Ethical approaches to genetically modified crops

Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist, takes a stand against GMOs under the banner of indigenous, “open-source” farming and collective knowledge. This video is a short but clever synopsis of her position. For a more comprehensive account of the issue: see Al Jazeera’s stream. India is currently at the forefront of a movement against GMOs, as exemplified in the country’s suing of Monsanto – the notorious American agricultural biotechnology corporation that recently developed a modified eggplant seed. Allegedly, in using (or “stealing”) a seed indigenous to India, Monsanto violated the country’s “Biological Biodiversity Act.” But behind the surge in Indian outrage and opposition to Monsanto is the recent failure of genetically-modified cotton seeds to produce crops for cash-strapped Indian farmers, who previously used them. When the crops failed and these farmers were plunged into debt, thousands of them committed suicide. To read more: go here.

Conventional approaches to environmental ethics converge in only one way – a predominant focus on humans. Otherwise, they completely diverge in their most basic assumptions and rationale. When looking at the use of GMO crops and the explosion of this issue between the Indian government and Monsanto this past fall, two perspectives come to mind immediately. On one end, the deontological Kantian approach is rights-based, with a focus on intention (means) and not necessarily consequences of an action (ends). The equality and freedom of the individual is sine qua none in ethical considerations. On the other hand, the Utilitarian approach favors action taken to maximize the “greatest good” for the most people possible. Contrary to Kantian ethics, consequences of a particular action are of utmost importance and must be weighed or quantified. Things are judged for their utility or their use – for example, do GMO seeds produce a societal good? Will they successfully raise crop yields and subsequently reduce hunger in the developing world? Kant would retort: are the researchers and companies that invest in and create GMOs acting on principles related to human rights? Or are they driven by profit? In other words, are the rights of indigenous farmers being upheld?

Depending on the perspective chosen, one would reach an utterly different ethical conclusion for the use of GMOs.

The case for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a means to both eradicate particular deficiencies in crops (e.g. giving the seeds pesticidal genes) and to increase production (especially in the developing world) has received fierce debate over the past few years. Staunch opponents are usually concerned with the environmental effects of these organisms on human health, biodiversity, and the disruption of historical, natural processes. (Perhaps the teleological perspective would fall in line with these critics).

But issues of quantifying possible consequences and potential benefits of GMO crops may serve to discredit the utilitarian position. A recurring problem with GMO seeds is that first generation plants often yield sterile seeds, which is unhelpful for farmers, who are then forced to buy new seeds and perhaps face debt. Also, pesticidal proteins in the eggplant seeds deter not only pests, but pollinators – like bees. There is also the question of who benefits: consumers in poor countries? Or profit-seeking corporations? It is hard to calculate the trade-offs incurred and made more complicated by Monsanto’s bleak track record with human rights. Are intellectual property rights and patents necessary to continue and incentivize research efforts, or do they make access to affordable seeds more difficult for struggling farmers? Its hard to tell.

Moreover, India’s issue brings new words into our environmental ethics lexicon: “biopiracy”, “seed monopoly”, and “bio-terrorism”. Could Monsanto control crucial agricultural input markets with its patent on the seed? If a seed is modified and accidentally or purposefully cannot generate a second or third generation of crops, how are GMOs in any way going to eradicate hunger?

And yet…

“While environmental and consumer advocates in the First World fight against the worldwide use of GM crops in agriculture, hundreds of millions of people in the Third World are malnourished. And while trying to protect the environment and consumers in developed countries, critics of GM crops block a technology that could be of immense benefit for the majority of people in the Southern Hemisphere.” (Luis Herrera-Estrella & Ariel Alvarez-Morales)

Maybe GMOs are important. But the current sky-rocketing global food crises and the political unrest generated from the spikes do not show much in the way of progress in manipulating and increasing crop production for the global food supply.

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2 responses to “Ethical approaches to genetically modified crops

  1. I completely agree with this. The GMO’s are a good idea, but in reality, we need to start taking action in whatever way we can. Last semester in one of my classes, we learned that by 2020 our food crisis in the United States will have grown by at least 50%. In any case, whatever the solution, we need to begin taking action now.

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