Vol. 2, Issue 29, July 27, 2004
Environmentalists, Animal Rights Activists Can't Decide What to Think about New Sheep
The first research of its type in Australia has concluded that genetically modified sheep are capable of growing specialized wool which can serve as light bulb filaments. However, the findings have provoked a furious muddle among activists who can't decide on what grounds, if any, to condemn the project.
The Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) conducted a five-year experiment in which they determined that Merino sheep with a particular genetic modification could, when fed the right diet, produce wool with a high enough tungsten content to function as the filament in an incandescent light bulb. In a typical 60-watt bulb, the tungsten filament is about 6.5 feet (2 meters) long but only one-hundredth of an inch thick. Tungsten is a metal not normally found in wool.
"The potential benefits and limitations of this technology need to be properly evaluated, taking into account scientific data and community concerns," said project leader Norm Adams at a press conference. "However, it is our hope that these animals, which we have dubbed "Edison Sheep," may do mankind a service by providing an environmentally safe and cheap alternative to traditional tungsten production methods."
On the one hand, this project raises ethical questions comparable to those in any experiment involving genetically modified animals. Gene Thompson, a spokesman for the group "Friends of the Earth," which has long campaigned against genetically modified food, said "Genetically modifying animals so they become factories raises serious ethical questions. Where will this stop? Will the sheep be growing entire light bulbs next? What kind of a life would that be, to walk around growing glass bulbs on your back?"
On the other hand, widespread production of the Edison sheep could radically transform the tungsten production business, reducing pollutants by millions of tons annually and preventing mining-related health problems for thousands of people, not to mention saving an estimated $150 million in costs.
"Man, this is a real head-scratcher," said Greenpeace activist Robert Pendrake. "I must admit that the elimination of an entire mining industry is a very attractive prospect. And - not that I'm for genetically modified animals - but if they could create sheep that grow wool containing coal, or other products, they could really make a difference. Why couldn't they have made it simpler for us by making the sheep grow guns or something. I could take a position on that."
Further complicating the matter, however, is the fact that incandescent light bulbs are not as energy-efficient as fluorescent equivalents.
"Compact fluorescent bulbs use a quarter the energy of regular bulbs," said Sylvia Gerstan of the group Energy Responsibility Now. "We've been working for years to convince consumers to spend a little more up front on fluorescents. I think making regular bulbs cheaper like this is utterly irresponsible. Why can't they make the sheep grow fluorescent tubes instead?"
And still more complicated is the potential impact on workers currently employed in the tungsten production business. "I can tell you this," said John Barker of the United Mine Workers of America. "Those sheep put even one miner out of a job, we'll make mutton pie out of 'em."
With such a maelstrom of conflicting public opinion making it difficult to gauge public reaction to the news, the White House declined to comment on the Edison sheep.
"Are you kidding?" said White House Spokesman Scott McClellan. "Ask me an easier one, like something about war crimes or the economy or something."