New drugs produced with the help of recombinant DNA techniques are on the market. Genes have been added to plants to make them resistant to certain kinds of insects and viruses. The usefulness of micro-organisms in agriculture has been enhanced through understanding and changing single genes. No genetic monsters have materialized.
The controversy over environmental applications of genetically engineered organisms appears to have subsided. Perhaps we've heard each side and judged that the benefits of using genetically modified organisms are unarguable by now.But I suspect that this conclusion is wishful thinking on my part.
Our protective ozone layer is thinning, we are told. The Earth's forests are disappearing ever more rapidly, and we begin to perceive the consequences. Flooding worsens. Precious topsoil is lost. Forest-dwelling plants and animals become extinct.
In the hot summer of the century's hottest decade, we read that the long-predicted warming of the climate has begun. We watch our vaunted agricultural surplus vanish. Our garbage circles the globe by barge and returns. Toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals accumulate. Air pollutants kill forests, lakes - and us.
I think that we've begun to understand that many of these problems are the price of our comfort: cars, the many things we make, plentiful food, warm homes, electricity. And I think, too, there is a growing understanding we will have to alter much that we do in radical ways and soon. We can't be a throw-away culture any more. The environmental garbage can is full.
Whether we like it or not, this is the context within which we must re-examine the pros and cons of using organisms modified by contemporary genetic engineering.
I think the consequence of this context is a welcome one: perspective. The scientific community's debate over the risks of genetic engineering is a bit like a family in a burning house quarreling about the wisdom of leaving for fear of being stung by bees outside the door.
By this analogy I mean to convey that the arguments between scientists are not about the magnitude of the health or environmental risks of genetically engineered organisms and their environmental use.
Regardless of where they're coming from, biologists generally agree that the risks of a major adverse health or environmental impact incidental to the introduction of a genetically engineered crop plant or non disease-causing microbe are very small, if not negligible.
The argument is about whether one ought to run outside immediately or wait for proof that there are no bees in the neighborhood before rushing out.
That is, do we have enough confidence in our experience with genetic manipulations of other kinds to go ahead and begin to try out genetically engineered organisms on a small scale, gaining confidence with experience? Or is it wiser to first invest heavily in ways of testing the organisms before they're put outside?
But I've stacked the deck a bit unfairly. The wise choice is obvious only if I believe that the house is aflame, that leaving is an efficacious as well as honorable choice, and that inaction has inexorable consequences.
That is, are we really in environmental crisis? Can genetic engineering help us? What are the ethical implications? What happens if we do nothing at all?
I am not about to claim that biotechnology (or any technology) holds all of the answers to our very real and mounting environmental problems.
But it is already evident that wisely used, recombinant DNA techniques and other biotechnologies can contribute substantially to putting our human activities on an environmentally sustainable basis.
(Nina Fedoroff is a plant molecular biologist and geneticist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University.)