With the advent and rapid development of genetic engineering technology, the animal rights movement is currently facing one of its greatest challenges and dilemmas. Proponents of the technology assert that transgenic animals, animals that have been genetically altered through the introduction of another plant's or animal's genes, may one day help solve many of our modern day problems in life, from starvation and ill health, to environmental degradation and the modern extinction crisis. Critics believe that bioengineering poses greater risks than it does benefits. They argue that genetic engineering threatens to increase animal suffering and decrease species integrity, while at the same time creating a potentially devastating impact on the balance and sustainability of the Earth's ecosystem. Regardless, the value judgments we make regarding the direction and scope that this technology should take are sure to have far reaching implications.
I. A Review of the Technology
Transgenic animals are animals that have, through genetic engineering, genes from other plants and animals. Unlike controlled breeding, which is confined to the genetic material contained in a single species, modern genetic engineering permits an almost limitless scope of modification and introduction of otherwise foreign genetic material. This permits specific traits, and not the host of other traits common from crossbreeding, to be effectively introduced into new, transgenic animal species. Genetic engineering is able to create whole organisms that are not natural to the planet, and whose specific genetic make-up is as much a result of human manipulation as it is natural selection. (For further information on the basics of genetic engineering, see Detailed Discussion).
II. Pros of Genetic Engineering
With regard to the agricultural industry, transgenic farm animals can be created, that are better able to resist disease, grow faster, and more efficiently reproduce than current species of animals. Transgenic sheep can be created to produce better wool and cows can be engineered to more efficiently convert grain into higher quality milk and meat. Transgenic salmon, salmon that grow larger and at a faster rate than natural varieties, have already been created and farmed. (For further information on the potential benefits, see Detailed Discussion).
One of the more controversial uses of this technology is found in recent proposals to engineer farm animals to be non-sentient, without the "stress" genes that cause them great suffering during their lives on industrial factory farms. Since sentience, the ability to feel pain and experience suffering, is the basis upon which much animal rights ideology is based, some argue that these types of transgenic farm animals would help to solve many of the animal welfare issues posed by industrial factory farms. (For more information on the risks, see Detailed Discussion).
The bio-medical research industry has been equally influenced by genetic engineering technology. Instead of relying on numerous test animals to research modern diseases and appropriate drug therapies, the bio-medical community can now rely on specifically engineered animal research models. Such animals are bred to have an increase susceptibility to modern diseases, like hereditary breast cancer. Transgenic animals have made research of such diseases more accurate, less expensive and faster, while at the same time permitting accurate results with the use of fewer individual animals in any given study.
Also, transgenic animals, like goats, sheep, and cattle, have been engineered to produce large amounts of complex human proteins in their milk, something very useful in the creation of therapeutic drugs. By engineering these animals to release these and other proteins in their milk, the mass production of high quality therapeutic drugs is made less costly, easier to manufacture, and at the expense of fewer animal lives than what was formerly the case. (For more information on the scientific and medical potential of genetic engineering, see Detailed Discussion).
Biotechnology breakthroughs in whole animal cloning have led to many suggestions that such technology could be used to clone endangered species. Cloning provides a great support blanket for the modern extinction crisis and can help to ensure that critical numbers of endangered species will exist for generations to come.
III. Cons of Genetic Engineering
In general, opponents of genetic engineering assert that such technology creates a huge diminution in the standing of animals, leaving them as nothing more than "test tubes with tails," only of benefit for the exploitive practices of factory farming, and drug and organ manufacturing. Creating more efficient agricultural animals threatens weaken the genetic diversity of the herd and thereby make them more susceptible to new strains of infectious disease. Also, if transgenic farm animals ever escape into wild populations, they can have profoundly disturbing effects on the natural environment, including a complete elimination of natural populations and the processes of natural selection.
Animal rights advocates also argue that each species should enjoy an inherent, natural right to be free of genetic manipulation in any form. This is especially the case when genetic engineering is used as a means of depriving animals of their sentience, of exacerbating the cruel, horrific conditions of the modern factory farm and biomedical lab. Although the sheer numbers may decline, the actual suffering experienced by agricultural and research animals may increase.
Cloning endangered species, although useful as a last resort, may unwisely shift our efforts away from protecting the critical habitat necessary to sustain viable endangered species populations. Habitat protection is as important to saving endangered species as is the specific renewal and maintenance of viable numbers within a population. Since limited funds exist, habitat protection, and not expensive cloning technology, should be the focus of our endangered species protection efforts. (For more information on the inherent dangers, see Detailed Discussion).
IV. The Legal Terrain
Currently, there are few laws, in either the United States or the European Union (EU) regulating animal cloning and the creation of transgenic animals. In the United States, most research and farm animals are excluded from federal protection. While the European Union (EU) ensures that such animals are treated more humanely than is the case in the United States, both the U.S. and the EU extend patent protection to the owners and creators of transgenic animal species. This provides a huge incentive for the biotechnology industry to continually research and develop novel transgenic animal creations. With patents, researchers can now own and monopolize entire animal species, something unheard of prior to modern genetic engineering. The Supreme Court has upheld transgenic animal patents without any review of the potential ethical and environmental risks associated with the technology involved. (For more on this important decision, click here).
Most modern legislation regarding genetic engineering and cloning technology ensued following the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first multi-cellular organism cloned from adult cells. The primary objectives of the subsequent United States and EU legislation was to ban human cloning while at the same time ensuring that genetic engineering research continued unimpeded by such legislation. Patent protection effectively promotes genetic engineering research and helps to ensure its speedy development. (For more information on U.S. and European laws concerning biotechnology, see Detailed Discussion).
There is no doubt that genetic engineering of animals will continue well into the future. Both the United States' and the EU's legal systems have been slow to respond with legislation specifically regulating biotechnology, and each have permitted their patent law to provide a supportive ground for genetic engineering research and development. One thing is for sure, we must not sit complacently by as this technology rapidly changes the fabric of our existence from the inside out. We must not wait and see what the effects are. We must form educated opinions, inspire legislative regulation, and hope that whatever direction that bioengineering takes us, is a positive step towards decreased animal suffering, increased environmental sustainability, and an overall compassionate regard for the earth and its precious life.