GM Food and it’s Ethical Problems

The thought of genetically modified food, for most people, automatically produces feelings of revulsion, perhaps in some people, even visions of mutated carrots with wings and potatoes with three eyes. Fear of GM food is something which seems to be fairly ingrained in popular consciousness, but peoples reasoning for why they feel this way about GM food is often murky and confused.

Given this fear of GM food, it will be with some trepidation to many people that it has been suggested by the governments chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, that human survival may depend on the cultivation of genetically engineered crops, given the prospect of high food prices, slower food production and a general trend of increase in world population.

If we continue to avoid GM foods on moral or ethical grounds we will be hit by a much bigger moral or ethical problem: global starvation. These factors among others, such as the lower number of people globally employed in agriculture, will trigger a “perfect storm” which could see millions go hungry, or rather millions more go hungry. Beddington estimated that the world was going to need 40% more food, 30% more water and 50% more energy by the middle of the century, and although GM food would not fix the food shortage by itself, the technology was one of the major factors which could avoid catastrophe by, for example, creating pest-resistant strains. This kind of progress, of course, as Beddington pointed out, needs to be pursued thoroughly, with careful testing to ensure their quality for consumption and production impact on the environment.

I have found that if you ask most people what it is they don’t like, or trust, about GM food it is likely they will answer saying something about how unnatural it is. This is a contentious issue in itself, as the use of the term unnatural here is fairly ambiguous. There seems to be a strange gap in peoples reasoning when defining what it is for something to be unnatural. People, including myself, eat processed foods daily which would be impossible to find in a state of nature. However when they hear of a certain food being made more resistant to pests or being produced in such a way that they have a longer shelf-life, this is unacceptable and makes people suspicious of this form of food science. So to damn GM food on the grounds that it isn’t a natural means of food production seems to fall on its face.

I am not saying that I know for sure that there is no problem with GM foods. I am saying that if you are made uneasy by things such as GM food production you need to have evidence to substantiate such an inclination. As Michael Specter explains in his TED talk, the scientific method is quite rightly open to question, but it is in our own interest to not shroud ourselves in our dubious beliefs and not to just believe anecdotes or popular wisdom when the advice of experts is available.

When there are stakes as high as the prospect of global starvation, we cannot allow our poor reasoning to undermine a potential solution to the problem such as GM foods.

Intuitional Epistemology in EthicsMatthew S. Bedke

Environmental Ethics: An OverviewKatie McShane

Author: Steven Hedley

I am a postgraduate student in philosophy at Kings College London and an aspiring academic.

3 thoughts on “GM Food and it’s Ethical Problems”

  1. On top of that, all food we eat now is genetically modified in some way – the best example is bananas. The wild banana looks and tastes nothing like the bananas we buy from a store and consume quite happily. They are so heavily genetically modified it’s not funny. Sure, the genetic modification wasn’t in a lab and those performing the modification had absolutely no idea of what DNA was, much less how to manipulate it – but it’s still genetic modification of a sort.
    Heck, roses are probably the most genetically-modified plant that there is. Wild roses look nothing like the varieties most people grow. The billions of different varieties each had to be produced through genetic modification – granted, it often took decades, but again, still genetic modification.
    Genetic modification is genetic modification whether it’s in a lab or with a pair of secaturs. Anyone who wants to avoid GM food completely might as well not eat, because everything we eat has been modified in some way by the simple process of being farmed.
    Where do people think all the dwarf varieties of plants come from? Or white roses? Or green apples, for that matter?

    (My only real beef with GM food is the patenting of various seeds and plant varieties. But that’s a whole other argument.)

  2. @dartigen
    Thank you for your comment!
    As regards your last remark, I am very much in agreement. The patening of life is quite another matter from GM food and comes with its own dire moral consequences. I have also heard stories about seeds being put on the market which have a suicide gene built into their genetic make-up so that farmers have to keep going back to buy more seeds rather than using those which the plant produces (this is just what I have heard, by the way. And I realise the irony in buying into something Ive heard second hand after writing a post saying people shouldn’t do that). It seems to me these policies are highly unethical as thy are based on no higher principle than the pursuit of profit. However when the principle is avoiding billions of deaths due to starvation, that is clearly a noble cause.
    What Im trying to say is that one doesn’t follow the other. As with so many things we have to find the middle ground; the middle ground between doing nothing and nose-diving into a world wide food crisis and, on the other hand, opening the genetic make-up of life to greedy free-marketers with no principles.

  3. There are many processes and technologies that we rely on that might be considered ‘unnatural’ – That’s surely not the central worry of GM foods.

    I think the main ethical concern is when people (or more likely organisations) use the technology for unethical ends.

    Steven, maybe what you’re thinking of is the controversy surrounding Monsanto’s ‘Round-Up Ready’ seeds, which are often barren (don’t produce offspring), and are also dependant on the farmer purchasing herbicides (also from monsanot, you’ll be surprised to hear). There’s a good article on this here:

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Monsanto_and_the_Roundup_Ready_Controversy

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