Technological hubris

THE news that the United States government is planning to consider applications for patents on new types of animals developed through genetic manipulation is not good. Hitherto, the only patentable products of genetic engineering have been plants and microorganisms. And even the introduction of these into the environment has been fraught with questions and puzzlements. For instance, a major controversy flared a while back over whether injecting a tree with an engineered substance could be construed as a trial in a ``closed container.''

The biotechnology industry sees genetic engineering as of a piece with ordinary hybridization of the sort that has been going on at least since Mendel. We aren't so sure. And even hybridization and selective breeding can lead to problems such as inbreeding and loss of variety within the gene pool.

The new decision on patentable animals, announced last week by the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office, represents a major reversal of policy. No other country allows such animal patents. The Humane Society, concerned about freakish developments such as the ``geep'' - a combination of goat and sheep - will fight to have the decision rescinded.

Why, we wonder, does society need such creatures? To feed people? We would suggest the problems of feeding the hungering masses have more to do with marketing and distribution systems, with ill-conceived pricing systems, with overpopulation, with war and civil strife, than with any inadequacy of farm animals themselves.

It can seem easier to try to solve the problem in the controlled conditions of the laboratory rather than in the rough and tumble of the real world.

Technology often seems to have its own imperatives, but these need not be absolute. The burden should be on the would-be engineers to prove that designer beasts are necessary.

An absolute halt to genetic research is not necessary, but at least a flashing red light is called for. So is more public debate. These issues, moreover, should be taken up by the Congress, and not left to the administrative decisions of executive agencies.

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