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Gene Editing, GMOs, The Vatican and Quran

Gene editing has emerged one of THE debates of the 21st Century. As suggested by the term, gene editing involves deliberate  alteration of an organism’s genetic sequence. The results of this artificial process? A  new genetic template which codes for desired target proteins. As you might know, proteins are the organic materials that make up a host of cellular and sub cellular parts. Most notable of which are enzymes. Enzymes regulate all functions cellular. From death, repair to specialist production of life giving molecules.

If there is an organsim that holds answers to the possibities of gene editing, it has to be the maize crop

The most successful GMO: Maize crop. Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

With manipulation of DNA, the stuff which carries the blueprint of life, new life forms can be ‘created’  infinitum as dictated by human needs of the day. Such manufactured life forms, products of this process of genetic engineering, are collectively referred to as  genetically modified organisms (GMO).It is in this act of playing god — through ‘creation’ itself and subsequent possession of  the power to literary decide what lives, how what lives exists and what doesn’t live — that within lies the ethical questions that blight this otherwise novel branch of science.

Germs, Guns and Steel

Human progress through the ages as best illustrated in the bestseller Germs, Guns and Steel  has theoretically been reliant on the acquisition — followed by some level of consensus — and finally application of knowledge. The value of  knowledge (technology) lies in it remoulding of nature’s course to enhance the survival and propagation of the human species.

Gene editing and the broader practice of genetic engineering hold the promise of  unraveling solutions to a host of human plights. Especially so in the 21st Century, when new global realities like the 4th Industrial Revolution demand a paradigm shift from yesterday’s solutions.

21st century heroes will therefore be the ones with the verve to venture and  sail uncharted waters. Those driven by a healthy dose of an unsettled spirit. Who yearn to get out of their comfort zones. All the while remain grounded by a smattering of audaciousness in their readiness to challenge common truths.

Yet, in the way of these progressive forces, stands a more than healthy portion of  ‘why’ which counters the forward march. Within the emerging field of gene editing, so healthy is this serving of ‘why’. So much so to cause indigestion of the mind, especially when ill digested matters like the ethics of gene editing are part of what’s on offer.

The Vatican & Quran

In 1987, way before global warming was a pet subject, before the works of Jeffery Sachs and co at The Earth Institute concisely captured in the Harvard professor’s acclaimed book Common Wealth : Economics for a crowded Planet were given the time of the day, the Vatican set the tone on genetically modified organisms and by extension gene editing.

The Vatican asserted that genetic engineering was blasphemous. Further afield, some Islamic scholars have controversially drawn parallels between some Quran verses and scientific discoveries like the 46 genome human sequence. Keeping with form, the work of religious scholars hasn’t been to offer moral backing to the science of genetics. It has been in mockery- for lack of a better word.

In Africa, the debate has been whether GMOs  are the cure to the continent’s recurring and exponential  hunger problems as exemplified by the recurrent droughts that raved the horn of Africa. This has snowballed to mini-debates surrounding the modification of genomes for food. The concerns over the implications of such a move include; intensified agrochemical use, ‘loss’ of exotic indigenous flora, issues of intellectual property rights and  health concerns.

Proponents of the application of gene editing to agriculture have been quick to point out the dividends. Notably, a hunger free Africa. By extension, GMOs therefore offer a chance to fix societal structural problems like peace and chronic socioeconomic under development.

Gene Editing & Good Old Choice

The lands north of the Sahara  have cleverly skirted around some of the above issues thanks to the old trick called choice. Choice is premised on the sacrosanct concept of an individual’s autonomy. It is a notion central to neoliberal thinking. Choice, is the underlying dogma of all things that the 20th century bestowed on humanity. From democracy, to capitalism, to all rights and freedoms human.

Thus, any observer studying GMOs from the lens of choice will come to the conclusion that GMOs are state regulated substances. Admittedly, regulation that is mostly to the extent of identifying a product as GMO made/constituent. Pointedly though, the decision on whether to consume GMOs is left to the consumer by the state. As guided by their religious dispensations, other persuasions and the information on food labels.

Nonetheless, thanks to 21st century realities, even societies where individual choice reigns supreme find themselves in a situation like Africa. Where survival relegates our communitarianism. The result is lack of critical consensus on many facets of gene editing which challenge viral acceptance of this technology.

Truth is for the genetic engineering debate to be settled somewhat, 21st century society needs to came out with unshaken voice. It needs to vouch on the health safety of genetically modified organisms and gene editing. Simply put, humanity needs a biblical, if you like, Quran like truth. A maxim to seek shelter under as it marches on forward. For any semblance of hope in dealing with what guns, germs and steel theory tries to counter: disease and hunger. Only that this time, no child, woman or man is to be left behind.

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