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The topic of genetic modiﬁcation of food has raised various ethical concerns among the consumers, environmentalist, farmers, scientists, and common citizens. The camps for and against the use of the modern technology in our food productions tend to base their arguments either on strict deontological moral principles or on the utilitarian calculation of overall harms and beneﬁts. In this research paper the different ethical viewpoints are introduced and their feasibility analyzed.
This research paper discusses genetic modiﬁcation of food. As the topic has raised many ethical concerns and points of view, it will examine different ethical issues as well as frameworks related to genetically modiﬁed organisms (GMOs) locally, regionally, and globally. The paper will introduce the methods of genetic modiﬁcation and their history and current situation. Then it will discuss the various ethical approaches for and against genetic modiﬁcation – including a discussion on known and potential beneﬁts and harms of the genetic modiﬁcation of organisms meant for human and animal consumption.
Genetic modiﬁcation (GM) of food involves deliberate altering of the genetic material of plants and animals. It is an old agricultural practice carried on by farmers since early historical times. Recently, however, it has been improved by technology, i.e., genetic engineering and molecular biology. The term genetically modiﬁed foods (GMF) or genetically modiﬁed organisms is currently most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using these latest technologies.
Genetic modiﬁcation in general describes the process by which scientists are able to pinpoint the individual gene which produces desired outcome, extract it, copy it, and insert it into another organism. Genetically engineered plants or animals are then generated by altering their genetic makeup. Usually genetically modiﬁed plants are tested in the laboratories for desired qualities. This testing is done by adding one or more genes to a plant’s genome using genetic engineering techniques (Freedman 2013; Fridovich-Kiehl and Diaz 2014).
Most direct genetic modiﬁcation is done either by gene addition (cloning) or gene subtraction (genes are removed or inactivated). An example would be to isolate a gene responsible for drought tolerance and insert that gene into a different plant. Thus, the engineered organisms are sometimes also referred to as “transgenic organisms.”
History And Development
To some extent, humans have been involved in genetic modiﬁcation for centuries. For example, larger cattle which produce more milk were bred to produce even larger offspring. Seeds from cereals and other crops that were more resilient and grew better were selected for planting the following year to produce better yields. This traditional process, however, has been slow and somewhat unreliable and inaccurate. The new technology that allows the scientists to take a gene from one living thing and put it directly into another plant or animal makes the desired changes more precise and happen in a much shorter time period. Currently the new technologies have created crops that are pest proof; disease, fungal, viral, and herbicide resistant; and weather (drought, cold, or hot) tolerant. It is also used to improve the nutritional content of crops and expand their storage. Also genetic modiﬁcation has been used to improve taste, size, and color of food products. For example, so-called Golden Rice has been modiﬁed so that it gets an extra boost of vitamin A from a daffodil gene so that it produces almost 20 times the beta-carotene of previous varieties. This rice was intended for Asia, and the justiﬁcation for this modiﬁcation is that in this way, people who might have poor or restricted diet and cannot get enough vitamin A otherwise could get it directly from rice (FDA 2014, Fridovich-Kiel and Diaz 2014).
The discovery in 1946 that DNA can be transferred between organisms brought new elements to food production. The ﬁrst genetically modiﬁed plant was produced in 1983 by using an antibiotic resistant tobacco plant. In 1994 the transgenic Flavr Savr tomato was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for marketing and commercial use in the USA. This genetic modiﬁcation allowed the tomato to delay ripening after picking. Commercial sale of genetically modiﬁed crops began when Calgene ﬁrst marketed its Flavr Savr tomato in 1996 (Fridovich-Kieh and Diaz 2014).
To date, most genetic modiﬁcations of foods have primarily focused on cash crops in high demand by farmers – such as soybean, corn, canola, and cottonseed oil. These have been engineered for resistance pathogens and herbicides as well as better nutrient proﬁles, as noted above. The most genetically modiﬁed food organisms are currently corn and soya. Corn that is used for food has been genetically modiﬁed to be resistant to various herbicides and to express a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis that kills certain insects. Nevertheless, it should be noted that since corn is used in various ways and processed into grits, meal and ﬂour which for their part can be used in breakfast cereals, snack foods, baking mixes, etc.; genetic modiﬁcation can be found in many different food products. Similarly soybeans are processed to different products that are used in a variety of foods, such as salad dressings soups, meat analogues, cheeses, nondairy creamer, desserts, infant formulas, breads, pasta, pet foods, etc.
According to various statistics, up to 90 % of the corn and soya beans grown in the USA have been genetically modiﬁed, and up to 60 % of all products on supermarket shelves could contain at least some GM soya (Freedman 2013; FridovichKieh and Diaz 2014). The percentage is lower in Europe, in Asia, and in Africa, but in reality it is very difﬁcult to know exactly how far the genetic modiﬁcation has spread across the globe.
