CONCERNS ABOUT THE ETHICS OF GENETIC MODIFICATION

H. Lehman and J.F. Hurnik
Departments of Philosophy and of Animal and Poultry Science (resp)
University of Guelph
Guelph, ON, N1G 2W1 CANADA

Presented at the Fifth World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production, 7-12 August 1994. Proceedings Volume 20.

ABSTRACT

Technology based on the knowledge of molecular biology provides new and powerful means to modify existing agricultural plants and animals. Proponents of genetic engineering emphasize the benefits of more efficient production processes, improved resistance of plants and animals to diseases, higher nutritional quality and better palatability of human food, and reduced dependence on non-renewable resources. Increasingly, such applications are giving rise to serious concerns about the possibility of excessive concentration of economic power as a result of holding patents for new life-forms, negative impact on the wellbeing of many farmers and rural communities, reduction of biodiversity of agricultural plants and animals, and uncontrolled transfer of genes which could harm wildlife. The article proposes a cautious approach to applications of new biotechnological methods in agriculture. It warns against hasty implementation of genetic engineering, based on fallacious arguments, and stresses the need for rigorous scientific research and thorough analysis of ethical, social and economic consequences as a prerequisite for rational utilization of the benefits of advanced biotechnological methods in agriculture.

INTRODUCTION

With the invention of agriculture people began to alter their environments in significant ways. Increasingly habitats were modified to accommodate domesticated varieties. Further, the varieties were modified as well. In the last couple of centuries the development of scientific knowledge led to scientific agricultural technologies and these developments magnified both the rate and extent of modifications to crops and environments.

Perhaps the latest changes of note consist of the application of techniques based on our knowledge of molecular biology to modify the production of our plants and animals. We shall refer to such techniques as genetic engineering. Through genetic engineering, progress has also been made in development of frost-, drought-, salt and herbicide-resistant plants (see e.g. 1,2). Such techniques have been applied to develop varieties which accommodate better to modern international agricultural economies, for example, tomatoes which allegedly taste better in spite of retaining features which enable them to be harvested mechanically and shipped over long distances. Probably the most well known example is the application of genetically engineered bovine somatotropin in dairy production.

Increasingly, these developments have given rise to concerns. People have learned that scientific technology as applied in modern industry is not always benign. Modern industry and technology has given rise to air and water contaminated with substances that cause illness in living things (3). The production of a 'hole' in the ozone layer of the Earth's atmosphere as a consequence of the release of CFC's to the atmosphere has been well documented (4). Modern agriculture may be contributing to a greenhouse effect in consequence of the production of methane by ruminants (5). Rachel Carson (6) sounded the alarm bell in regard to the dangers of pesticides in our environments. While she was dismissed as alarmist at first, in recent years her warnings have been taken seriously and some countries have undertaken programs to reduce the amounts of pesticides and herbicides used (7,8).

Discussion of ethical issues in the context of agriculture has been increasing among scientists, producers and others (9,10,11). The issues raised in respect to the application of genetic engineering include concerns about the following matters: possible harmful affects on human health, the well-being of small farms and rural communities, great concentrations of economic power as a result of holding patents for life-forms, animal well-being, the capacities of genetically engineered crops to resist pests, the persistence of pesticides in the environment to which genetically engineered crops are tolerant, the transference of genes for herbicide resistance to weeds, the reduction of the biodiversity of agricultural species and consequently their survivability, and the modification of populations of wild varieties in our environments (l 2).

Of course, proponents of genetic engineering have also called attention to many possible benefits from the use of genetically engineered plants or animals. Possible benefits include animal products that contain less cholesterol or increases in anti-oxidants which could lead to reductions in human cardiovascular or other diseases, improvements in other nutritional qualities of crops, improved control of animal diseases, more efficient feed-conversion in animals, improved resistance to diseases of plants or animals, reductions in the amounts of synthetic pesticides or herbicides needed to protect agricultural crops, reductions in risks from toxicants such as aflatoxins which occur in some crops at the present time, reduced pressure on supplies of petroleum through development of nitrogen fixing crops, improvements in capacities of crops to withstand storage and transportation, reductions in cost of producing crops, improvements in palatability of products, and improvements in animal therapies.

