The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just moved a step closer to allowing companies to create genetically engineered animals. The FDA is proposing to allow the creation of animals that will be used to produce medicine, organs for transplant, meat or genetically engineered pets; and experiment subjects.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote about many of these same possibilities in her best-selling and starkly apocalyptic book – Oryx and Crake. It seems that in 2003, Atwood’s book made more waves and garnered more headlines than the recent FDA’s public forum requesting input on their proposed Draft Guidance for Industry: Regulation of genetically engineered animals containing heritable rDNA constructs.
Atwood wrote about pigoons (creatures engineered for organ harvest), rakunks (animals bred to be good pets), and snats (an experimental hybrid of a snake and rat). She also wrote about a genetically engineered blob-like chicken that produced only breast meat. This creature is the source for the popular take out food outlet ChickieNob Nubbins in Oryx and Crake. One of the scientists in Atwood’s book remarks that, “…create-an-animal was so much fun; it made you feel like God”.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the FDA is moving ahead with their intention to allow the creation, use and sale of genetically modified animals. The surprising, or maybe not so surprising, thing is that there has been very little media coverage or protest. Although there were a few headlines in major publications on genetically modified steak or franken-animals, all in all there was little mainstream media coverage and little outcry about the FDA’s proposed legislation.
I wonder about our apathy.
Is it because Americans are some of the largest consumers of meat per capita in the world? Or, as one of the largest consumers of meat, Americans also happen to practice some of the cruellest factory farming methods in the world? Or maybe it is just that Americans also consume one of the unhealthiest diets of any wealthy nation on the planet.
Michael Pollan, best-selling author of In Defense of Food and An Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes that we are now facing an unfamiliar situation in America, where we are the human beings who manage to be both overfed and undernourished.
Aside for being world-renowned for their poor diet, America is also infamous for their quick and clandestine approval of genetically modified crops. Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception: Exposing Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating, paints a damning picture of how bribes, harassment, threats, manipulation, junk science and indifference resulted in the wide-scale use of genetically engineered soy, cotton and corn in North America. Filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin explains in her film, The World According to Monsanto, that 70% of the food in American stores contains bio-engineered elements.
Genetically engineered food sources are not labelled in North America even though consumers continue to agitate for clear labelling. Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a poll in October 2008 of more than 1000 people on various food labelling issues and found that 95% of consumers polled agreed that, “food products made from genetically engineered animals should be labelled as such”.
If consumers so clearly want genetically engineered foods labelled, why the apathy on genetically engineered animals?
Maybe it is just a coincidence that this incredibly important and life-changing legislation has been slipped by the public while much of America (and the world) was preoccupied with the recent American election drama. Add in the economic recession and there wasn’t much space left on news’ networks, or in newspapers, for any other headlines. The FDA’s Draft Guidance for Industry: Regulation of genetically engineered animals containing heritable rDNA constructs document was available for review from September 18th to November 18th – right at the exact same time as the frenzy of the American election.
Coincidence? I think not.
I am a little surprised that there wasn’t a more concerted effort by the animal rights’ groups to stop the legislation. When I think of the collective advertising budgets of PETA, HSUS, Compassion in World Farming and WWF, I believe if they had put their media expertise and dollars together they could have done more to raise awareness and perhaps even stop this legislation.
PETA, infamous for being press-sluts (PETA founder, Ingrid Newkirk’s words not mine), does not seem to be tackling this issue aggressively enough. They seem more preoccupied with stalking fur-wearing celebrities of late. I dug around on their website and couldn’t find anything on genetically modified animals, so I contacted them and asked for their official statement on the FDA’s proposal.
Here is a portion of their official statement:
…Genetic engineering is unethical, always disastrous for animals, and often dangerous for humans. PETA urges regulators and consumers to reject genetic engineering and to demand better and more ethical scientific practices. At least 90 percent of genetically engineered animals are simply discarded as “failures” at early stages of the process. The remaining animals are sentenced to lives burdened with painful diseases and distressing conditions….
I can’t help but wonder why PETA didn’t use their considerable resources and run a public campaign encouraging people to speak up about the FDA’s proposal? Where were the billboards, the commercials, the naked celebrities? They do it for the carriage horses, the fur animals, the KFC chickens – why not the genetically engineered animals-to-be?
And the Humane Society of the United States? They have a report on their website – An HSUS Report: Welfare Issues with Genetic Engineering and Cloning of Farm Animals. The report is very helpful for people who want more information, but why was so much effort put into Proposition 2 and yet little effort was put into making people aware of the possibility of genetically engineered animals?
Proposition 2 is an excellent effort towards reducing factory farm animal suffering and, like most caring people, I am grateful it passed, but what about the genetically engineered animals-to-be? Are we going to wait until they are suffering in laboratories and petri dishes before we work to get legislation to alleviate their suffering?
Both Farm Sanctuary and the Animal Liberation Front disapprove of the use of genetically modified animals. The Institute of Responsible Technology also does not support the use of genetically engineered crops or animals.
It seems like now, right now, before the FDA has finalized approval for the use of genetically engineered animals, is the time to stop this legislation.
I can’t help but wonder if the FDA’s proposal deliberately and purposefully caught everyone off-guard and preoccupied with the American election and the effort to pass Proposition 2 in California. It seems like much more animal suffering and cruelty will be evidenced through the approval of genetically engineered animals than anything the world has previously seen. Much of the animal rights’ world has remained strangely silent or perhaps just preoccupied with other campaigns.
If, as in the past, the treatment of animals in factory farms was compared to a holocaust, it is safe to say that these 'new' animals, if the FDA proposal passes, will experience an apocalypse of suffering as genetically engineered suppliers of organs, meat and medicine.
I tell myself that in the future, when we are working to create legislation to help these genetically engineered animals, I hope we will remember to look back at 2008 when we had a chance to speak up, and wonder why we chose to remain silent.
Valerie Williams is a writer living on Salt Spring Island, Canada.