Genetically Modified Food

While the majority of scientists believe that genetically modified foods (or, more accurately, crops and animals) are safe for human consumption, there is considerable opposition to these genetically modified organisms. As might be suspected, this matter is philosophically interesting.

There are two stock moral arguments against such “tampering.” One is the playing God argument in which it is claimed that such modification is playing God and it is then argued (or simply asserted) that humans should not play God. A closely related argument is the unnatural argument. This argument works somewhat like the playing God argument, but involves arguing that because such modifications are unnatural, they are morally wrong. Rousseau famously lamented the horrible impact of advances in the arts and sciences—and he was writing when the height of technology included the musket.

One stock reply to the playing God argument is to show that people have been “playing God” in a similar manner and that this is morally acceptable. While the ability to directly manipulate genes is relatively new, humans have been engaging in genetic engineering via selective breeding since the dawn of agriculture. This has been done with plants and animals, both for those raised for food and those kept for other purposes. For example, the various breeds of dogs are the result of human engineering via selective breeding. So, humans have been playing God a very long time and if dogs are morally okay, then genetically modified crops do not seem to be a special moral problem. To use an analogy, if it is okay to make houses and structures by hand, then using power tools and construction equipment would not seem to make modern building methods morally wrong—the technology is just better.

A stock reply to the unnatural argument is to show that what is allegedly unnatural does occur in nature. For those who believe in evolution, the process of natural selection functions as a natural “engineer”, leading to changes in species and the creation of new species. In the case of genetic engineering, humans are doing what nature does—only faster and with a purpose. If this seems to be playing God, this takes the matter back to the playing God argument.

There are those who argue against genetic modification of food sources on the grounds that such foods are dangerous. This can be a reasonable concern and it is certainly wise to confirm a modified food source is actually a safe source. As noted above, most scientists regard these modified food sources as safe for human consumption. This seems reasonable, provided that the food sources were tested for potential dangers, such as being toxic. Some people do express the concern that the modified genes will somehow get from modified food sources and change the genes of the people who eat them. Given the way digestion and genes work, this is extremely unlikely. After all, humans eat normal food that contains genetic material all the time, yet do not undergo mutation. For example, eating chicken does not cause a person to gain chicken genes. As such, genetically modified food sources do not seem to present a special danger, provided that they are tested to see if the modifications had an unintended and dangerous results (such as making the previously safe to eat plant poisonous to humans).

Some people are not especially worried about the genetic modifications themselves, but are worried about the use to which such modifications will be put by the agricultural corporations. This worry is not (in general) that corporations will make science fiction monsters. Rather, the concern is that the modifications will be used as a means to exploit farmers, especially those in developing countries, and to lock them into having to buy the seeds from the corporations year after year. For example, a company might develop a type of rice that can handle higher levels of salt and drier conditions very well and sell that to farmers who need such a plant because of the impact of climate change. Since the company owns the rights to the seeds, the farmers will need to buy from that company if they wish to keep growing rice.

In defense of the corporations, they could avail themselves of Locke’s argument: they are taking plants and animals from the common and “mixing their labor” with them, making these plants and animals their property. As such, they can insist on ownership rights and bring lawsuits against those who might, for example, try to create similar plants and animals. After all, one might argue, corporations have a right to make a profit and this right must be protected by the laws. It can also be argued that farmers can, in a free market, purchase seeds from another company. Surely, one might argue, farmers can easily find competing products at lower prices that are as good.

In any case, the corporation problem is not a problem inherent to genetic modification of food sources, but rather with the behavior of people. There are, in fact, researchers who are developing modified plants and animals that will be available to farmers and not owned by corporations.

Those who support genetically modified food sources do have a very good general argument. The argument is that genetic modification allows the creation of food sources that can solve various problems. As an example, a plant might be modified so that it can survive harsher environmental conditions than the original, while also being more resistant to pests and producing a greater crop yield. Since genetic engineering is faster, more reliable and more precise than the old method of selective breeding, it can produce positive results more effectively. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, genetic modification seems morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some potential harms in genetic modifications. While it is very unlikely that any science fiction disaster scenario will arise and play out, there is always the possibility of unintended consequences and these are worth considering—but in terms of their relative likelihood and not on the basis of the plots of bad science fiction.


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