Resources for case:
The EU-US Dispute over Regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms, Plants, Feeds, and Foods
- Articles on General Ethical Concerns on GM Foods
- Pro G.M. Food Arguments and articles
- Anti G.M. Food Arguments and articles
- Articles on U.S. – European GM Foods History
- Thinking Ethically about GM Foods
1. The Ethical Dilemma of Genetically Modified Food. (Journal of Environmental Health)
Enumerates both the advantages and disadvantages of GM foods from an ethical viewpoint.2. Genetically-modified food; Can you comment on genetically modified food products? How safe are they? (Manila Bulletin)
Short article in response to a mail-in question on the ethical concerns involved with GM foods as well as ethical reasons to support them.
Genetic modification can improve the consistency and nutritional composition of foods. GM technology can also produce environmental benefits by reducing the amount of water and soil required to grow crops. The increased food quantity and quality offered by GM foods can help feed a growing and too often hungry world population.
In the following sections we will enumerate arguments supporting (pro) and critical (con) to GMOs, and then list supporting and critical online resources. With each resource we indicate which argument it applies to with indicies, e.g. "B2". These arguments were gleaned from the Human Genome Project (2008) .
- Improved consistency, taste, and quality
- Increased nutrients, yields, and stress tolerance
- Increased food security for growing populations
- New products and growing techniques
- Increased food output
- Conservation of soil, water, and energy
- Improved resistance to traditional disease, pests, and herbicides
1. Gene Altered Foods: A Case Against Panic (New York Times)
- Opinion piece arguing that GM foods are safe, scientifically-proven and that their improved food output means food is available to more people. [ A1, A2, A3, B4, B5, B6, C8, C9, C1]
2. Rice Genome Called a Crop Breakthrough (New York Times)
- The genetic sequencing of rice could improve nutrition and help feed millions, but concerns mount over centering food supplies in the hands of corporations. [A1, A3, B4, B5, C10]
3. Golden Rice in a Grenade-Proof Greenhouse (New York Times)
- A strain of GM rice containing Vitamin A could make millions healthier, and its creators are working to make it available freely to poor farmers. [A3, B4, B5, B6]
4. Critics of Biotechnology Are Called Imperialists (New York Times)
- Some proponents of GM foods are decrying anti-GM campaigns against donations of GM foods to developing nations, but opponents contend that the “feed-the-world” arguments used by GM proponents are nothing more than a callous public relations campaign. [B4, B5, B6]
5. Genetically modified crops get the Vatican's blessing (New Scientist)
- Scientists at the Vatican, traditionally resistant to genetic modification, issue a statement approving of GM foods because of its potential to alleviate world hunger and poverty issues. [B4, B6]
Genetically-modified foods pose health and environmental risks, as the effects of new gene sequences remain unknown. Genetic homogenization additionally makes food supplies more vulnerable to new strains of disease. Patent rights also dangerously concentrate control of food supplies into the hands of corporations.
- Potential increased food allergies and antibiotic resistance in humans
- Unknown risks from consuming new genetic combinations
- There are alternatives
- GM Foods allow a small group of companies to control world food production
- Patented seed varieties limit GM innovation to large corporations
- GM development in rich countries increases developing nations’ dependence on industrialized countries
- Genetic homogenization makes food supplies vulnerable to new strains of disease
- Violation of natural organisms' intrinsic values
1. Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle (New York Times)
- A history of the relationship of agribusiness to recombinant genetic technology and its use in food. [B4, B5]
2. Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News (Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News)
- POINT OF VIEW: Genetically Modified Foods Unsafe? Evidence that Links GM Foods to Allergic Responses Mounts
- An opinion piece from a scientist opposing GM foods on the grounds that they pose risks to human health. [A1, A2, C7]
3. Of Dead Mice and Germ Warfare (New York Times)
- Australian scientists seeking a method of making mice infertile through genetic-modification techniques accidentally developed a virus that kills mice by attacking their immune system, illustrating how unintended consequences can arise from genetic experimentation. [A2]
4. Gene-Altered Corn Changes Dynamics of Grain Industry (New York Times)
- In 2000, Kraft Foods issued a recall of genetically modified corn StarLink products after the corn, which had not been approved for human consumption, made its way into pre-packaged foods. This article illustrates the dangers of genetic homogenization and industrialized food processes. [A1, A2]
5. Plan for Use of Bioengineered Corn in Food Is Disputed (New York Times)
- The agribusiness industry pressures government to speed regulatory approval of GM corn during the 2000 StarLink controversy. [A1, B4]
6. Report Faults U.S. Regulation of Biotech Foods (New York Times)
- The Consumer Federation of America releases a report critical of the laxity of U.S. regulations on GM foods. [B4, B5]
7. The Green Revolution Yields to the Bottom Line (New York Times)
- Patents held by large agribusiness firms often make it difficult for researchers to develop potentially useful GM foods. [B4, B5, B6]
8. Farmers Joining State Efforts Against Bioengineered Crops (New York Times)
- North Dakota farmers, traditionally supporters of GM foods, back new legislation imposing a 2-year moratorium on GM wheat in their state, citing concerns about being able to export GM foods to foreign markets. [A1, A2, B4]
9. Gene Research Finds New Use in Agricultural Breeding (New York Times)
- [A2, A3, C7, C8]
(See the case summary for an overview.)
