Is Genetic Engineering of Crops Unnatural?

I had a really fun conversation with my coworkers this afternoon. I was so into the conversation that I abandoned my euchre game, so you know it had to be good. Somehow, the subject of genetically modified crops came up, and the idea that they were unnatural. I've read a number of articles on this, and how it has effects throughout the world, and I thought I would share my opinion. In order to do that, though, I had to say some pretty outrageous things in order to make sure that people would be interested in arguing. Keep in mind that an argument isn't necessarily a bad thing when two people with opposing viewpoints are defending their position.

My proposal was that, nothing that we do can be considered unnatural. My argument is hinged on the fact that you believe in evolution. If you don't believe in evolution, then my argument won't hold water. The reason I say that we are unable to do anything unnatural, especially with regards to genetic engineering, is that there is the possibility that in the future the same genetic mutations that we are inducing in the lab may have formed of their own accord. Right now, many people would argue that crops that are genetically engineered in the lab are unnatural, and shun those crops. Some norther african countries will not accept genetically modified food stuffs for fear that it will hurt their trade agreements with europe. So instead of feeding their people, they starve in order to avoid these "unnatural" crops.

Genetic engineering has been going on for centuries, it is only recently that we have improved the process and become much more efficient at it. For as long as men have farmed the earth, farmers have chosen among their best crop and stock to produce the next season's crop. This is genetic engineering! It doesn't involve test tubes or microscopes, but it does effect the genetic makeup of the next round of crop in much the same way. By only planting the seed of his best crop, the farmer is reinforcing the mutation, if any, that caused those particular plants to produce the best harvest. He is at the same time removing from the genetic field the crops that may have mutated to produce less at harvest. As this process is repeated season after season, the genetic makeup of the farmer's crop is mutated and modified to produce better results. Perhaps one year the farmer discovers a patch of corn in his field that the insects do not bother. He decides to use those seeds to plant his entire field the next season, and discovers that none of his crop has been eaten by insects. The farmer has effectively genetically modified his crop to be pest resistant. This is, in fact, exactly what farmers have done for centuries.

Now that we have the capability to effect these changes in a much more rapid and extreme manner, some are calling it unnatural. If more people had an understanding of genetic engineering and how it has been carried out for as long as we have tended the earth, I think fewer people would fear this type of crop. I'm not arguing that these changes are either good or bad for us, only that they should not be considered wholly unnatural on their face. After all, we are a part of nature, and if we are part of nature, how can anything we do be considered unnatural?

It is a pretty out-there argument, and I know it is hard to digest that kind of idea and accept it. The whole point of my making the argument though is just to get people to reconsider what they feel is natural and part of nature. Are we, as human beings, part of nature, or are we outside of the bounds of nature? If you consider humans to be outside of the bounds of nature, then everything we do is unnatural. However, if we are part of nature, then everything we do must be natural. Is it possible to have it both ways?

An example I brought up was to imagine that you are a chicken farmer. One day, through no interference of your own, a four legged chicken is born. Was that natural? Take it a step further and suppose that you then breed the four-legged chicken and find that all of the offspring have four legs as well. Is that natural? Can what you have done be considered genetic engineering? Is breeding different from genetic engineering? If so, how? They are tough questions. I know I'm just getting myself in trouble now, though. If I ever make an offhand comment about something being unnatural in the future, people in the office are going to jump all over me :-)


Jade Mason