Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Ethical Debate Simmers over GM Food

Sep 18, 2006

The manipulation of the genetic material of plants is, for some, a reckless enterprise that could quickly spiral out of scientists’ control. Yet for others, the potential gains from nutrient-rich and pesticide-free genetically modified (GM) crops far outweigh any perceived risks. The recent discovery of U.S.-produced GM rice in a batch sold into the European market has revived some thorny ethical questions.

The U.S. perspective, shared by Canada and Argentina, regards GM technology as a triumph of ingenuity over nature. Indeed, advances in GM food science have succeeded in breeding plants that eliminate the need for environmentally harmful fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, GM crops that are both high-yield and ultra-nutritious are potentially valuable toward feeding the hungry. With population growth typically concentrated in areas where food production is threatened by drought and poor soil quality, this technology may save lives.

In Europe, attitudes are decidedly more skeptical—no surprise considering the outbreaks of mad-cow disease and other food safety scares that plagued the continent during the 1990s. Scientific critics cite the possibility of unintended cross-pollination, which could harm native species and spawn aggressive super-weeds. Europe’s media simply refer to gene-altered crops as “frankenfood.” As a result, thousands of regional, provincial and local governments across Europe have declared their intention to remain GM-free. Europe is not alone: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea have all made moves toward closing the door to gene-altered crops.

Disagreements between the United States and Europe over GM foods tend to play out in the bureaucratic context of trade negotiations over tariffs and agricultural subsidies. Yet in nations with widespread hunger and starvation, the issue is not an academic one. From the Horn of Africa to North Korea, hunger and malnutrition are real and persistent problems.

Many African nations fear that accepting GM food aid could jeopardize their export relationship with Europe. An Africa that relies on agriculture for 30% of its total economic output cannot afford to offend this lucrative market. Many countries with serious food shortages, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, have declined GM food aid in the past for just this reason.

The possibility that GM crops can prevent famine and relieve malnutrition lends urgency to the debate. Is it wise for hungry nations to reject GM food aid? Some argue that the ethical burden of proof falls to GM proponents since the long-term biological and environmental effects of gene-altered crops cannot be known. Once out, critics claim, the GM genie cannot be put back in the bottle. With this in mind, an excess of caution is called for.

As with all of humanity’s efforts to tinker with nature, GM food has its share of benefits and risks—as well as vocal dissidents and supporters. It is clear that Europeans simply do not want GM food. In February 2006, however, the World Trade Organization directed the European Union to end its de facto moratorium on imports of GM crops. Although it will not become official until later this year, the WTO ruling, along with the unfolding dispute over gene-altered rice, threatens to bring the difficult ethical questions surrounding genetically modified foods back to the fore.

For vibrant, informed debate on this topic, please visit: www.gmnation.org.uk

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