1. Europe Approves New Genetically Modified Food Control (New York Times)
2. Biotechnology Food: From the Lab to a Debacle (New York Times)
3. F.D.A. Plans New Scrutiny in Areas of Biotechnology (New York Times)
4. Report Faults U.S. Regulation of Biotech Foods (New York Times)
5. U.S. Crop Protest in France (New York Times)
6. Bioengineered Corn Found in European Food (New York Times)
7. Bayer's GMO rice variety passes EU test. (Manila Bulletin)
(from MJ Peterson – Appendix 5)
Philosophers, ethicists, and others have expressed four types of objections to GM technology. Objections of the first type are what ethicists call “intrinsic objections” and involve claims that developing and using some technology is inherently wrong regardless of the results of doing so. The others are “extrinsic objections” involving claims that the technology (or action) are not inherently wrong but can be wrong if it causes or contributes to morally unacceptable situations or outcomes.
1. Objections based on conceptions of the divine order of nature as independent of humans and valuable in itself:
a. GM technology is fundamentally unnatural and hence contrary to ecological sustainability because it substitutes highly error-prone human manipulation for the natural working of life processes.
b. GM technology constitutes a fundamental assault on nature by disrespecting the inherent character and intrinsic worth of nature as it is.
c. GM technology constitutes a sacrilegious effort to redesign nature to fit human convenience or preferences in ways that substitute human judgment for divine benevolence and guidance.
d. GM technology violate the sanctity or intrinsic character of life by
i. Reducing it to genome sequences;
ii. Destroying naturally established species barriers;
iii. Promoting the treatment of living things as commodities to be owned, bought or sold, and redesigned at will.
2. Objections based on level of risk to human physical well-being
a. GM technology poses unacceptable risk of causing severe and irremediable ecological harm. Critics have identified at least five sources of such risk:
i. Accidental creation of “superweeds” as GM plants and native plants growing near each other exchange pollen and produce offspring that severely disrupt ecosystems either by overwhelming other plants or requiring massive applications of pesticides to control;
ii. Aggressive spreading of artificially-created plants that crowds out naturally occurring ones and reduces species diversity to the point that the ecosystem cannot function effectively;
iii. Large populations of genetically identical plants proving susceptible to some unanticipated disease or pest that wipes out whole crops, resulting in mass starvation;
iv. Pests robust enough to overcome plants with GM modifications for insect resistance will multiply and their control will require increasing amounts of or increasingly strong pesticides causing more harm to soils;
v. GM crops have characteristics that will decrease soil quality more severely than native or even traditionally bred plants. This will require greater use of chemical fertilizers that harm ecosystems and/or lower agricultural productivity to the point that additional wild habitat will need to be taken over for farming.
b. GM technology is another manifestation of the human hubris that led to massive environmental degradation; its development and use encourages continued under-estimation of the potential for ecological harm from human action and continued over-estimation of human ability to develop a “fix” for environmental harms already sustained.
c. GM technology promotes “industrial farming” – monoculture of similar plants in large fields relying on repeated applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides – that harms ecosystems by contributing to species loss, soil depletion, soil erosion, loss of nutritional value in foods and feeds, pollution of aquifers, streams, rivers, and lakes, and the emergence of chemical-resistant insects and weeds.
