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The subject of GM foods in agriculture is a very touchy one. Some people feel passionately that GMO’s can enhance our life and nurture generations to come. Others feel there’s not been enough work done to ensure this is true. There are numerous pros and cons for both points of view. Even after having done thorough research on the subject myself, I can’t give a whole-hearted opinion on the matter. If what large corporations such as Monsanto tell us are completely true, then what an accomplishment for mankind. However if we’re being unknowingly misguided what a colossal catastrophe this could be. It’s an extremely tough choice, which makes it such a good debate topic. I’ll attempt address both side’s concerns from an economic, environmental, and perhaps most importantly an ethical point of view.
The new technologies usually called genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM) promise to revolutionize medicine, and agriculture. An optimistic view is that GM plants will make a great, possibly indispensable, contribution to reducing mass hunger. Yet the development of GM crops has recently caused widespread unease in the United Kingdom (UK) and other European countries. The unease comes in diverse forms and in varying degrees of intensity. I t is also based on a wide range of ethical beliefs.
Although it may be scientifically possible to undertake a certain experiment or introduce a new type of crop for commercial planting, it does not follow that it would be ethically right to do so. Working out what it is right or permissible to do involves, therefore, bringing together our scientific understanding with our ethical principles to decide what we should.
Few questions of practical reasoning about policy or practice can be dealt with in a simple form. Practical reasoning typically involves weighing up or balancing the benefits of a technology like genetic modification with its potential harms or disadvantages. Proponents claim that GM plant technology will raise agricultural productivity, assist the development of safer, more nutritious foods with a longer shelf life, and contribute to the goal of increased food security for the poor in developing countries. Against this point of view there are those who say that GM food technology is a threat to human health and the environment. They say that its introduction will raise the profits of private suppliers and at the same time deprive poor producers of primary commodities access to markets and to the new varieties of seed.
Will the technology promote the general welfare by making for improved food safety or reducing the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture? Or does the technology pose unknown risks for consumers and the environment that we would be wise not to run if we are concerned about the general welfare? What implications does the technology have for the rights of consumers, for example the right to be informed about the food one is eating? What implications does it have for the rights of scientists to be free to conduct their research in ways that protect their intellectual integrity? Finally, we can ask questions derived from a concern with the principle of justice. Who will be the principal beneficiaries from the introduction of the new technologies and what obligations do they have to compensate the losers?
For most individual consumers, the choice whether to consume or not consume GM food is not a matter of ethics. A consumer who thought GM food unsafe would be unwise to eat it. Only if consuming GM food is thought to be intrinsically wrong, is its consumption ethically wrong. The consumption of GM food would be ethically problematic, but in an indirect fashion. If its production did harm, violated rights, or caused injustice then there’s a cause for concern. Their critics frequently make the claim that the production of GM crops does one or all of these things.
GM crops do not raise questions about the rights of plants, in the way that animal experimentation raises questions about the rights of animals; nor do they raise questions about the welfare of plants. They do, however, provoke a reaction that is difficult to place within arguments about welfare, rights and justice. Some perceive GM crops as unnatural and those who disapprove of their development and use for this reason are among the strongest critics of GM crops.
Others have argued that it is unethical to treat nature in an industrial fashion, not simply because of the unfortunate consequences of so doing, but because they believe it is morally wrong. Having said this, GM crops raise ethical issues about the rights and wrongs of the ways we affect the environment that are especially difficult to analyze and resolve.
The introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops into the environment and the food chain has become highly controversial in the United Kingdom, parts of Europe and in other parts of the world. The possibility that GM crops will form a large proportion of the plants grown by farmers in the United States and Europe within the next decade has aroused reactions ranging from outrage and unease to acceptance. By contrast, their introduction has been greeted with near-indifference by consumers in the US and Canada. The genetic modification of plants involves transferring DNA from a plant or bacterium, or even an animal, into a different plant species.
Because we can increasingly identify which gene or genes determine particular characteristics, the appropriate genes can now be inserted directly into the plants we wish to modify. Although techniques required to create GM crops are recent and relatively sophisticated, genetic modification is in most respects an extension of what has been happening for ten thousand years. The primitive ancestors of almost all modern food crops are barely recognizable, for instance, originally corn wouldn’t have fed a mouse much less a person.
The principle objections to GM crops and the food products made from them concern possible harm to human health, damage to the environment and unease about the unnatural status of the technology. Many members of the UK public also object to what they perceive as an imposition of a new and uncertain technology, which in the case of GM soya, does not offer them obvious benefits. Where GM food has been such as cheaper or better-flavored consumers have been more willing to purchase it.
