I’m sure you’ve heard about the Vermont law that says that all foods that include genetically-modified ingredients must be disclosed on the label starting July 2016. Of course most of Europe doesn’t allow GM foods. China officially bans GM crops, although in fact the vast majority of them are in fact GM. So the movement to ban all GM foods is pretty strong despite what’s happening in the Middle Kingdom.
But here’s the problem. It’s a fact that gene-editing and modification technology has just taken a quantum leap. For those of you not in the know it’s called CRISPR/Cas9 (yep, really, I’m not kidding). To keep things simple, it’s kind of like word processing for genes. Copy, cut, paste. So now scientists can do things which even a couple of years ago were not even imaginable. So we’re going to get a lot of GM food, like it or not.
When will we get GM humans? Yep, that’s controversial, but it’s going to happen, just a question of when and by whom. The developed countries of the Western world will first allow it for genetic diseases. But there are some other countries that are not, ahem, quite so finicky. Super-warriors anyone? And, other than curing diseases there might be other conditions which might even influence the developed countries to allow it for certain prescribed purposes.
What might those purposes be? Well in the Western world we can probably rule out creating a race of super-humans, even though that might be possible. Of course we can’t be so sure about some of the other emerging companies out there without democratic governments who might not be so scrupulous.
BTW this technology is quite capable of being used by technologically backward countries; all you need is a well-equipped lab and a couple of PhDs with a bit of background in biochemistry.
But is there some purpose that might get both democratic and non-democratic countries to allow genetic modification of humans that would also get widespread support. Yes, there is.
It’s human fertility. We humans have got a really big problem. Reproduction rates everywhere are declining and it’s now clear it’s not because of the great recession, even though that did have a major temporary effect. Fertility is going down everywhere and is taking populations down with it.
The Economist article cited above on the baby bust surprisingly doesn’t refer to another factor – falling sperm rates in human males all over the world (see “Why are men's sperm rates falling?”). The reduction has been significant – almost 50% in the past 40 years or so. A French study a few years ago found a substantial decline in average sperm counts between 1989 and 2005, from 73.6 million to 49.9 million per milliliter.
No-one really knows what’s causing it, although there are suspicions that estrogen-inhibitors in food (from food additives and leakage from food container plastics) might be the culprit. Be that as it may, falling sperm rates can’t be good for fertility and might indeed be a major cause for its global fall.
Falling fertility has a lot of effects which many people are deeply concerned about. Declining populations reduce economic growth and often put it into reverse gear. It makes it harder to pay for aging populations. It also hurts defense and military capabilities. Sure, environmentalists – rightly – like it as putting less pressure on the world’s resources. Just don’t tell that to the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the militaries of certain well-known countries (including us).
Countries that have declining populations that are really worried about it include Russia, China (soon), most of Eastern Europe (check out the Lilliputian Baltic States hemmed in by Big Bad Wolf Russia), Western Europe and (inter alia) new Zealand. All of these are facing problems of an economic nature much exacerbated by their falling populations (as well as way too much vodka in Russia).
The US is still increasing its population mainly due to immigration but that’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. Countries like France and Russia are now paying family allowances to get women to have kids but it’s not stopping the decline.
So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of moves by many countries to allow gene editing in humans - and that also means entire human populations - specifically for fertility purposes. Think I’m dreaming? Check this out: ”UK scientists gain license to edit genes in human embryos” “Scientists in London have been granted permission to edit the genomes of human embryos for research, UK fertility regulators announced”. So it’s on folks.
Of course, in the UK it’s meant for individuals, not the whole population. But not all governments will make that distinction.
So this in the home of the free, the birthplace of (modern) democracy and an advanced regulatory apparatus to ensure that science is applied ethically. It’s all downhill from there.
If the UK is doing it, what about Russia, China and (OMG) North Korea? You can be sure it hasn’t escaped their notice. Of course no-one is going to talk about it until they have actually done it and the glorious results are there for all to admire.
And even the central banks might be happy. Higher fertility means more babies, more economic growth and less problems paying pensions for central bankers once they, too, retire. Who isn’t for spurring global economic growth anyway?
Now I’m not advocating genetic modification for humans including to increase fertility. Let nature take its course, say I. I’m just saying it’s going to happen, like it or not. Chances are that the instigators are never going to ‘fess up. One day unaccountably in the future a certain nation or ten is going to announce that its population has suddenly increased, they just don’t know why.
Maybe there’s really no choice but for governments and regulators to accept this possibility and to ring-fence it as well as they can. Otherwise it’s going to become like drugs or prostitution; you can’t stop it once it’s started.
The gene (get it?) is about to come out of the bottle. Better be prepared.
Is it worth modifying human genes if it increases human fertility?
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