3. Objections based on considerations of equity, fairness, or justice
a. Risks from use of GM technologies are borne mainly by persons exposed to them involuntarily – those living near places where GM plants are grown or GM research proceeds, those consuming foods made from or with GM ingredients or derived from animals or plants raised on GM nutrition sources, those in societies where GM products comprise a large part of the total food and feed supply.
b. GM technologies disproportionately benefit the relatively small groups who monopolize sources through patents or other forms of intellectual property rights.
c. GM technology increases economic inequality within countries because the size of organization needed to develop GM crops and the size of farm needed to benefit most from planting GM crops favors large multinational firms and large industrial-type farms over small firms and farmers.
d. GM technology increases economic inequality between countries by imposing on developing countries' agricultural techniques that are inappropriate to their climates and social circumstances; the effect is worse if a foreign-based company has been able to engage in “biopiracy” – patent a GM organism consisting wholly or partly of a variety traditionally used in a developing country’s traditional agriculture.
e. Decisions about when and how to use GM technology are driven by the individual interests of developers, distributors, and users, not by considerations of public good or general welfare.
4. Objections based on considerations of transparency and accountability in decision-making.
a. With GM technology, as with any other, the scientific expertise needed to assess the potential risks and benefits of the technology, and the economic expertise needed to determine whether use of the technology offers efficiency advantages over alternate ways of performing the same task, are necessary to but insufficient for determining whether all or some uses of the technology are “safe,” in the public interest, and ethically or morally acceptable. Decisions should therefore be submitted to processes permitting extensive input from various stakeholders.
b. GM technology, like any other likely to have large-scale effects, should be subject to public scrutiny and widespread consideration before being placed into use.
Most ethicists would agree with Ronald Sandler’s view that the proper goal of technology use is “to promote human welfare in just and sustainable ways, within appropriate moral boundaries.”
They would, however, go about making their evaluations in different ways depending on the ethical system that they apply. Sandler applies the tradition of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics evaluates choices and actions by determining whether they would accord to what a virtuous person would do in the situation at hand. Thus, the primary concepts applied in virtue ethics are notions of the human virtues – courage, honesty, humility, compassion, etc. – and the human vices – cowardice, dishonesty, arrogance, cruelty, etc. Attention is paid to the connection between the action and both the original dispositions that framed the choice or action and the impact of the choice or action on the chooser’s future dispositions (or character). Virtue ethicists first ask what virtues are relevant to the situation at hand. They next consider what dispositions would be present in a person having the virtue or virtues relevant to the situation. The focus on human virtues and vices might seem to cut off any consideration of nature, and some deep ecologists have criticized virtue ethics on that basis, but any form of virtue ethics that regards “external goods” – material things and social relations that permit experiencing a better quality of life than would be attained in their absence – as a component of life can easily incorporate concern for nature and the viability of ecosystems into ethical reasoning.
Sandler approaches the question of whether to use GM technology by asking first whether its use would enhance or inhibit the ability of natural and agriculturally modified environments to produce the external goods that “nature” has traditionally provided. Any virtue ethicist would oppose using GM technology if, as some of its critics contend, its use would harm nature significantly and irreversibly reduce its capacity to produce external goods. A virtue ethicist concluding that use of GM technology would not have this effect then proceeds to a second question about nature: whether use would be contrary to any of the human virtues that apply to human interaction with nature. Virtue ethicists disagree about which virtues are relevant in these interactions because they, like others, disagree on the broader question of how humans should relate to nature. They divide into a “conservationist” camp (at least maintain and if possible increase the value of nature for humans) and a “respect-based” camp (value nature in and for itself). The respect-based approach is likely to be more restrictive of GM technology use because it will be concerned not only with whether GM crops reduce agricultural productivity, but also with whether they cause harm to other species or individual creatures of other species. Here, GM technology could violate the rules of conduct a virtuous person would follow. If it does, a virtuous person would not use it. If it does not, virtue ethicists proceed to a third question: does use of the technology serve virtuous human-related ends without violating any virtue-based reasons counseling against their use? The virtuous ends Sandler regards as most relevant to agricultural GM technology use are compassion and justice. Compassion is the attitude of attention to and concern for the situation of others; justice is a broad term covering considerations of equity and fairness among people.