The above list of possible benefits and harms is not exhaustive. It does not contain what are, for many people, the most significant benefits to be derived from genetic engineering, namely development of methods of using gene therapy to treat human genetic diseases. It is of course impossible to anticipate all possible future benefits or harms that might result from the development of genetic engineering.

IRRATIONALITY OF CURRENT POLICIES

Clearly, we cannot discuss concerns about each of the above noted possible harms in any depth. In some cases at least, investigation of the issues raised will require both rigorous scientific research and thorough analysis of ethical, ecological, social and economic matters. In our view, such rigorous research and analysis has not been undertaken. A thorough analysis would include complex assessment of the impact of genetic engineering on human and animal health, environment and social effects. Health deliberations should consider both short -term and long-term effects. For example, as well as looking for direct toxic effects of the genetically engineered substance, the analysis must consider whether incremental damage might occur that would not be noticed until a number of years had elapsed. While no immediate toxity of a product may be apparent, there could be damage to major organs that takes years or decades to develop. Clearly also it is necessary to consider the possibility of harmful effects in subsequent generations. Health concerns should also consider possible effects resulting from combinations of substances. Furthermore, health effects for various groups of people need to be considered, for example, farm operators and consumers.

While some environmental assessments of the impact of genetically engineered products have been undertaken, for example, in regard to a variety of potato resistant to depredation by Colorado Potato Beetles, such assessments do not appear to include consideration of complex ecological interactions. Should genetically engineered methods of pest-control entirely eliminate or reduce the numbers of a pest in some ecosystem, it might be important to consider what further ecosystemic changes would occur. For example, how would any predators of that pest be affected? Since the introduction of a gene introduces new substances into some ecosystems, the consequences of the presence of the substances at various stages in such ecosystem-processes should be investigated (13).

While some assessment of the effects of technology on communities has been undertaken, such assessments are not, to our knowledge, mandated by law. In effect, social aspects of human communities do not receive adequate legal protection in that regard. Effects of new products with respect to various groups of people need to be considered (l4,15). Will the use of the product result in greater concentrations of economic power? How will the introduction of genetically engineered products affect rural communities? Will the use of the new product contribute further to the reduction in numbers of farms? Will the new product provide greater benefit for large farms than for small farms? Will the introduction of new products produce greater benefit than harm or cost? Are there some people who will be forced to bear an unfair share of the harms involved in the introduction of such new technology? Are people who suffer in consequence of the introduction of the new technology entitled to any compensation? How will the wellbeing of animals be affected by the new technology? Ultimately, all of the above considerations need to be subjected to ethical analysis.

In spite of the failure to provide thorough assessments relating to the desirability of introducing new crops, research, development and deployment of technologies based on modification of plant and animal genomes progresses. Given the failure to undertake thorough analyses of the above sorts, it is not unreasonable to expect that the headlong rush into deployment of the new technologies will lead in some cases to unexpected seriously undesirable consequences. This, of course, is not a prediction of catastrophe on national or worldwide scales. It is a prediction that there will be serious harm to a significant number of people or animals and significant expenditures that could have been avoided.

We want to stress that we are not claiming, nor do we believe, that there will not be significant benefits in many respects from genetically engineered products. Genetically engineered products may lead to reductions in pesticide use or reductions in requirements for use of non-renewable resources. Such products may involve less risk to human health than is involved in other technologies such as those involved in use of chemical herbicides. However, it is not unreasonable to be skeptical about claims which imply that genetic engineering will lead on the whole to great benefits for people or for the world. This is a matter about which reasonable people may disagree on rational grounds. In the absence of thorough consideration of issues of the above sorts, the current rapid deployment of genetically engineered organisms and products, particularly if guided by short-term or narrowly defined economic benefits, is irrational.

FALLACIOUS ARGUMENTS

In support of deployment of genetically engineered organisms and products, numerous arguments have been presented. Some of these arguments are easily shown to be fallacious. Yet, the fact that we have heard some scientists advance such arguments suggests that these arguments may be disposing researchers, producers and others to support the current rapid deployment of genetically engineered life-forms.