GM livestock have also been experimentally developed. However, as of September 2014, there were no genetically modiﬁed animals approved for use as food, though GM salmon was still awaiting regulatory approval. In general according to FDA in the USA, many kinds of GE animals are currently in development. The largest class of GE animals is being developed for biopharm purposes – that is, they are intended to produce substances (e.g., in their milk or blood) that can be used as human or animal pharmaceuticals. Another group of GE animals are under development for use as sources of scarce cells, tissues, or organs for transplantation into humans (xenotransplant sources). Yet, others are intended for use as food and may be disease resistant or have improved nutritional or growth characteristics. Other developments include animals that produce high-value industrial or consumer products, such as highly speciﬁc antimicrobials against human and animal pathogens (e.g., E. coli 0157 or Salmonella). In general animals (e.g., goat) that are usually used for food production (e.g., milk) have already been genetically modiﬁed and approved by the FDA to produce nonfood products. (For details see FDA 2014; FridovichKiehl and Diaz 2014).
Currently, about only a tenth of world’s cropland includes GM plants. Four countries the USA, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina grow approximately 90% of the planet’s GM crops. Other Latin American countries are pushing away from the plants. In Africa there are test farms in some countries but not wide production. For example, Mauritius, South Africa, and Egypt are developing virus and pest-resistant transgenic sugarcane technologies. Other crops are tested also elsewhere in Africa (Freedman 2013).
From the point of view of global bioethics, genetic modiﬁcation of food is an issue of central interest. After all, GM food has various transnational worldwide ethical dimensions. Firstly, GM has a global context, and many debates on its beneﬁts and risks, whether health or environment related or economic, reach beyond national borders. Secondly, the responses to the use of genetic engineering in food production reach beyond borders as the movements for or against the GMF are not only national but also regional and international. Thirdly, many regulations that are set to control and test GMOs need to be based on international agreements.
In the philosophical ethics, the arguments for and against GM food vary often depending on the theoretical ethical starting point. Some deontological arguments may see the act of genetic modiﬁcation to be wrong per se. This view is usually based on ideological or religious commitments. Genetic engineering may be seen, for example, as unnatural and, thus, immoral. In religious deontology, it could be seen as a human attempt to take the place of God – and thus, work against God’s will. These positions could be easily defeated by counter argumentation that points out that has God created human beings and gave them the ability to ﬁnd scientiﬁc ways to improve and change nature. Consequently, the development of genetic engineering is in tandem with the God-given mandate to humankind to have dominion over other lesser creatures. Indeed, without fundamental theological assumptions, there do not seem to be strong categorical arguments against genetic modiﬁcation. This is partly because genetic engineering has existed in one way or another for centuries if not thousands of years, for instance, the biblical account of Jacob “creating” cattle of rings raked, speckled, and spotted ﬂeeces (Genesis 30:27:42).
On the other hand, reasoning along the lines of utilitarian ethics yields quite opposite conclusions on the rightness or wrongness of the overall consequences of genetic modiﬁcation. Depending on whose utility we focus on and whether we calculate economic aspects, risks, or beneﬁts and based on what information, we may get very different views on the moral desirability of GMF. Thus, while risks and beneﬁts are at the core of the GMO debates, utilitarianism cannot currently provide very solid ethical argumentation either for or against genetic engineering – especially before all risks and beneﬁts could be scientiﬁcally more accurately proven. Finally the tradition of Aristotelian virtue ethics may again see that human beings are changing the intrinsic telos of living organisms in a manner that prevents these organisms from ﬂourishing naturally. Lastly, virtue ethics may also be interpreted to promote human beings realizing their full rational potential as inventors of these new technologies that merely enhance evolutionary tendencies of the nature (On philosophical ethical theories see for example Singer 1993).
Actual And Potential Harms And Benefits
As noted above, traditional moral theories do not necessarily provide a particularly solid or feasible framework for ethical argumentation for or against genetic modiﬁcation of food. Thus, it is productive also to consider the actual beneﬁts and risks that concern people in relation to the GMF.
The promoters of genetic modiﬁcation of food appeal to the advantages that are achieved: better taste, larger sizes, better nutritional value, as well as economic beneﬁts when the crops become resistant to pests, weeds, extreme weather conditions, etc. The overall beneﬁt is mentioned to be the improved food production that would help to feed the poor across the world by providing more resistant crops with better nutritional values in places where the traditional farming techniques have not produced the needed results (WHO 2014).
Despite these beneﬁts, there is still much opposition toward GMF. Politicians, administrators, “traditional” farmers, environmental movements, and just ordinary concerned consumers have raised several issues of concern. These vary from general concerns on environmental pollution, unintentional gene transfer to wild plants, possible creation of new viruses and toxins, etc. Below these risks are listed in more detail.
