Geneticist warns and challenges students
EDMONTON SUN (Canada), October 28 2005

Animal geneticist John Hodges had a warning for University of Alberta agriculture students yesterday: incorporate ethical standards into practice or risk a bleak future.

Hodges, who has been a researcher in Canada and has worked for the United Nations, warned that biotechnology, combined with capitalistic economics, are reshaping crops and livestock in ways that must inevitably affect people.

Already, 45% of chicken breeds are at risk of extinction, as intensification of production zeroes in on the cheapest inputs for the highest outputs.

As well, 43% of horse breeds, 23% of pig breeds, and 23% of cattle breeds are all at risk, said Hodges. The result is a serious loss of biodiversity. "This intensification of production is leading us into crisis," Hodges warned.

He offered students the challenge of the future.

"You're going to have to do some fresh thinking. Society is searching for its new moral and spiritual values."

High-production agriculture is already contributing to obesity and pollution. In the future, sustainability will become a vital issue, he suggested.

Large corporations are racing to patent developments like gene manipulations, and much of the change is being implemented without "due process" - that is, without full public debate and consensus, Hodges bemoaned. Small communities across the Canadian prairies are dying out as large-scale corporate farming takes over markets, he added.

As science progresses, the future raises the spectre of poultry barns where the birds are grown with beaks and legs removed because they're useless bits. Or animals with adjusted skins and metabolism to enable them to grow in cold weather, thus eliminating facility heating costs. Or animals without gender. Hodges warned research is already poking into areas that raise disturbing questions about effects on man.

So the biggest question is, where do we draw the line?

"It's an ethical dilemma, and it's growing," said Hodges.

And he added more foreboding. "The BSE (mad cow) situation is not finished by any means, and more problems are arising," said Hodges.