The first fallacy may be expressed as follows: To modify the genomes of agricultural crops through deployment of genetically engineered organisms is acceptable since we have been modif ying genomes successfully through selective breeding, hybridization, etc. f or a long time.

Clearly this argument is unsound. The fact that some practice has been regarded as acceptable for a long time is an appeal to tradition. While appeal to tradition may be relevant to a moral assessment of a practice, whatever support such an appeal may yield is easily overridden by stronger moral considerations. Consider, for example, that such practices as slavery or unfair discrimination based on gender were sanctioned by tradition in our cultures for considerable periods of time. Further, even if technologies based on genetic engineering are merely new forms of traditional methods of developing improved crops, genetic engineering increases the power available for modification of genomes since such techniques allow for the modification of genomes through introduction of genes which could not have been introduced through previous methods. Additionally, techniques of genetic engineering increase the speed with which we can modify genomes. In light of the increased power and speed which genetic engineering yields, these methods may be expected to impose greater stresses both on ecosystems and on social systems within which agriculture is undertaken. For example, will the use of herbicide-tolerant crops reduce the stability of the ecosystems on which crop production is dependent, or will it lead to further reductions in the number of farms or further increases in the size of farms? Reduction in number of farms and concentrations of wealth in the hands of large landholders give rise to concerns about the future well-being of our democratic political institutions.

The second fallacy can be expressed as follows: Modification of genomes occurs regularly through biological processes such as natural selection, and transfer of genes through viral vectors. Since such modifications occur through such biological processes, there is nothing wrong with our making such modifications through genetic engineering.

Clearly, this argument is also unsound. Just because something happens in accord with a biological process does not imply that it is acceptable for us to repeat it or emulate it. and just because something happens in accord with biological (or chemical or physical) processes does not mean that it is good that it happens or that it is morally acceptable for us to do the same sort of thing. Biological processes produced and spread such diseases as sleeping sickness and malaria. From the perspective of human beings these are not good processes and clearly it would not be morally acceptable for us to condone them on the grounds that they are biological processes.

We want to stress that we are not arguing that transfer of genetic material from one species to another is morally unacceptable. Some people may have made such claims on the grounds that such transfers are 'unnatural'. Others may have claimed that such transfers violate divine purposes and will lead to worldwide disasters. We are not prepared to explore arguments which appeal to premises concerning divine purposes. Such claims go well beyond our expertise. Further, we are quite skeptical of the validity of claims concerning what is natural or unnatural. We do not believe that there is any evidence which gives rational support to such claims as that transfer of genetic material from the genome of one creature to the genome of other creatures will lead to worldwide disaster or that it is immoral for us to make such transfers because they are allegedly unnatural. These claims can be challenged by pointing to examples of such processes occurring independently of human intervention as part of the evolutionary development of life on Earth. Furthermore, citing the transfer of genes from genome to genome by viral or other vectors may be appropriate as part of a rational refutation of claims such as these.

However, it is one thing to show that genetic engineering is not necessarily evil. It is quite another thing to show that it is rational or morally acceptable to develop and deploy such technologies at the present time and in all the particular situations in which we wish to do so. Very likely when nature performed her feats of genetic engineering there were traumatic and even catastrophic effects for particular creatures. We may say that life itself went on; but, very likely, ecosystems were modified in ways that led to the replacement of populations of some varieties of organisms with other varieties. Prior to introducing such technologies, should we not proceed cautiously so as to avoid harmful and even tragic consequences such as have resulted from our hasty implementation of other technologies?

The third fallacy may be expressed as follows: Genomes of domestic plants or animals are vast complexes of genetic material. Modification of genomes through insertion of one or few genes is an extremely small change. Thus it is acceptable for us to engineer such changes.

The obvious reply to this argument is that small changes can have profound effects. Small differences in the nature of the bacteria acting on a product can make the difference between production of a harmless substance and a deadly toxin in human food. Small differences in tuberculosis bacilli can render them resistant to the antibiotics we have been using to treat them. A small difference in an organism might make it a suitable host for a human pathogen. Very likely small changes in agricultural pests could lead to enormous costs in trying to repair or control the effect (l 6).

