Because we can, does it mean we should? The ethics of GM foods

June 27, 2014 by Christopher Mayes, The Conversation
Credit: Alpha/Flickr, CC BY

Food is cultural, social and deeply personal, so it's no surprise that modifications to the way food is produced, distributed and consumed often lead to ethical debates.

Developments in the (GM) of foods and crops has resulted in a raft of controversies.

Ethics can help here. While science determines whether we can safely modify the genetic makeup of certain organisms, asks whether we should.

Ethics tries to move beyond about what is, to evaluative statements about the way we should act towards ourselves, each other and the environment we inhabit. But things are not always so clear-cut.

Three areas of ethics can help frame some of the concerns with GM food and crops: virtue, moral status and consequences.

Virtues vs vices

Ethics of GM foods can be developed by looking at virtue or character. Does the activity of engaging in the development of GM foods and crops erode virtues while producing vices? Or is GM technology a prudent use of knowledge for humanitarian goals?

Character or virtue-based arguments are seen in the case of golden rice – a rice strain modified to contain beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.

According to the World Health Organisation more than 250 million are vitamin A deficient (VAD), and two million deaths and more than half a million cases of blindness are attributed to VAD. The developers of say it will supply 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.

But global outrage ensued after group of Filipino farmers destroyed a test crop of golden rice. There has been little recognition of the Sisyphean struggle of farmers in countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh and India, yet these farmers have been described as anti-science Luddites and contributing to the deaths of children.

Critics of golden rice such as Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva argue that GM technology is a solution offered by industrial agriculture to address problems created by industrial agriculture.

Golden rice is a techno-scientific fix to structural problems created by some of the very companies that may profit from GM crops.

Although golden rice is a non-profit initiative, Shiva argues that it is a trojan horse to give GM crops a humanitarian face.

According to opponents such as Shiva, golden rice and GM crops not only pose negative consequences for farmers, environment and the global poor, but represent vices of greed, arrogance and dominance. Rather than humbly working with and caring for the natural environment, industrial and technological interventions seek to master, profit and control.

Morality of nature

There are also concerns about the moral status of the organism itself – does the modification of an organism's genetic makeup represent a wrong to the dignity or integrity to the organism?

This position depends on arguments that nature has dignity and interests beyond those of its human inhabitants. Such arguments are not readily accepted due to their metaphysical or theological overtones and dependence on essentialist idea of nature.

Appeals to nature can led to what British philosopher G.E. Moore described as the naturalistic fallacy – the idea that we can derive moral statements from facts of nature. Examples include:

  • raw milk is good because it's natural
  • standing desks are good because we weren't meant to sit
  • genetically modified crops are wrong because they're unnatural.

Perhaps we aren't so concerned about the essential dignity of rice or wheat, but what about GM pigs that glow in the dark, featherless chickens, cows that produce human milk or the integrity of an ecosystem? Although the arguments are relatively the same, in discussing GM animals, the idea of a natural integrity or dignity seems more compelling.

Weighing up consequences

The most common way of framing the ethics of GM foods is to ask: do GM foods and crops present negative or harmful consequences for individuals, populations or the environment? Answers to this question vary according to context.

Most scientists argue that GM foods are safe to eat and will not harm consumer health.

While critics maintain that long-term health effects are uncertain, they contend that even if GM foods are safe to eat other harmful consequences should be considered, such as the impact of patenting laws on farmers and research integrity, or the risk of GM crops contaminating other crops or escaping into the wild.

Debates over consequences tend to avoid the question of whether there is something inherently objectionable about GM foods and crops. So long as there is appropriate management of risks, then theoretically, there is no ethical problem.

It is unlikely these issues will be resolved any time soon – and likely that new ones will be added – but one area that can be worked on is discourse ethics.

Describing opponents of golden rice, even those that destroy test crops, as committing crimes against humanity or those in favour as pursing economic self-interest does little to move the debate forward.

Until productive discourse is established, barriers between opposing views will only strengthen.

Explore further: Assessing the health risks of GM foods

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5 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2014
such as the impact of patenting laws on farmers and research integrity, or the risk of GM crops contaminating other crops or escaping into the wild.

Most of the GM crops use Pollen for reproduction, which means contamination of natural crop strains in neighboring fields is practically guaranteed. Then Dow or Monsanto actually get to legally sue the owner of the initially natural field for "stealing" their product. This is unethical and immoral by any standard, but perfectly legal.

There is currently a company making Goats which produce spider silk from their mammary glands to produce biologic meta-material fabrics with properties similar to Kevlar, but stronger. If one of these Goats somehow escapes into a farmers natural herd, especially a male, then you could contaminate an entire herd over a period of a few generations of goats.

What about Horizontal Gene Transfer potentially causing the botulinum toxin gene in GM corn to end up in insects genes, or in normal grasses? cont
5 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2014
If a digestion-related gene can go from a gut bacteria to it's host insect, then why not botullinum go from Corn to an (botullinum immune) insect or another plant?

If it's the wrong insect, it could make an invincible predator or pest insect, which kills or sickens it's own predator. See the Lion Fish invasive species problem for what happens when an Apex Predator is also poisonous to most things.

