The recent developments in molecular biology are by far the field of expansion comparable with computer sciences, space science etc. The unthinkable maneuver of moving genes around between unrelated organisms (gene cloning) is now an everyday practice in molecular labs around the globe. The general perception held by the public about cloning as a way of constructing a duplicate of a sheep or human is VERY wrong. Whilst it represents one form of molecular cloning, cloning could simply imply that you take DNA from one source and put that piece into the genome (DNA) from another source, a kind of cut and paste business.
In 1953 two fellows by the names of James Watson and Francis Crick were having a few beers at the local bar when they figured out the structure of the molecule we know as DNA. Which landed them the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1962. Today we still work from that very basic knowledge they provided. A molecule that consists of four building blocks (G, A, T, C) the molecule responsible for every single biological feature and characteristic as we know it. For example: the color of your eyes, having curly or straight hair, are all a direct reflection of how those four building blocks are arranged in your DNA.

It was not long before we found out that we have the ability to replicate this structure outside the living cell and that we can manipulate it. Today genes (DNA sequences) responsible for specific physiological (biological processes inside living cells or tissue) and morphological (the way things physically appear) processes are easily identified. E.g. if I can identify the gene responsible for keeping deep-sea fish from freezing in water temperatures below 0 ºC and cut and paste this into tomatoes, I might end up with tomatoes that are frost resistant. Most research efforts focus on the improvement of agricultural crops leading to the construction of "super" hybrids or genetically modified organisms (GMO's). Currently our own country is leading the GMO revolution together with the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico. Being the hot topic in recent science it was prone to evoke different opinions on safety issues, ethics, religion and ecology.

In the United States a few court cases are currently underway regarding GMO related issues. In most cases the plaintiffs are suing agricultural companies such as Monsanto over allergic reactions caused by the consumption of GMO produce and the issues surrounding the labeling of GMO food in supermarkets. Once again I think that public ignorance is playing a major role and that a lot of people get the wrong idea when they hear the words "genetically modified". Genetic modification means that the DNA from another organism is present in the product. If you are Jewish, making you a non-pork fan, will it be relevant to refuse eating tomatoes that contain a pork gene? During our lives we eat tons of DNA in all our food sources, being made out of those very same four building blocks, and that tomato will only have a few additional arrangements of those four building blocks. If you ever had that nice Afrikaner Sunday lunch with cauliflower and white sauce then you've been subjected to "GMO-consumption", even though cauliflower has never been modified in any lab. This plant is almost always infected by a virus (Cauliflower mosaic virus) whose strategy involves splicing its own DNA into that of the cauliflower i.e. producing a "natural clone" or GMO. What is however important in the case of lab GMO's is the function of the manupulated DNA. Since DNA is indirectly responsible for the expression of certain protein, these proteins should be monitored for human health issues and environmental impacts.

With the bureaucratic United States being the forerunner in biotechnology it would be reasonable to expect agencies such as the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) etc. to do their homework before releasing engineered crops to the market.

One of the biggest wars being fought by Anti-GMO activists and organizations is that we need labels on our food saying that we are eating genetically altered food. For any lay person on the street this might be the most frightening thought ever: CAUTION THIS TOMATO HAS BEEN GENETICALLY MODIFIED. Because the lay guy on the street probably does not know that he is eating plenty of DNA everyday. I still think that the labeling of GMO crops is a fair request though. In the US it is not required according to federal laws, even though they are the major engineers of such crops. Our own country requires all GMO food to be labeled as do our friends in the far north. But we'll be starting a few thousand years too late.

Of course plants have been grafted for thousands of years. The stem of one plant is attached to the roots of another, to produce a plant with some characteristics from each donor. This is called grafting and is basically the same technique now used on humans as well as plants. Another old-fashioned genetic trick is the horticultural technique we call cross-pollination. It started with insects buzzing from bush to bush, taking some pollen from one plant to fertilize the flowers of another. Boring as it may sound; this is how plants have sex. Somewhere along the way a prehistoric gardener noticed the results, tried a little cross-pollination him- or herself, and selective plant breeding was begun. Yet another old way to breed plants is with cuttings from a root, branch, or leaf. True Love's army of African Violets are literally nothing but a bunch of chips off the old block. The gardener snips a little piece off a favourite plant, then sticks the cutting in water and makes it grow. The result will be a new plant with the exact characteristics of its single parent. Today we call this cloning.

Prehistoric farmers from the Middle East applied the same principals when they started to domesticate ovicaprines and bovines in the wild to become what we regard as sheep, goats and cattle today. This millennia old breeding processes resulted in timid animals ready for mass-consumption by humans. Among the few exceptions to this rule are the fish and other things we eat that come from under water, which are substantially unchanged by man.

Biotechnology is still in its nappies, and as with any new technology with such unlimited potential, will need time to be accepted and tested. Remember it was only the other day (July 1969) when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, something unthinkable at the time, with DNA known to us at that time for only a little longer then a decade. Who knows, by the time we can get into time-capsules to travel from De Aar to Washington in only 45 minutes, maybe then GMO's will be accepted as a reasonable and sustainable way of feeding the masses. We are on the peak of technology (no shit!) and in order to sustain ourselves whilst still solely dependant on natural resources, we need to seek alternatives. Biotechnology might just be one of these alternatives.