Genetic Modification: A Pandora’s Box

June 26, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In recent years, there has been much debate around the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The subject has become highly controversial with various groups and individuals arguing passionately both for and against the creation of GMOs. Presently, crop plants are the most abundant type of GMO, even though a majority of people in Europe have expressed concerns about the development of GM crops.

Phrases such as ‘muddling with nature’ have been used by those who are opposed to the concept of genetic modification. As the production of GMOs involves altering the genetic code of another life form, some opponents of genetic modification have claimed that the modern technology that makes the creation of GMOs feasible could amount to giving humans ‘God-like’ power over the building blocks of life. One could even risk saying that as the natural world seems to have existed in equilibrium long before humans walked the Earth, it could be presumptuous for a comparatively young species to impose its own agenda upon this balance. Many people would accept that there are moral boundaries to which we should adhere when deciding how we should or should not treat other living entities.

The Utilitarian theory of ethics, advocated by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, advocates that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. Such an ethical theory takes the stance that the ‘summum bonum’, or the ‘greatest good’, occurs when an action produces the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. Consequently, a case could be made that GM crops should be created to help alleviate food shortages and hunger in the developing world. The case could be made that creating GM crops is a justified moral endeavour. Indeed, not producing GM crops could be seen as being immoral; we would be failing to utilise a technology that could improve the lot of many impoverished people across the globe. Such reasoning maintains that we have a moral duty to take advantage of any benefits that the production of GM crops might yield. Such is the view held by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and appears to have the support of the UK government, who believe that future GM crops could likewise benefit farmers in the UK.

Equally, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the biotechnology companies that create and sell GM crops are unlikely to be motivated by the plight of the poor – their principal aim being to make a profit rather than to act in accordance with any ethical values. It could be argued that these wealthy companies are pursuing their own agenda irrespective of any resulting consequences to the environment or to human health. From this standpoint, the reasoning behind the creation of GM crops is suspect at best, as the motivation behind their manufacture is profit at the expense of people: a practice that would, in due course, create more harm than good. Furthermore, if the growth of GM crops became widespread, a situation could arise where a few companies have a monopoly on the world food market. Such companies would then be in a position to charge exorbitant prices for their seeds. Additionally, these wealthy corporations could also exert unprecedented influence over governmental policy towards food production.

As the production of GM food is a recent phenomenon, where the long term risks are as yet unknown, one could deem it reckless to expose both the public and the environment to the effects of a new technology before all potential hazards have been scrutinised. As a significant proportion of the British public expressed concerns about the long term health effects of GM crops in a 2003 poll, exposing the population to any potential hazards, without consent, is a breach of their autonomy. Since there is thought to be a risk of GM seeds accidentally spreading to neighbouring farms and cross-pollinating with non GM crops, the aforementioned breach of autonomy would also apply to farmers wishing to grow only organic crops. Furthermore, research has shown that introducing a novel species into an established eco-system can have detrimental effects upon native species.

Although biotechnology companies espouse the alleged benefits of genetic modification, the question of ‘qui bono’ remains. When profit-making is put before the good of mankind, the earth and all the life that it supports, the motives and arguments of those who advocate creating GMOs could be examined very closely. Some pro GM scientists have argued that public hostility towards genetic modification arises from a lack of scientific knowledge. However, it has been shown that the more opponents of GM learn about the issue, the more hardened their opposition becomes.

Lastly, although the creation of GMOs has thus far been limited to crops and plants, it is possible that in time proponents of GMOs may begin to state the case for the creation of GM animals, or even GM humans, such as designer babies. We cannot say for certain that GM crops are not the start of our descent down a slippery slope towards creating a genetically altered world. Once the Pandora’s box of genetic modification has been sufficiently opened and the creation of GMOs becomes a common or even unregulated practice, it will be all but impossible for us to turn back the clock.

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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek

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