Firstly, there is a fear that genetic modiﬁcation can lead to a loss of biodiversity if genetically modiﬁed organisms could have the potential to do unexpected harm to other plants and animals. The concern is that plants with new genes imported to them will accidentally crossbreed with wild plants and create harmful and unnatural effects in nontarget organisms (e.g., pesticideresistant super weeds or kill insects which are not pest but have a useful role in protecting plants). At worst, this could even lead to certain animal and wild plant species effectively being rendered extinct. This is not a fully unfounded concern as some laboratory tests have shown that pollen from GM maize in the USA damaged the caterpillars of the monarch butterﬂy. The studies on this case, however, are still highly controversial (see for details Winston 2002; Pewtrust 2003).
Secondly, where test crops have been planted in a country, there can be a deﬁnite danger of cross contamination with wild or non-GM plant strains. Many people are afraid that genetically modiﬁed foods may end up harming not only individual human beings but the environment at large. Even with very strict controls in place, it is impossible to prevent pollen from traveling on the wind from GM crops to other possible organic version of the same crop being grown nearby. Pollen could also be carried by insects. This could mean that in the end, all our food crops could contain a proportion of genetically modiﬁed elements. As consumers we would then lose our rights to choose GM food or not as it would be impossible to tell whether our food has been genetically modiﬁed at one stage or the other.
Thirdly, while the countries that are most affected by harsh weather conditions, arid lands, and famine could potentially be the greatest beneﬁciaries of GM foods, many regions with poverty and famine have not shown great enthusiasm for the newly developed crops.
In Africa there has been continuing resistance against adopting genetic modiﬁcation in farming as many African governments warn that gene technologies will not help the local farmers. Instead they may destroy the diversity, the local knowledge, and the traditionally more sustainable agricultural systems. If these countries become dependent on the multinational companies who provide the seeds and related fertilizers and pesticides, the capacity to feed people in developing countries will diminish rather than increase. This feat may not be unfounded as multinational companies are there to make proﬁts rather than feed the world and, thus, tend to have conditions for the commercial use of their seeds and crops. Multinational Monsanto that produces genetically modiﬁed crops, for example, is said to have had a terminator gene build in to them to prevent farmers from keeping seeds produced by their crops for the following year. Only recently this company was pressured to agree not to use this terminator technology in its crops (see, for example, Winston 2002).
Fourth, some of the speciﬁc fears expressed by opponents of GM technology include physical health risks such as alteration of nutritional quality of foods, potential toxicity and poisoning, possible antibiotics resistance, allergic reactions, etc. (Helferich and Winter 2010; Pusztai et al. 2003). The results on the actual and potential harms and beneﬁt seem to be sometimes very contradictory, and it is difﬁcult to know what we really should believe in.
Local, Regional, And Global Attitudes Toward GMF
In general, there appears to be a broad scientiﬁc consensus that food on the market derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food. However, it is also fair to note that it might be too early to know for certain whether or not GM foods are harmful to human health or to the environment in the long run. This technology has been in use for too short a time to be able to assess and predict all possible unwanted side effects. What makes an accurate assessment even more difﬁcult is the fact that the research reports on the safety of genetic modiﬁcation produce contradictory results. It appears that their results depend on who is sponsoring the research and where the information comes from. While most available studies claim that GM foods have not harmed anyone directly, there are also reports that reveal harmful effects that have occurred.
Another ethical dimension of the research and studies on GMF is that the results may sometimes depend on the background politics and interests of certain involved parties. Thus, fully impartial information is still hard to get as the companies involved in genetic modiﬁcation or distribution of genetically modiﬁed foods produce their own research and studies that focus on the beneﬁts of GM technology and may undermine the risks. On the other hand, the opponents to the use of these technologies emphasize the risks and may exaggerate the potential harms.
