-Matthew R. Rittler, Ph. D., Director, Masters Biotechnology Management
The topic of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is of significant public and scientific interest. Discussions of GMOs are fraught with strong feelings, a wide range of social and scientific values and knowledge, and much ongoing confusion. A lot of the conversation surrounding GMOs is centered on the topic of food safety. To what extent do GMOs bring an inherent “goodness” or “badness” into the food chain we consume? The topic of food safety is an important one, of course, but there is a much wider-range of potential ethical issues related to GMOs that has been under-examined. What are some other important ethical issues surrounding GMOs?
First, there is the tight link between genetically modified crops and the input traits which are selected for these plants. The overwhelming majority of genetic modification in plants has been to alter the way we are able to use chemical herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. As a result of genetically-engineering the crops to withstand chemical application, there is increasing incidence of those same chemicals failing to produce the desired results. Nature always finds a way, and some plants considered weeds have started to develop a resistance to the chemicals meant to eradicate them.
As a result of this resistance, there is an increased need for more and more chemical applications. Pesticide use is increasing by almost the same amount. If a potential problem with GMO use may lead to pesticide resistance (e.g., “superweeds”) are there viable alternatives that can offer solutions to this cycle—to help us break out of this system of growing chemical use to increase crop yields? Likewise, what will ultimately be the impact to farmers in developing countries? In many cases the ease with which weeds and pests can be controlled has led to booming agricultural markets in developing countries.
Another ethical issue with GMOs gaining more traction of late is the issue of labeling foods. In the 2014 election cycle, both Oregon and Colorado citizens voted "no" on ballot initiatives requiring certain labels on food products that contained GMOs. Voters may have had more pressing concerns on their minds, like jobs, healthcare, or the economy. Or perhaps, like many people new to this topic, those voters were unclear about what these regulations would actually mean to them, as a consumer. A frequently cited problem with GMO labels is that they may not offer clarity or specifics about which ingredient is genetically modified in a final food product they are purchasing. For example, on a bag of pretzels, is the GMO ingredient the wheat, or is it the vegetable oil or corn syrup used to flavor them? Adding to the confusion, without mandated standards for labeling, an item considered as a GMO in one state might not be categorized as GMO in another. This means consumers will be given non-specific and sometimes unreliable and incomplete information. Very obviously, this is a topic that needs to be further debated. More broadly, this issue deals with a person’s ability to control what they eat and grow, an issue that resonates with us all.
A third issue that frequently comes up in discussions of GMO usage is the “naturalness” of GM plants. When you look at the environment, is it “natural” that there are GMOs in a field? It is a question you could ask of any plant in a field. For thousands of years the human race domesticated plants. Now, suddenly, there are these plants called GMOs which are perceived to be a problem. It could be argued that the concept of genes is constantly changing. In the course of scientific progress earlier knowledge is always becoming outdated and replaced. If we say that the inherent “naturalness” of a plant is connected to their genes, then so our concept of naturalness will also change and evolve. Could the current genome of a plant be considered “sacred?” In many ways GMO production is simply a form of evolution, which is not an unnatural process. That being said, the more broad issue here is an issue of integrity. Should we, as humans, be allowed to open up the genome of plants and insert things into them that would never have been inserted? Often, because of more deeply-held spiritual views, this issue is much more difficult to address.
The use of GMOs is a very complex topic. In many cases, debate on the issue brings about more questions than answers. No longer is this issue a conversation between molecular biologists, because as the world’s population continually grows, there is considerable pressure on the agriculture industry to meet the growing demands on food and nutrition — an issue that truly affects humanity in its global context. It is incumbent on the scientific community to not position the food security debate as one of science versus anti-science, and thereby driving a wedge in public policy decisions.