“While insisting that each use of GM technology has to be evaluated separately because different transgenic plants have different impacts on nature and different implications for human social relations, he concludes that most uses of GM technology should not be encouraged. Though doubting that GM technology will have the ecosystem-collapsing effects that some critics claim, Sandler believes that it usually does violate the ethics of human interaction with nature by fostering hubris and a way of seeing nature as something to be manipulated rather than adjusted to. He further objects that most commercial applications of GM technology also violate the requirements of justice, but notes that a virtue ethicist would lead with that objection only when the particular use of GM technology does not violate the standards of virtuous behavior toward nature (i.e. because the GM plant involved has been developed mindful of likely effects on nature and is designed to have low impact). In the end, Sandler supports those uses of GM technology serving a virtuous goal without violating a virtue-based prohibition. This, he argues, is the case with “golden rice,” a variety of rice with genes inserted to increase its ability to produce beta-carotene (a good source of Vitamin A). It is respectful of nature in that it was developed to enhance vitamin synthesis rather than resistance to diseases, pesticides or herbicides and so has low potential to spread and dominate other varieties of plants. In addition, it will serve justice because its developers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology intend to cross breed it with local varieties of rice in developing countries where Vitamin A deficiency is widespread.They also intend to provide it to local farmers.
Peter Singer, best known for his work on animal rights, adopts a partly rights-based and partly circumstantial form of ethical reasoning. He and co-author Jim Mason suggest starting from five ethical principles “we think most people will share” when considering food choices:
- Transparency: each person has a right to know how any food or food product is produced. This covers production processes, and the impact of production processes on the environment, as well as ingredients. In their view, this not only shows respect for others but also serves as a safeguard against bad practices by permitting consumers to use production information as part of their purchasing decision.
- Fairness: food production should not impose the sort of costs economists call “negative externalities” on neighbors or the environment. Thus “factory farms” that smell bad or attract insects impose externalities on their neighbors. Food prices should reflect the full costs of production, including externalities. Non-environmentally sustainable methods of food production fail this test because they pass costs on to future generations.
- Humanity (Humaneness): inflicting significant suffering on animals for minor reasons is wrong. In Singer and Mason’s view, humaneness means choosing products produced in ways that keep animal discomfort and suffering to a minimum.
- Social responsibility: workers have rights to safe working conditions, fair workplace practices (no forced labor, no discrimination in employment), and rights to form unions and bargain collectively.
- Needs before desires: actions preserving life and health are more justified than those merely advancing pleasure. Within and between countries this principle suggests ensuring that everyone has a nutritional minimum. Singer and Mason also use it to argue that overeating and poor food choices leading to obesity should be condemned not only for their effects on the individual but also because of the higher health care costs imposed on others wherever health care is financed through taxes or private insurance funds.
Singer has also expressed views about use of GM technology in food and feeds. He has argued that complaints that GM organisms are not “natural” are beside the point. As he put it in a recent interview, “It is a mistake to place any moral value on what is natural. I mean many things are natural, including racism, sexism, war, and all sorts of diseases that we try to fight all the time. So the argument about GM food being unnatural and therefore wrong oversimplifies this debate.” He adds that each proposed GM organism has to be examined separately to see whether the potential gains (better nutritional value, greater drought resistance, better adaptation to particular soil conditions) outweigh potential dangers (GM crops cross-pollinating with other farmed or wild plants and creating new environmental problems, producing foods with more allergens than previous varieties). He also estimates the distributional consequences of GM seeds differently than many commentators. Though expressing some preference for development through what he calls “public benefit organizations” – non-profit institutes or NGOs – he argues in the Brown Journal interview that “It’s offering new seeds. If they’re better, people will grow them; if they’re not better, people won’t grow them.”
(1) Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms. Human Genome Project. Nov. 2008. Available at: http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml. Accessed July 25, 2009.