The fourth fallacy may be expressed as follows: If we don't introduce technologies based on genetic engineering other people in other countries will do so. Thus, it is acceptable, perhaps even necessary, for us to do so.

The argument that because other people are doing something it is therefore morally acceptable for us to do the same thing is clearly fallacious. The fact that others engage in the behaviour does not show that the behaviour is morally acceptable.

A fifth fallacious argument that has been offered on behalf of rapidly going ahead with deployment of technologies based on genetic engineering is that we are forced to do so in consequence of economic factors. Those who make this argument probably assume, as in the case of the fourth fallacy, that others will deploy such technologies. Further, they assume that such others will gain some competitive advantages through the introduction of such technologies.

This argument is open to a number of criticisms. For one thing, it is misleading to say that economic considerations force us to deploy these technologies. To say that we are forced to deploy these technologies is to say that it is not possible for us to do otherwise. In our view, this is untrue. If we deploy genetic engineering it is a result of decisions on the part of individuals to take such steps. If we, as a society, allow genetic engineering to be deployed that also is a decision which we make and for which we (as a society) are responsible.

Conceivably deployment of genetic engineering would yield competitive advantages for those who adopt it. If that is true it is one of a wide range of activities which might give competitive advantage to some people for some time. Introduction of production processes which compromise on the safety of workers may give some firms competitive advantages. Tolerance of production practices which include easy disposal of toxic wastes may give some firms competitive advantages. Reduction of taxes or contributions for unemployment insurance, health insurance, etc. would give firms competitive advantages. In these other cases we see that production methods or policies which sacrifice human health or safety, and the environment. beyond certain limits are not acceptable even if such sacrifice would yield competitive advantages. Similarly, we should take steps to determine whether technologies based on genetic engineering are acceptable in light of considerations of the well-being of humans and our environment before we deploy such technologies.

However, we should not grant that deployment of genetic technologies which might yield benefits such as those listed above would indeed yield competitive advantage to us as a society. The use of recombinant bovine somatotropin would almost certainly yield economic advantages for the manufacturer. Whether it would also yield advantages overall for the rest of us is much less clear. The social costs arising from displacement of a large number of dairy farmers as a result of modern technologies could be significant. Similarly the social costs arising from greater concentrations of economic power which may result from use of such technologies may be significant. In the long run, people who are more cautious in regard to the adoption of these now technologies may be the ones to reap economic advantages.

RATIONALITY AND RESPECT

In all of the above cases we have tried to show the fallaciousness of certain arguments in support of deployment of genetic engineering. A number of people will be inclined to dismiss our arguments as far-fetched. Some may well be thinking, that in regard to this or that example of genetic engineering, that we know full well that possible horrible consequences will not result. Others may be thinking that even if some bad consequences do result it will be quite easy for us to fix the problem. However, advocates of technological changes have casually dismissed admonitions to be cautious before. One notable example concerns warnings by scientists concerning possible harmful effects of release of CFC'S. As Likens (l 7) observed, some scientists in the 1970's claimed that warnings about the dangers of CFC's on the Earth's ozone layer were irrational fears, since these substances were known to be stable and very inert compounds. Further, it was suggested that if it turns out that there is ozone damage we will just stop producing and releasing CFC's and the ozone layer will repair itself. We are cutting back on release of such compounds and the ozone layer probably will repair itself. However, the damage apparently will take roughly a century to undo. The harm to human health in the interim is already occurring. The damage to our food production capacity, and to our forests. is only now being investigated in a methodical way. A more rational approach would have been to put use of CFC's on hold when the first reasonable warnings were sounded, in order to investigate possible consequences to our health, food production and perhaps other matters as well. Apparently, less damaging alternatives to CFC's have already been developed and in some instances are in use. It is plausible to believe that our hasty action in regard to CFC's has had greater costs than were necessary. This could be true even if, on the whole, the benefits from the use of CFC's have outweighed the costs. Similarly, our hasty deployment on a large scale of use of synthetic pesticides in agriculture has lead to very high costs. A more cautious approach might well have increased the margin between benefits and costs in our favour and averted significant risks to human health. At the present time there are warnings about the use of genetic engineering and some of the warnings are raised by agricultural scientists (l 8).

