In this, the first of three episodes, the documentary series Animal Farm (originally broadcast on Channel 4 on 19th March 2007; TRILT identifier 0062CC6E) begins to explore the world of selective breeding, transgenics and cloning – a world that is described as having “limitless possibilities” (00:20:31). The series places the scientist Olivia Judson and the food critic Giles Coren on a virtual farm, populated solely by plants and animals that have been subject to some form of genetic manipulation. The farm’s inhabitants range from selectively bred Belgian Blues and a hairless cat, to ‘super salmon’, featherless chickens, ‘humanised’ sheep and Golden Rice.
|The Belgian Blue (Animal Farm. Channel 4, episode 1, 2007)|
While the series itself offers an excellent source of concise and understandable scientific background to some of the most groundbreaking, contemporary biotechnological developments (the short animated sections are an excellent resource in this respect: see for example the explanation of how and why transgenic salmon were created – 00:27:13 “Traditionally a salmon only grows in warm water” to 00:27:47 “…all year round whatever the water temperature”), the programme is explicit in its attempt to examine the ethics of these developments and, further, public responses to them.
|The “Super Salmon” v. the normal salmon (Animal Farm. Channel 4, episode 1, 2007)|
This first episode, for example, begins with a number of questions: “If they can create a rabbit that glows in the dark, should we fear it?”, and “If they can make a goat that produces spider’s silk in its milk, is this going too far?” (00:00:09), followed by statements relating to two positions one might take on such organisms: “…evolution has produced weird and wonderful creatures, now man can do the same” (00:00:27); and, that they have “…been designed by men to exploit animals for their own ends” (00:09:03). Each position is represented by one of the presenters, and as the programme proceeds we learn how and why one believes that the techniques explored in Animal Farm offer “limitless possibilities” (00:20:32), and the other the “possibility for getting it all horribly wrong” (00:31:52).
The potential of transgenics is one of the major issues addressed in this episode. Indeed, it is described as “one of the great discoveries of the last 20 years” (00:20:31). The ability to isolate a gene form one species, transfer it into another species, and have it expressed in that organism, is the basis for almost all recombinant DNA technologies. While such techniques have been in routine use for at least 20 years, it is in their application to higher, and more proximate, animals that is the principal focus of Animal Farm.
|The Scaleless Chicken (Animal Farm. Channel 4, episode 1, 2007)|
During their time on the ‘farm’, Judson and Coren meet: rabbits that glow in the dark ; salmon that grow to four times normal size in their first year; and rice that, thanks to bacteria and daffodil genes, is able to produce beta carotene – one of the “building blocks” of vitamin A. Each of these transgenic organisms is introduced and explored in turn, particularly through interviews with their ‘creators’. They are asked to explain the rationale behind the use of transgenics in each case, and also to address the ethical issues and public concerns that go alongside each development. While the series itself appears implicitly supportive of this technology, these interviews do attempt to address the perception that “swapping genes from one species to another [is] inherently disturbing” (00:40:50). Some of the main issues affecting the ethical assessments contained in the programme are:
- Medical v. non-medical uses of transgenics
- Connections with the GM debate
- Debate about “What’s natural” (00:09:33)
An exploration of each of these topics, as presented in this episode of Animal Farm, is given in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post (pdf).
However, whatever one’s view on whether and how each of these issues could or should affect our ethical decision-making regarding transgenics, what this programme clearly highlights is the truly revolutionary feature of transgenic technology: precision. Where selective breeding and the crossing of plant species have allowed us to manipulate the genetics of animals and create new hybrid plant species, genetic technologies of the type explored in Animal Farm offer us a precision we have never had before.
All timings given here are approximate, and correspond to quote timings on the ERA recording of Animal Farm – Part 1 of 3, CH4 2100-2200pm, 19 March 2007.