We are poised at the beginning of a century when—according to virtually all the most well-informed commentators—our understanding of human health and disease will turn medicine on its head. That understanding takes as its starting point genetic variations between individuals. Eventually, even investors have bought that story, pushing the market capitalization of many genomics companies to unbelievably inflated heights and lobbing a cool $885 million in the direction of Celera, the Perkin-Elmer/Craig Venter genomics company.
All, however, does not bode well. On current evidence, there is little reason to believe that the human race is equipped properly to deal with genetic information. Rationality's small voice has repeatedly gone unheard beneath the pounding of xenogenophobes against boardroom doors. Decision-makers have capitulated to the baying mob, displaying no spine and precious little central nervous system function at all.
You haven't noticed the petty gene-based bigotry that corporations and governments are demonstrating right now? You want examples of genetics subverting sophisticated management thinking to visceral levels? Look at GM food. In hundreds of separate rooms around the world, hundreds of groups of people have seized upon slight genetic differences and simply stigmatized them. These are not stupid or ignorant people: they have sufficient wit to run food manufacturing companies, retail chains, import/export businesses, health ministries, and pan-national political unions. They can, however, rightly be accused of corrupting genetic information for their own ends. They wanted to increase (or maintain) market share, to exclude competitors, capture political power, justify trade embargos. They rationalize their bigotry: they are “protecting stakeholder interests”, they are “ensuring human safety”, they are “safeguarding the environment”. Of course.
When decision makers vote against GM to protect the environment, they are voting for continued use of excessive amounts of weedkillers and pesticides; for continued waste of fossil fuel resources; for the unnecessary use of large amounts of land that could support wildlife for agriculture. Politicians and bureaucrats, urged on by mischief-makers, have repeatedly seized upon wrongheaded pseudoscience and bent it abruptly into new rules.
For many companies protecting shareholder interests, rationality is an abstract concept that has long since disappeared into marketing propaganda and up the corporate bottom line. In the US, Frito-Lay recently advised its growers not to plant maize that includes the Bt insecticidal protein for their saturated fat-laden snacks. Kirin and Carlsberg will brook no GM ingredients in their beers. (How many alcoholics died of GM poisoning?). None of these companies says that genetic changes are harmful. But neither do they argue with those who do.
Popularity among electors and consumers pays short-term dividends. That must be why, in dealing with GM food, both governments and companies have shrugged and asked for a show of hands among the misinformed. But there is life beyond the next quarter or the next opinion poll. Progress in genetics will soon necessitate urgent consideration of issues that are infinitely more important than GM food (at least in the developed world) for human healthcare. Perhaps when those issues are being resolved, politicians will remember how to act as leaders and companies will put the long-term value of trust above any short-term threat to their brands.