Also, different countries and different regions across the world tend to have divided views on the GMF. They also focus on different ethical, political, and economic concerns. Governments in different countries have taken diverse approaches to assess and manage the risks associated with the use of genetic engineering technology in relation to genetically modiﬁed organisms. There are different regulations between countries and again particularly big difference between the USA and Europe. The European Commission has funded high number of research projects on the safety of GM crops. And while these studies have not found any high risk from GM group, the EU ministers are very cautious of letting new GM products in commercial markets and general consumption. The opinion, however, are split also within the EU. Particularly Germany, France, and Hungary have led the opposition, while other countries have been more favorable toward GMF. Traditionally Europe has been more conservative and has stronger opposition to the use of GMF than the USA. In the USA the big multinational companies located there, such as Monsanto, have produced genetically modiﬁed organisms and GM food for a long time for wide markets, and the consumers for the most part have welcomed the used technology and are willing to buy products with enhanced qualities. In Europe the markets are more reluctant to accept GMOs, and there are strict regulations to clearly label products “contaminated” with genetic modiﬁcations. Some critics say that many of the objections to GM food stem from politics rather than science, and they are motivated by an objection to large multinational corporations having enormous inﬂuence over the food production and distorting the agricultural markets and creating dependencies (see, e.g., Noussain et al. 2004, pp. 102–120; Pollack 2009, and also Monsanto 2014). From the point of view of global bioethics, many of these differences in views are related to the wider questions of (global and local) distributive justice. For example, African states and developing countries in general are particularly concerned about the economic dependency on multinational corporations. They also do not want to be used as testing grounds as they worry about the unknown health and environmental effects (Qaim 2009, pp. 667–669). However, institutionally they have not been able to follow up the implementation of regulations to control-related issues. Thus, while there is political resistance against the GMF, in many African and Asian countries, the general policy is not fully clear and GM products are not yet well regulated.
Country-speciﬁc regulations also often depend on the intended use of the products of the genetic engineering process. Countries which have legislation in place focus primarily on assessment of risks for consumer health and consumer rights. However, a crop not intended for food use is generally not reviewed by authorities responsible for food safety, and its use is followed as carefully as for food crops.
Legislation, Testing, And Labeling
In order to avoid any harmful effects of genetic modiﬁcation of food, the safety assessment of GM foods usually investigates the following (1) direct health effect (toxicity), (2) tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergen city), (3) speciﬁc components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties, (4) the stability of the inserted gene, (5) nutritional effects associated with genetic modiﬁcations, and (6) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertions.
One way to give the consumer at least a choice is the power to choose whether or not to buy GM products. Indeed the argument over the development, marketing, and selling GM foods has become a ﬁerce political debate in recent years. Currently labeling can be mandatory up to a threshold GM content level (which varies between countries) or voluntary. In Canada and the USA, labeling GM food is voluntary, while in Europe all food including processed food or fee which contains greater than 0.9 % of GM contents is required to be labelled. Big companies that promote GM of foods such as Monsanto, General Mills, Pepsico, DuPont, Hershey, Cargill, Kellogg, Hormel, Kraft, Mars, Goya, Ocean Spray, and Nestle, as well as industrial food marketers, spend million on advertising to convince people to vote against labeling, while in many countries the consumer and environmental movements have pressured the government to make sure the GM products are clearly labeled (WHO 2014). Other ethical dilemmas may arise: [If the safety of GMFs is not a clear-cut issue, what are the ethical concerns associated with the power of choice? For instance, is it ethical for a government to allow its citizens to choose to buy products of uncertain risks and beneﬁts? The non-labeling movement of GMFs tends to raise the question of trust.
In relation to international trade, according to WHO no speciﬁc international regulatory systems are currently in place. Several international organizations, however, are involved in developing protocols for GMOs. The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) is the joint FAO/WHO body responsible for compiling the standards, codes of practice, guidelines, and recommendations. Codex is developing principles for the human health risk analysis of GM foods. The premise of these principles dictates a premarket assessment, performed on a case-by-case basis and including an evaluation of both direct effects (from the inserted gene) and unintended effects (that may arise as a consequence of inserting of the new gene). Codex principles do not have a binding effect on national legislation but are referred to speciﬁcally in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement of the World Trade Organization (SPS agreement) and can be used as a reference in case of trade disputes. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), an environmental treaty legally binding for its parties, regulates trans-boundary movements of living modiﬁed organisms (MLOs). The cornerstone of the CPB is a requirement that exporters seek consent from importers before the ﬁrst shipment of LMOs intended for release into the environments (WHO 2014).
From the point of view of global bioethics, many different ethical questions can be found in the debate for and against GMF: individual rights and health, environmental ethical issues, questions of distributive justice, issues of different worldviews and belief systems, etc. As GMF is a very complex issue and relatively little is known of its long-term consequences, it is important that we indeed learn more about the risks and beneﬁts of the new technologies and their application. More studies needs to be carried out and preferably by independent research bodies rather than biotech companies or movement that are in principle against the GM technology. This is important in order to learn through impartial research about both short and long-term effects.
It is unlikely that GM products will be taken off the shelves or that the development of new GM organism would be stopped. Neither will the planting of crops cease. Thus, it is essential to continue testing the safety on new GM crops and follow any side effects of the current ones. The debate on GMF will likely continue, shaped by different views presented by governments, companies, and consumers. In this debate, clarity is often hindered when arguments are based on partial scientiﬁc evidence, on partial interests, on moral values, on politics, or on mere rhetoric.
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