It could accumulate in the bodies of herbivores, and when those die, INSECTS are often involved in cleaning up the mess, but if the mess has accumulated botulinum toxins, then the scavenger insects are damaged, for example.

Oh yes this is a worst case scenario nightmare, but the sad thing is worst case scenarios very often happen in nature (see Spanish flu or the present Ebola virus outbreak).

So geneticists KNOW this can happen and does happen in nature, but have no qualms inserting a gene that codes for a nerve toxin in our food. Given the volume it is BOUND to happen eventually.
5 / 5 (3) Jun 27, 2014
Here's how it would happen:

One sad day, a piece of viral DNA or a prion attaches itself to the spliced gene, and ends up in another species, perhaps an otherwise harmless Bacterium, or perhaps it ends up in the already botulinum resistant strain of a pest insect, and mutates that creature into an organism which is immune to the toxin, and also produces the toxin. Viola, Lionfish, but on land.

That requires about two stages of mutation in one or two viruses or prions, which apparently, based on the "Hybrid Flu" from a few years ago, can happen in as little as a few years for viruses.

It really is amazing this hasn't happened yet, given the volume of produce.

Do we want Eel DNA from engineered Salmon to end up in Bears or in Algae in our rivers and streams through horizontal gene transfer?

On an opposite end of the spectrum, is it any coincidence that Honey Bees are missing and on decline during about the same time frame as the introduction of GM food crops?
5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2014
The developers of golden rice say it will supply 60% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A.

Initially, it's hard to find reasons to dislike this type of GM. I think the biggest danger is people coming to rely on this strain of rice, and reducing overall genetic diversity of the rice used in agriculture, which then increases the risk of famine, producing the opposite of the intended results: more death. This would lead to the logical conclusion of engineering several strains of golden rice, which then increases the probability that all natural strains would become extinct. While this would help prevent a mass famine, it still appears to produce a risk of lowering total genetic diversity, which is bad in the long term, even if it is very good in the short or middle term.

I don't have a real problem with this, nor splicing genes between closely related strains of the same species, because they probably have shared it in the past at some time anyway.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2014
Another type of GM that I don't have a problem with would be correcting genetic errors within a species by using other genes within the species, or designing it to code for more copies of a gene which is highly beneficial and already in the species, BECAUSE we already know those substances are safe.

What I don't like is when they take Jellyfish DNA and put in rats, or Spider DNA and put in Goats (God forbid that end up escaping to a normal goat farm).

Eel growth hormone related DNA in Salmon...what happens if that jumps across to bears, or bobcats and cougars? Or let's be ridiculous, but wolves or squirrels?

I picked mostly predators which eat fish when it's available, because that's the most likely potential for a horizontal gene transfer to a land animal, but it could end up in frogs or aquatic insects too.

Did they even do studies on what would be the consequences of that?

I bet they didn't. All they did was maybe animal studies to see if some lab dogs were negatively effected.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2014
But they didn't do a study to see if that gene will screw up bears or cats or wolves or frogs if it somehow gets horizontally transferred to them via a virus, or several stages of viruses and bacteria...

So what happens when an aquatic bacteria picks this up eventually? You'll have growth hormone flooding the river/stream, and either causing cancer, or accelerating growth of organisms, potentially the wrong organisms.

While that is a pretty bad scenario, it is realistic, has happened before, recently, and only requires ONE STAGE of horizontal gene transfer to screw up an entire ecosystem.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 27, 2014
Yes we should.


And we should also be careful...just like with any other technology.

Although the arguments are relatively the same, in discussing GM animals, the idea of a natural integrity or dignity seems more compelling.

Interesting take, I think that's the least compelling because it's placing an obvious subjective human bias or value on an amoral and "valueless" system. The more compelling argument is the one where if we mess with stuff too much we could end up hurting ourselves. Selfishness is far more compelling than fashion...
5 / 5 (1) Jun 27, 2014
Interesting take, I think that's the least compelling because it's placing an obvious subjective human bias or value on an amoral and "valueless" system.

60% of the American public either don't believe in, or aren't fully convinced that evolution is true.

Many of those who are convinced also believe it has some sort of higher purpose set by God, or excluding that, evolution is about going somewhere better or stronger - fitter, instead of fitter as in just whatever happens to work at any given time.

So it is a very compelling argument to most of the people.

not rated yet Jun 27, 2014
So it is a very compelling argument to most of the people.

That's a very good point. I tend to forget all of that. You definitely have to speak through people's various worldviews if you want to be convincing...even if you don't personally put stock in said beliefs.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2014
Because we can and there's a buck in it we will. The question of whether we should usually only comes up after we did it.
5 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2014
Because we can and there's a buck in it we will.

The capitalist mantra, and ultimately the death knell for the Earth.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2014
Normative and prescriptive statements, characterized by would/should/could, have no inherent truth value.

About genetic manipulation, there is not even an effective definition that differentiates between genetics and 'manipulation.'

The mention of the Naturalistic Fallacy seems to have escaped critical comment, there is the related Luddite Fallacy. If neo-Luddites eschew GMO, good, more for me.

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