Plant Biotechnology
EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 1999 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Ethics and transgenic crops: a review

Jonathan Robinson
Plant Breeding Research Department, Institute of Crop and Soil Science
MTT, 31600, Jokioinen, Finland
E-mail :

Keywords : Biotechnology , Ethical issues , Genetic engineering , Transgenic crops.

BIP Article

It is scarcely possible for anyone who watches television, listens to the radio, reads the newspaper or surfs the web to be unaware of the controversies associated with the production and growing of genetically engineered (GE) crops, and sales of the genetically modified (GM) food derived from them. The press coverage of this issue, at least in Europe, has been largely negative and alarmist, focussing on the possible dangers of the new technology whilst playing down the prospective benefits. The arguments surrounding this issue are mostly ethical in nature, and centre on the balance between risks and benefits and the impact of GE in human society and the environment. It is seldom realised that no activity can be entirely risk-free and that new technologies are by their very nature uncertain. Fundamental concerns are felt by many: the new technology is perceived as being unnatural and, at its most extreme questions, man's interference in god's work.

It is accepted that feeding the world's hungry is a moral obligation, and it has been suggested that GE will help alleviate human hunger. But what constitutes hunger? It is not a simple issue; it involves elements of poverty, poor education, poor health, uncertain environments and political instability, among others. Those living in such circumstances are the least likely to be able to afford expensive and sophisticated inputs to increase agricultural production and thus the benefits deriving from GE would seem not to be immediately available to them. GE seeds are likely to be expensive and are produced by large multinational companies that are required to make a profit from their ventures. However, circumstances differ according to geography, and what may not be possible for the millet growers of Africa might be possible for the rice growers of S.E. Asia.

The potential effects of transgenic crops on the environment are frequently debated. If more food is to be produced, where and how is this to be done? There are two alternatives, intensification of production in currently farmed areas and extensification of production to include areas that are not as yet farmed. Both have obvious drawbacks for the wellbeing of the environment, but what if the new crops were to produce their own fungicides and insecticides, this at least might mean a reduced need to apply some of those agrochemicals which currently damage the environment to a large degree? To date, however, much of the GE has centred on producing crops that tolerate heavy doses of chemicals for weed control, which could result in even greater pollution of the surrounding countryside and waterways. Biodiversity of agricultural and non-agricultural land could thus suffer. Another scenario concerns the escape of pollen from transgenic crops to the wild, initiating genetic pollution with the eventual displacement of elements of the natural flora or the creation of super-weeds. To date the evidence suggests that this will not occur, and whereas this concerns the potential spread of a small number of genes, there has been far less fuss made over the introduction of entire introduced exotic species of plant.

Human health is a very delicate issue, and whereas medical science is generally held in high regard for its progress in diagnosing and treating genetic disorders, engineering of crop plants for human consumption seems to be held in far less regard by a large proportion of the public. Much of the concern is focussed on ethically sensitive antibiotic resistance genes which are used in the process of identifying whether the gene of interest has been successfully transferred. The fear is that these could somehow be passed on through the food chain eventually rendering antibiotics ineffective for treating human ailments. The evidence to date suggests that this scenario is extremely unlikely but the technology is available to substitute such genes with less sensitive ones or to silence or remove them. Allergies and toxicities are an additional area of concern, although it is frequently forgotten that natural products can be extremely toxic and allergenic, and GM foods could actually correct for nutritional imbalances and nutritional disorders. Human health in any case already suffers from current agricultural practices.

Who will share in the benefits of GE of crops and are there likely to be losers? The concern is that the large-scale farmers, including those in the developed world, will benefit from transgenics crops to a far greater extent than the poor farmers of the developing world, possibly to the extent that the latter will lose what little access they currently have to world markets. Much of the rhetoric is about helping those most in need, but the technologies are very suitable, and more easily afforded, by those that are already doing well. The paradox is that most of the untapped biodiversity, and consequently many of the potentially useful genes for developing the transgenics of the future, reside in the developing world, where industrial agriculture has not had a chance to destroy the agricultural or natural environments to as great an extent as in the developed regions of the globe. Perhaps it is in this area, through patenting and marketing of important germplasm, where the poorer countries can reap the benefits, and not necessarily in the adoption of the new technology. Unfortunately, intellectual property rights and patenting are alien concepts to many countries of the developing world and the systems are open to exploitation and misuse.

Lying behind the technical and social issues connected with the development and deployment of transgenic crops in the minds of much of the public is the fear that scientists are going beyond their areas of responsibility by toying with nature, and are possibly interfering with divine design. While some intrinsic objections to GE might be religiously based however, not all are. For example, vegetarians might simply object to eating food-containing genes transferred from animals. In any case not all deeply held beliefs are negative, many believe in the inherent goodness of science and point to the enormous numbers of benefits which it has brought mankind. The fact that the results of science can be misused should not detract from the science itself.

The discussion on the relative rights and wrongs, merits and demerits of transgenic crops plants are mostly based on value judgements and not on established scientific or economic facts. Consequently, the discussion seems set to continue, but it is as well to remember that none of the foreseen disasters for GE has yet occurred, in stark contrast to the massive problems that have been associated with standard industrial processes and natural events.

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network
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