Archived news articles - 2001

The Straits Times Forum Page, 19 January 2001
By Yvonne Chew Lai Yeen

In our desire to have it all, we should not lose all

I was very glad to read Dr Gabriel Oon Chong Jin's letter, 'Life-sciences research: Where are we headed?' (ST, Jan 16), calling for caution as we jump on the global bio-revolution bandwagon. There should be more public debate on Singapore's push into the life sciences.

Genetic engineering, as Dr Oon pointed out, has many useful medical applications, but there is genuine scientific concern about genes escaping and unknown mutations occurring.

The risk may be minuscule, but it only takes one event to spiral out of control and wreak havoc.

I would like to know what precautions our research and academic facilities are taking to limit such risks, whether working with plants, insects or fish.

And how do the educational authorities plan to teach controversial issues such as genetic engineering and embryo stem-cell research that even the experts cannot agree on?

Scientists have biases, just like everyone else, and can be very good at presenting evidence to support their own stances. Fame and fortune are enticing.

Is not the same true of governments, especially when billions of dollars are invested? Witness the debacle over mad-cow disease in Britain.

There is a move in some countries, such as New Zealand, towards organically-grown crops, a direct reaction against genetically-engineered food.

While there may be a case for genetic engineering in medical research, I think that such foods are unnecessary.

They serve only to boost producers' revenues by creating more market choice for a world already spoilt by food choices.

Why are there no labels in Singapore to tell us which foods are genetically modified?

I know it can be a nightmare to administer, and there are many definitions of genetic modification, but that is no reason to avoid the issue altogether. Or, perhaps, Singaporeans do not care, or do not know enough to care.

Even in medical research, let us remember that the ends do not always justify the means.

It is a good thing to prolong and improve life. But does this justify murder, and can we be so sure that the embryos killed in stem-cell research are not 'alive'? We all have to die some time, of something.

If, one day, science became so advanced as to confer immortality, the planet would be overpopulated, its resources would not be able to cope.

Even supposing we improve food production and waste disposal, we would still, by sheer occupation of space, crowd out other plant, animal and insect species that are essential to the maintenance of the environment which sustains us.

Even if we colonise other planets, as physicist Stephen Hawking predicts, the same principles apply to this finite universe.

Let us be careful that, in our desire to have it all, we do not lose it all.

I am not against medical research, but it should not be exempt from the ethical boundaries that other scientific research is subject to. We should recognise that, to cling on to life at all costs, is self-defeating and may exact a price from future generations.

Nature is full of undiscovered remedies. Traditional cures are used by different societies. They may be less fashionable than high-tech research, but can be as effective, if not more so. Let us learn from Nature, instead of trying to change it.

Take cloning, for example. There is a reason for sex - it is the natural way of creating life. It produces variation by the recombination of genes - variation which is essential for surviving attacks from parasites and diseases. Cloning, on the other hand, produces identical copies, which can be wiped out by one potent strain of virus.

Finally, in Singapore's push into the life sciences, I see an emphasis on laboratory work, the micro-side of biology that is lucrative.

I hope there will be an equal emphasis on the macro-side - increased conservation of the already-limited nature areas and endangered species in the country, active participation by schools in field walks and trips organised by groups such as the Nature Society of Singapore.

If we have enough space for 22 golf courses. Surely, we have enough space to protect species, and show our children life sciences, not just lab sciences, in action.

Copyright @ 2001 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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