Monday, January 28, 2002

Pigs and Spinach

There was an article in the January 24th edition of the Sankei Shimbun about an experiment by a research team at Kinki University who were successful in breeding pigs implanted with spinach genes. This was the world's first success in breeding mammals with plant genes. The purpose of this project was to produce the vegetable oil, linolic acid, in a mammal that is normally unable to produce this acid by itself, thereby creating pork which is "more healthy" than normal pork. The genetically engineered pigs born from this experiment have approximately two times more linolic acid than normal in their fat and have carried that trait through three generations.

Two days later, in the January 26th edition of the Asahi Shimbun, there was a report stating that a genetically engineered papaya, not yet approved by the Japanese government, was being sold at a supermarket in Saitama Prefecture. This papaya was grown in the United States, and is already approved and sold in stores there, but, in Japan, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labor is still in the investigating stages. More than likely, the fruit was genetically altered to make it "stronger against viruses", but, if it passes inspection, the papaya will be labeled with a "genetically engineered" sticker, and circulated and sold throughout the country. But, in this particular instance, it was sold, before government approval, and without a label/sticker.

I have spoken out about my doubts and skepticism regarding genetically engineered foods on many occasions, and, looking at these two "new products", I question them even more, particularly when it comes to the genetically engineered pig. If there is a concern with high cholesterol levels and other "adult diseases" resulting from too much intake of animal fats, one should just cut down on their intake of pork and other meats and eat spinach. Why must we invest exorbitant amounts of money on research to genetically alter pigs to make "healthy meat"? Are they trying to get the same results from eating pork only as they would from eating pork and vegetables? If they go to these extremes, would this just not increase the number of children who already eat very little vegetables as it is? And, as those pigs increase, so will the need for land to raise them, taking over rice fields and forests. The underlying "motive for development" of these genetically engineered pigs may, at first, seem impressive, but I feel it looks at things in a very narrow-minded way.

Or could it be that scientists are thinking about something on a larger scale? Could it be that this experiment combining pigs and spinach is simply the beginning--a "foothold" to something broader that has to do with combining plants and animals? Or is it that pigs were just used for testing, and what they are really aiming at is the re-engineering of the human body so that humans themselves will be able to internally manufacture linolic acid?

These questions are more than likely pretty extreme. Basically, I believe that scientists have good sense, but we cannot be sure that the results from experiments, conducted with even the best of intentions, will always be used by the average person and/or industries for the good of all. With the recent report that a large food company in Japan repackaged beef and falsified where it came from, we seem to have gotten a glimpse of the low morals of those people who work in these large companies, and, it is, indeed, depressing. Workers in a company that sells food are suspected of systematically falsifying the place from where the beef originally came for the sake of company profit, not giving any consideration to the health and well-being of the consumers who would be buying and eating their products. Repackaging beef from Australia and pretending it came from Japan would win government compensation, since the Japanese government offered to buy unsold beef after news of Japan's first case of BSE prompted a sharp fall in beef sales, but that's the same as putting the tax payer's money into the coffers of this major company. And, the decision to pretend that beef from Hokkaido, that had an undeniable high probability of having been infected by BSE, was from Kumamoto Prefecture, more than likely came from the mentality that, if by some chance, someone should die from eating the meat, company profits would not be affected. If these are the kinds of people who are working at these major food companies, what's the point in scientist researching and producing genetically engineered foods for the promotion and advancement of healthier foods for the general public?

If this type of repackaging of foods is constantly being done in other companies as well, there is a possibility that it won't stop at falsifying place of origin, but extend beyond that to falsifying date of expiration and quality, or falsifying labels on genetically engineered foods. This decline in human morals not only renders any advancement in science meaningless, but it is also very possible that it could actually broaden the damage suffered by the consumer. So, in a technologically advanced society such as we have today, we must work more on moral and ethical development. Or, should we just not believe in any of the labels on the foods that we buy, and just raise our own pigs and grow our own spinach?

- MT

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