Ethics and choice

The issue of choice regarding GMOs and GM foods in particular rests with this question: Is it possible for people who do not wish to consume GM products to not consume them? That is, is it possible for them to avoid GM foods, and will it be so in the future? More to the point, is it ethically acceptable that people who may be opposed to genetic engineering or who prefer to refrain from consuming these foods may not have a choice in the matter? The answer to this question depends in part on factual, practical matters such as the long-term availability of non-GM foods. More important, it rests on the acceptance of one of the two competing and conflicting ethical principles, the utilitarian principle of "maximum social good" and the rights-based principle of "respect for the individual's autonomy."

Again, proponents of GMOs argue that not only is there nothing wrong about GM products, but that they contribute in important ways to the social good (NABC, 1994). If nothing else, GMOs provide for a more efficient and cost-effective food production system. For example, the "first generation" of agricultural GMOs have been touted for (1) increasing milk output without increasing dairy cattle feed consumption (e.g. bovine somatotropin, bST); (2) simplifying weed-control regimes through the single use of only one chemical (e.g. glyphosate tolerance); and (3) reducing the need for chemical insecticides altogether (e.g. Bt crops). These GM technologies increased production/productivity, generating increased farm revenues and reducing prices to consumers. If increased farm productivity and lower (or at least steady) consumer prices are good things (which proponents maintain they are), the agricultural GMOs are themselves ethically justified on that basis: they help achieve maximum social good as it is associated with food.

The "next generation" of GMOs are claimed to be even more in line with this ethical value or principle, in so far as there is expected to be even more direct benefits to consumers: better nutritional content, enhanced flavor, extended shelf-life, even "nutriceutical" foods—regular foods that contain medicinal properties (Beachy, 2000). These direct benefits, it is claimed, will provide even stronger ethical justification for GMOs.

The implications of the maximum social good justification for GMOs are straightforward. If scientific tests show these products to be safe, there is no legitimate reason for anyone not to use and consume GMOs, just as there is no legitimate, ethical reason, for example, for consumers to not consume tomatoes imported from Mexico (assuming safety). It is, in fact, in everyone's best interest to consume GM foods for the economic and (potential) health benefits they provide.

Given this orientation, the fact that some individuals do not want to consume GM foods suggests to some that they are ignorant or foolish or both, and that as such their preferences simply should not matter. In utilitarian terms, these preferences (certainly in the minority at this point in time) should be overridden. If genetically engineered corn products were the only corn products available on the market, and an individual preferred not to consume genetically engineered corn, then accordingly he or she simply should not eat corn. Eventually, it is assumed, the individual would see that there is nothing unhealthy or wrong with genetically engineered corn, and once again he or she would consume corn products. There is certainly no utilitarian/maximum social good rationale for catering to the wishes of an "ethically illiterate" and "scientifically illiterate" individual or minority. If GMOs are ethically acceptable, from this perspective that is all there is to it.

However, the principle of respect for individuals' rights and autonomy demands that this be viewed in nearly the opposite way. Autonomy means self-determination, and if our primary ethical responsibility is to respect self-determination, then individual preferences or choices cannot be written off or ignored for the sake of the maximum social good (Cole, 1998). In fact, according to the rights/autonomy principle, any "social good" has to be defined as providing or allowing individuals the freedom to choose. This freedom includes the freedom to avoid GM foods for whatever reasons the individual sees fit.

Some individuals who choose to avoid GM foods do so because they have concerns about science, for example, the adequacy of risk assessment. Others may echo the beliefs of some consumers of organic foods, rejecting GM foods for environmental rather than food safety reasons. Some people reject GM foods for other, perhaps deeper philosophical reasons. Ever since the EU bans on importing GM foods and food ingredients, analysts have sought to uncover the reasons for European resistance to GM foods. Food safety is certainly among their concerns, but other reasons that have been identified are (1) a generally cautious view toward new technologies (as noted, the precautionary principle originated in Europe); and (2) a cultural tendency to identify food as something special, even "sacred" (Thompson, 1997b). Put another way, there is a belief that using genetic engineering on foodstuffs somehow violates the naturalness, integrity, and wholesomeness of food. For cultures that place high ethical value on their wholesome rural lives, their cuisines, the naturalness and integrity of farm animals, or natural environments, the genetic (technological) modification of nature and foods is deeply unethical. It is little wonder that many people in the EU have been so cautious concerning the GM foods "revolution."