Concerns over human health have arisen on several counts. The fact that GM crops can bring together new gene combination, which cannot found in nature, has led to unease about possible effects on health over the longer term. The use of antibiotic-resistance genes in plant genetic modification has focused attention onto the possible risk of increasing human resistance to antibiotics through the food chain. The possibility of increasing and unpredictable exposure to allergens through new gene combinations has also been raised.
Environmental concerns have focused on the fear that GM herbicide-tolerant crops might encourage farmers to use more broad spectrum herbicides with a negative impact on insect and bird life. Genes conferring herbicide tolerance might also migrate from crop plants to their wild relatives resulting in herbicide-tolerant weeds.
There are also fears about damage to non-target species by insect-resistant crops and the inadvertent creation of new viruses. How much of a risk GM crops are to the environment is difficult to judge at this stage. They might damage it in some circumstances and enhance it in others. Obviously, GM crops should be marketed only when they meet appropriate safety and environmental standards. Although they offer the prospect of significant improvements in human welfare, there are risks that need to be guarded against.
GM plant technology is at an early stage of development. So far, the genetic modifications made to food crops have mainly affected the plants’ tolerance to herbicides and insect pests in crops grown in the developed world. Such crops may allow lower levels of agrochemical use and more efficient farm management. However, the scope for improvements offered by genetic modification in future is much wider and consumer benefits more evident. They include increased food micronutrient levels, removal of food allergens and the production of vaccines.
More important is the expansion of the use of GM crops outside the developed world. Globally, the ability to engineer resistance to salty soil and in the longer term to modify cereal crops to use atmospheric nitrogen could greatly enhance the diet of the world’s poorest citizens. The longer-term perspective suggests that industrial fuels and especially fuel for electricity generation could increasingly be based on GM plants rather than fossil fuels, and that construction materials could soon be grown in a tailor-made fashion.
Also, it is of great importance that consumer’s have the choice to avoid GM products if they wish, whatever their reasons may be. The prospect of broad patents on basic GM technologies also presents particular and potentially serious difficulties for developing countries.
The possibility that GM crops could make a substantial contribution to providing sufficient food for an expanding world is, on its own, a solid reason for engaging in the research that underlies their development. Commercial incentives require that private companies that engage in the research can patent commercially useful results. But will such companies be willing in the future to grant licenses on favorable terms for commercial research intended to benefit developing countries?
In the developed world the fact that the first GM foods have had no or little obvious benefits for consumers has contributed to the perception that they are unnecessary. Genetic modification could, however, be directed towards enhancing the flavor and quality of the food that reaches the tables of consumers in developed countries. Presently it is more often used to enhance storage qualities and transportability. In economic terms, these are important qualities but have little impact on the consumer. If the public were given the opportunity to be better informed about GM crops, it might encourage supermarkets and farmers alike to produce food that offers more consumer benefits.
Most concerns about the environment are ethically based and the majority center on welfare. Both the welfare of people living now and the welfare of future generations. Issues of rights are also at stake. One particular conflict of rights is between the rights of some people to exploit the environment in pursuit of money, as against the rights of others who want to preserve the environment as an amenity. At another level, rights are often thought to protect the vital interests of creatures that cannot make choices for themselves.
Some of those who argue that genetic modification is intrinsically wrong, or unnatural, do so from a position that the environment has rights, including the right not to have species boundaries violated. Whether we accept the idea of rights for the environment or not, this could be taken as a way of saying that human beings have no right to act in a way that violates such boundaries.
Others raise issues of ‘naturalness’ as a way to express uneasiness about what genetic modification means for our relationship with the natural world. Although they are prepared to accept that we already live with considerable human intervention in the environment, particularly in the high intensity agriculture involved in modern food production. Genetic modification seems like a ’step too far’. In the absence of detailed knowledge about the technology, people may not be able to say precisely what boundary is being crossed, and feelings about those boundaries will differ from person to person. For some the limit might be the introduction of human genes into crops. For others it may be the presence of animal genes or of even any gene that could not have reached its destination through ‘conventional’ breeding techniques.
The genetic modification of plants also raises questions of rights in relation to environmental impact. For example, do seed companies, farmers and the food industry have a right to pose environmental risks, however small, in pursuit of benefits, whether these are profits, consumer benefits, or both? On most understandings of rights, individuals and others have a right to risk their own well-being, but not to risk that of others. Conversely, it may be that those who wish to protect the environment might have the right to forgo their own rights, to avoid limiting other people’s economic benefits.
Genetically modified crops will never exist without being accompanied by controversy. Time will ultimately decide how legitimate each argument was. However until time reveals all the answers we seek precise and meticulous testing should walk hand in hand with this new technology. It seems that no matter what is said transgenic techniques will continually be research and mastered. It would almost seem silly not to explore their boundaries as a scientist. Having said all this, I’ll finish with a very simple yet appropriate quote. “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
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