People in most cultures have developed many biotechnologies, which they continue to use and adapt. Some biotechnologies, such as manipulating micro-organisms in fermentation to make bread, wine or fish paste, or applying rennin to make cheese, have been documented for millennia. A major subset of modern biotechnologies is genetic engineering, or the manipulation of an organism's genetic endowment by introducing or eliminating specific genes through modern molecular biology techniques. A genetically modified organism (GMO), otherwise referred to as a living modified organism (LMO) or transgenic organism, means any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.1
Both classical plant breeding and modern biotechnologies depend on naturally occurring genes as raw materials. The maintenance of biodiversity is therefore a major global concern.
- FAO/11735/A. ODOUL
Classical plant breeding and modern biotechnologies both comprise sets of tools that depend on naturally occurring genes as raw materials. For this reason, the maintenance of biodiversity is a global concern. No country today can do without resources from elsewhere. From this interdependence arise the ethical questions surrounding the rights of the poor and the powerless to equitable benefit sharing, equitable access to genetic resources and technologies and a voice in the debate on these resources. These questions and related issues requiring follow-up action are important and are dealt with in other fora and papers.
The greatest agricultural genetic diversity is found in the tropical zones, yet the tools of modern biotechnology are largely owned by private sector concerns in the temperate zones. People and corporations use these tools to make products or commodities, including GMOs, for distribution. The tools used to produce GMOs hold the potential for more precise adaptation of genotypes to environmental conditions, nutritional and dietary needs and market preferences. But are GMOs increasing the amount of food available today, and do they make food more accessible and nutritious for the hungry? Or have they been limited so far to increasing profits on the farm and in corporate balance sheets? Ethical questions concerning the tools that researchers use to create GMOs could focus on how they might make a better contribution to food security, especially in food-deficit importing countries.
Some ethical questions concern the proprietary nature of most of the key enabling biotechnologies used today. In a recent report,2 the National Academies of Sciences in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States jointly called upon private corporations and research institutions to make arrangements to share genetic engineering technology with responsible scientists for alleviating hunger and enhancing food security in developing countries. That technology is now held under strict patents and licensing agreements.
A second set of ethical questions regarding modern biotechnology is related to the potential consequences of applying GMOs, or other new technologies, to intensify food production with a view to achieving greater food security. The experiences of the green revolution 40 years ago led some observers to conclude that richer farmers benefited earlier and disproportionately more than others from inputs-responsive varieties. While net benefits, consisting of more abundant, cheaper food, have been achieved through the operation of markets in many green revolution districts that have adequate infrastructure, less favoured locations still lag behind. Women represent a special concern, since they are greatly involved in the sustainable cultivation and the preparation of food crops for their families' consumption. They may be greatly affected (economically and socially) by the loss of traditional crops as well as by changes in land use patterns and any subsequent health problems to which their families may be subjected.
Women - and their families' nutritional status - may be greatly affected by the loss of traditional food crops
- FAO/20005/J. SPAULL
The third and final set of ethical questions related to the potential application of GMOs for achieving food security has to do with unintended consequences. As GMOs enter the food and fibre supply chains, they will be increasingly released into ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems. Earlier experiences - involving overly narrow genetic bases of crops and animals, excessive doses of fertilizers and pesticides, and waste runoff from intensified farm animal production units - all suggest that environmental impacts start with the production functions of agricultural ecosystems before spreading to surrounding ecosystems. In addition to their effect on agricultural production, environmental impacts can disrupt other useful ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and ecotoxicological remediation.
Before considering the global debate on GMOs, which is largely concerned with food safety and the environment, it is worth noting that questions arising from the potential application of modern biotechnology for food security are often confounded with questions arising from the actual spread of GMOs as commodities through supply chains.
A range of opinions in the debate on GMOs
"To feed 10.8 billion people by 2050 will require us to convert 15 million square miles of virgin forest, wilderness and marginal land into agrochemical-dependent arable land. GM crops hold the most important key to solve future problems in feeding an extra 5 billion mouths over the next 50 years."
Michael Wilson of the Scottish Crops Research Institute, in 1997
"The greatest threat to food security on earth is the concentration of the food chain in the hands of a few rich and powerful players.... This attempt to control the food chain, through developing genetically modified organisms, threatens to turn them into the hunger merchants of the third millennium."
George Monbiot, journalist with Socialist Worker, in 1999
Impact on developing countries
"If imports [of GMO seeds] ... are regulated unnecessarily, the real losers will be the developing nations. Instead of reaping the benefits of decades of discovery and research, people from Africa and Southeast Asia will remain prisoners of outdated technology. Their countries could suffer greatly for years to come. It is crucial that they reject the propaganda of extremist groups before it is too late."
Former United States President Jimmy Carter, in 1998
"There are still hungry people ... but they are hungry because they have no money, not because there is no food to buy ... we strongly resent the abuse of our poverty to sway the interests of the European public."
(In reply to a European scientist's comment that: "those who want GMOs banned are undermining the position of starving people".)
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1997
"Genetic technology could also improve nutrition. If the 250 million malnourished Asians who currently subsist on rice were able to grow and consume rice genetically modified to contain vitamin A and iron, cases of vitamin A deficiency ... would fall, as would the incidence of anaemia."
Robert Paarlberg in Foreign Affairs, in 2000
"A rip-off of the public trust, Asian farmers get (unproved) genetically modified rice, and biotech corporations get the `gold'."
Rural Advancement Foundation International, in 2000
Although modern biotechnology over the past few decades has opened up new avenues and opportunities in a wide range of sectors, from agriculture to pharmaceutical production, the scale of the global debate on GMOs is unprecedented. This debate, which is very intensive and at times emotionally charged, has polarized scientists, food producers, consumers and public interest groups as well as governments and policy-makers.
Although it started in small pockets, it has spread rapidly through every region of the world. Consequently, there has been a manifold increase in interest and in the number of proponents and opponents of associated issues - so much so that even local news papers publish articles on genetically modified (GM) food almost as a routine (for some recent examples, see Box, p. 3).
The diverse issues that have been raised in association with GMOs are indicative of some of the broader questions facing agriculture,3 science, technology and society today. FAO has the responsibility to address issues relevant to food, nutrition and agriculture, and to identify ways for promoting equity and fairness and ensuring food security. As an intergovernmental forum, it facilitates the exchange of ideas and opinions with the aim of promoting food security, rural development and the conservation of natural resources globally, but particularly in the developing countries (adopting an ethical approach). In addition, FAO provides technical assistance, primarily to its member developing countries. It is within this framework that the Organization has an important role in exploring and evaluating the claims that are a critical part of the global debate on GMOs.
This paper 4 seeks to unravel and explore selected facets of the claims made in the ongoing GMO debate from an ethical perspective. The main objective here is to highlight the role of ethical considerations in food and agriculture, both in the light of the discussion on GMOs and in relation to food safety and the environment. The paper also highlights certain actions for consideration by the international community and the public.
1 This definition of LMO is taken from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Article 3 (g). In Article 3 (i), "modern biotechnology" is defined as "the application of [techniques such as]:
a. In vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or
b. Fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family, that overcome natural physiological reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection".
2 Transgenic plants and world agriculture. Published under the auspices of the Royal Society of London. July 2000. Washington, DC, National Academy Press.
3 Agriculture includes forestry and fisheries; however, this paper will primarily use the food production function of agriculture to explore ethical issues associated with the development and use of GMOs.
4 A draft version of this paper was considered as background material by the Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture at its first session in September 2000.