While it appears that most of the consumers in the US generally do not hold such beliefs, a similar point could be made about those who choose to consume only "whole foods"—fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats—which are then prepared in the home. People may choose to do so because of the "naturalness" or freshness of meals prepared from fresh ingredients. Others may attend to the same sort of "sacred" aspect of meals carefully prepared for their children or families. In both cases, these consumers avoid pre-processed foods, and count on the availability of whole foods (even if availability is seasonal for some ingredients). The issue is whether these consumers will be able to continue to act on their values and beliefs, as agricultural and food biotechnology continues to develop. Already, analysts suggest that over half of soybeans and more than a third of corn planted in the US are GMOs. If this trend were to continue, they may be few if any non-GM crops grown in the US. If there are no non-GM whole foods available, and there are people who reject GM foods as unacceptable, unnatural or "fake," something is wrong. Not only are they put at a disadvantage, their rights/autonomy as consumers is violated. Is this fair? This is as (if not more) important than the case of a school cafeteria failing to offer vegetarian or kosher options to its (captive) patrons (Thompson, 1997a).

We are probably a good way away from the complete domination of foods by genetic modification. However, from an ethical point of view, the prospect of increased genetic modification of major whole foods suggests to adherents of the autonomy principle that violation of some people's ethical or religious values, or just simple preferences, may accompany the growth of agricultural and food biotechnology. One response to this may be that those values or preferences are old-fashioned, provincial, simplistic, even irrational, and that not that many people in the US hold those values anyway. This, however, ignores the basic fact: these people exist, need to eat, and, according to the autonomy principle, have a right to be respected for their beliefs as do any other people.

It is at this point that the "naturalness" issue merits brief discussion. As noted above, some people hold that GMOs are environmentally unsafe or unsafe for consumption because they are unnatural. There are two ways to interpret this assertion. One is a quasi-scientific claim; the other is based on a philosophical/ religious belief. According to the first view, because GMOs are the result of human intervention (biochemical engineering) and not natural selection, they are not only fundamentally different from non-GMOs, but will inevitably behave in environments or in the human body in unforeseeable and probably damaging ways (NLP, 2006). The standard response to this claim is that humans have been intervening in nature for millennia: indeed, all domestic animals and plant cultivars are the result of intervention. Genetic engineering is no different in kind from traditional plant crossbreeding or hybridization. In fact, the precision with which specific genetic sequences can be transferred to a new organism implies that we know more about how GMOs will behave in the environment than we do about non-GMOs. The issue is not the "artificiality" of a GMO but instead whether we can be assured that GMOs are safe. This "unnaturalness" objection presumably can be answered through more and better scientific analysis.

The other sense of "unnatural," though, is more pertinent to the current discussion of consumer autonomy/choice. According to this view, GMOs are unnatural because they are contrary to the "natural order," the way things ought to be. Nowhere is this clearer than in the philosophical and religious objections to transgenetic engineering: moving genetic material across species boundaries. In this sense GMOs are unnatural not only because they could not occur without human intervention, but because they are contradictory to Nature or perhaps God's plan. The implication of this is that humans should not "play God": genetic engineering (biotechnology) is simply immoral (see Rollin, 1995).

There is no appropriate scientific response to this belief. The common reply that we have been playing god for millennia (through selective breeding), fails to address the essence of this position (see Hansen, 2000). According to adherents of this belief, there are no analogies in anything else we do or engineer. Violating the order of nature in this way is simply wrong.

The fact is that many people who object to GMOs for cultural or philosophical reasons hold this belief. Again, to assert that they are simplistic or even irrational misses the point. This is their philosophical position; respect for autonomy necessarily implies that their views must be respected (or, at least, opposite views should not be imposed on them by restricting their opportunities to avoid GMOs). This is why the issue of consumer choice concerning GMOs is in many respects a paradigmatic confrontation between the competing ethical principles of utilitarianism and respect for autonomy. The principle of maximum social good asserts that if a product does no harm, and produces some desirable social outcome, it is ethically acceptable (perhaps even mandatory). Respect for autonomy demands that individuals be allowed to choose what products they consume or are exposed to, even if that runs contrary to the apparent social good. Given this clear dichotomy between ethical positions, determining the ethical acceptability of GMO with respect to consumer choices/preferences seems to demand that we reflect on the implications of the conflicting ethical principles, and choose one. Once chosen, a final ethical judgment about GMOs follows straightforwardly from that principle.

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