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I would like to withdraw an earlier statement of mine, which
relegated the likelihood that ethicists could contribute to
the biotech ‘debate’ to the epistemological status of a
‘possible risk.’ An ethicist willing to roll up his or her
sleeves and take a bit of heat could likely swerve this
debate in a more thoughtful, considered direction, but first
a bit of recent history.
The petition drafted by C.S. Prakash has met with stupendous
success; and with the signatures of Chinese scientists, the
total number of scientists worldwide who have endorsed the
document have now exceeded 2,000. Such credibility is
difficult to match. Today, a group known as Foundation
E.A.R.T.H. unveiled a similar program, to get American
farmers to similarly endorse biotechnology as a responsible
way to increase food production while reducing the burdens
of chemical pesticides and herbicides on the environment.
If ethicists could take a page from recent history, they
could do everyone a favor, from a much different angle.
Most players in the ‘biotech debate’ have a financial stake
in prolonging and worsening the controversy. This includes
activist groups which rely financially on contributions from
the fearful, and organic farmers and retailers who
contribute heavily to groups connected not only with
grandstanding on streets in amusing garb, but who also
advocate the invasion of research facilities and the
destruction of experimental crops and related equipment. The
activists and the organic movement both stand to profit
considerably by cultivating the controversy. And it is these
groups who have raised the ethical issues which ethicists
have said they are able to address.
Naturally, such activist groups will not cooperate in any
sort of effort to clarify issues, when the murkiness of
these issues contribute so nicely to their profit margins.
Furthermore, I am not sure either they, or the public in
general, are equipped or prepared to engage in the degree of
critical thinking that a debate on the ethics of
biotechnology would demand.
Finally, much of the uproar is the result of plain old
misinformation and lies. As long as activists rely on such
tactics, it will take a scientist, not an ethicist, to
There may be, nonetheless, a contribution ethicists can
make: An ethicist willing to take a stand could draft, and
encourage colleagues to endorse, a document which delineates
ethics of activism. Ideally, it would be clearly and simply
worded, and written to appeal primarily to the liberals who
eat well and can easily afford to contribute to enlightened
and appealing causes such as preserving the remarkable
subsistence farming methods of those who by an excess of
noble purpose starve themselves and their children in order
to resist such things as ‘corporate control of biodiversity’
and the “Newtonian rape of nature” which plentiful food
What is more, such a document should give people in general
a cogent set of tools with which to evaluate the ethics of
the activist groups which purport to represent their
Applying even the most minimal set of ethical guidelines to
activist groups would demonstrate innumerable breaches of
the most commonly-applied and agreed-upon norms of behavior,
and conflicts of interest beyond counting. Their movements
can easily suffer many setbacks, but few things would be
more damaging than the embarrassment which would ensue from
being exposed as hypocrites and charlatans.
Ethical constraints would also hamstring them in debate, and
curb their excesses. In addition, and this would be a
tremendous benefit, it would make it unnecessary to confront
the activists using their own methods and become engaged in
an internecine conflict which, due to the adoption of their
crude methods, would necessarily spiral downward towards the
lowest common denominator.
Such a document would likely impose something like the
following ethical constraints and duties upon activists:
1. Full disclosure of all financial or other interests the
activists, or the people they purport to represent, have in
the debate which might amount to a conflict of interest.
2. If the activist group purports to represent the interests
of the public, the group must disclose the size of their
membership or use other reasonable means to quantify the
size and interests of the group they purport to represent,
along with whether or not those whom the activists purport
to represent have knowingly assented to such representation.
3. If the activist group relies on scientific or other facts
to justify its position, the group must immediately and
publicly retract any errors or misrepresentations of fact it
has made when such errors or misrepresentations become
4. An activist group purporting to represent the public at
large must necessarily eschew, and refuse to take part in,
any acts of which violate laws enacted by a democratic
5. An activist group purporting to represent the public at
large must eschew, and refuse to take part in, any campaign
which disrupts the activities of domestic, democratically
elected public bodies or international public bodies
appointed by groups of governments.
Doubtless the ethicists out there could come up with far
more ethical duties than these which, reasonably, ought to
apply to any activist group which purports to represent
human interests generally. It is entirely possible that
different constraints would apply to groups who purport to
represent the interests of the environment when such matters
are divorced from human concerns.
I would caution that any such document/petition must
necessarily be one which any member of the
agricultural/biotechnology/food/retail community would be
glad to endorse and adhere to, whatever their stance may be.
Furthermore, it should be a document which Greenpeace,
Friends of the Earth and others would be glad to embrace,
the option being an embarrassing refusal to agree to what is
I offer this as a challenge to the ethicists in this mailing
list, and if they are as bold and thoughtful as I would wish
them to be, they may rise to this occasion and help ensure
that reason prevails.
B.A. (Phil.), M.A. (Phil.), J.D.
Editor, AgBiotech Reporter