Considerations concerning genetic engineering also call into question another claim, namely that the greater caution we are urging here is impractical due to its high costs. We grant that further analyses of the possible harms or benefits of genetic engineering will increase costs of developing new products. However, we challenge the claim that these increases in costs are impractical. There will be costs associated with repairing unanticipated damage from hasty use of the new technologies. Further, to suggest that we should take the less expensive course of action, where the failure to incur increased costs may be expected to lead to fatal or other very serious harm to human beings that would have been avoided had we taken a more cautious approach, is immoral.

It is an error, and a sign of naivete, to think that we know full well that major damage cannot occur as a result of genetic engineering. Indeed display of such optimistic credulity on the part of scientists is surprising given that scepticism is part of the proper method of reaching scientific conclusions. The claim that use of a particular technology is safe is a causal claim. It is a claim that such use will not cause serious injury or other harm. Given that the scientific method enjoins withholding belief pending the accumulation of evidence which is strong to a very high level of significance, we suggest that scientific rationality requires withholding belief from claims about the safety of new technologies also. Indeed, in regard to genetic engineering we have especially strong reasons to be cautious. Genetic engineering consists in applications of scientific knowledge of very recent origin. Our understanding of the complex processes involved in the transcription of genetic information during the formation of amino acids, proteins, and other aspects of the functioning of cells is currently undergoing rapid development. The assumption that we know that genetic engineering is safe given the limits of what we do know concerning these processes is, in our view, unwarranted.

CONCLUSION

The hasty use of modern technologies such as those developed through genetic engineering indicates a lack of respect for our fellow human beings. To introduce these substances prior to thorough analyses of the consequences for our societies and our environments is to impose on many people a risk of great harm through possible damage to health, to environments or to social systems. The people on whom these risks are imposed are normally unaware of the technological changes which generate the risks. Consequently they do not accept the risk voluntarily. The possible harms of scientific technology have been realized in the past, for example, at Chernobyl, in the vicinity of many chemical accidents, in declines in the productive capacity of soil due to salination or descertification, in poisonings of farm workers, in genetic injury to human beings through exposure to coatings on seeds, in increases in melanoma due to increased exposure to ultra-violet radiation, and in the high costs arising from our widespread use of synthetic pesticides (l 9). It would be wise to form interdisciplinary teams made up of natural and social scientists, epidemiologists, environmentalists, producers, consumers and other interested parties to investigate such concerns methodically and thoroughly.

Many of us may have criticized political dictatorships or arrogant behaviour of some large corporations in other countries for undertaking technological innovations which have severely damaged the health of many people and the regions in which they live. We need to scrutinize our own roles in these matters, to consider the contribution played by the research we do or by the attitudes we convey to our students. We may expect some scientists to continue to deny any responsibility for the consequences of the deployment of technology. In the past some scientists have said that they are not responsible for such consequences since all they did was develop the knowledge. They did not apply it. However such claims are disingenuous. Scientists in agriculture and other disciplines work to develop methods of applying knowledge. We play a role in the process of developing and deploying technology and consequently we bear a share of the responsibility for the consequences-whether good or bad.

We want to stress that we have not taken the position that no genetic engineering should be deployed at the present time. We have urged only that prior to widespread deployment that there be careful considerations of concerns about harms to health, our crop production capacities, various groups of individuals, our environment, and our social structures. In cases of therapies for genetic diseases, there is strong likelihood that we could save human lives through prompt action deployment of genetic engineering. To delay in such cases is to fail to rescue people who could be saved. Such delay is morally unacceptable. In this paper we explored a number of fallacious arguments which have been offered by scientists in support of moving ahead without delay in the deployment of genetic engineering. We do not regard our discussion of fallacious arguments as complete. In particular, with the exception of our brief discussion concerning what is natural and concerning divine purposes, we have not attempted to review fallacious arguments of those opposed to genetic engineering. Such a review would be more appropriately undertaken for an audience which consists of people who are more likely to have committed such fallacies.

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