty average gun. In comparison, most advanced weapon systems such as fighter jets, ships, drones, etc. are just much more powerful and reason to worry.
Lastly, the inequality argument is likely true—inequality will initially rise. However, over time, the technology will get cheaper and more people get access just like the train, phone, computer, and every other kind of technology. So the only scenario in which it would lead to larger inequality in the long term is if the first movers get an advantage that can’t ever be closed for some reason. And I don’t see why this would happen for a technology that probably has long feedback cycles such as genetic engineering.
But then, even in the case where inequality is increased, the improvements for the first adopters could improve the lives of everyone. The intelligence could be used to solve diseases, make new technology, and so on. Increased happiness would reduce the burden on the health care systems. This small elite might also try to grab power and introduce a two-class system, but I don’t think this is plausible since most of these changes are probably too gradual and diversified to ever have a clear cutoff for two-class systems. The first increase in intelligence might just be equivalent to 5 or 10 IQ points, so you can’t outsmart everyone else. Thus, I think these inequalities will likely only be temporary while everyones’ positive traits are slowly lifted over time—just like the ability to read or most medicines were first only available to the rich and then slowly trickled to the masses.
When we look back on technology we are happy about how far we have come. We can treat many diseases, we have reduced poverty, we have improved education and much more. And yet when people look forward to the future, they are often scared about what might come. In some cases, like AI there are good reasons to be worried. In others, there aren’t.
After reading more about genetic engineering, I think it belongs in the second category. For plants it’s mostly the question of “do we want more food with better properties?”, for humans, it is “do we want medicine that is so good that it treats the disease before it arises?” and for animals, it is “Do we want to increase the output-efficiency of animals and possibly improve their well-being?”.
I know that I’m an unusually strong proponent of genetic engineering and I have picked a side. But I want to make one thing clear: there is no neutral ground, every non-decision is a decision, everyone picks a side whether they want to or not! There are some downsides to genetic modifications but the alternative world is not a utopia, it is a world full of disease and hunger. You are free to choose a side but be aware that team “anti-GMOs” is team “pro-disease” just as team “anti-vax” is “team-pro-covid”.
One last note
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