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March 30, 2000


Bioethics of AgBiotechnology


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From: Gary L Comstock
Subject: Re: Critical Questions in Agricultural Biotechnology

Hi Professor Prakash,

Thank you for your inquiry. I'm a philosopher who is very interested
in the potential benefits of biotech for developing countries. Here
are some thoughts in response to question 13, namely:

Q 13. What are the social and ethical implications of GE?

There are two kinds of ethical arguments against GMOs.

1. Intrinsic objections to GMOs

Intrinsic objections to GMOs maintain that the process of making GMOs
is objectionable in itself. This belief is defended in several ways.
Here are the most prominent examples:

To produce GMOs is ethically wrong because it is necessarily:
To do something that is unnatural;
To try to play God;
To arrogate to ourselves historically unprecedented levels of power;
To disrespect life by patenting it;
To commodify life;
To illegitimately abrogate species boundaries;
To exhibit arrogance, hubris, and disaffection.

I believe that none of these arguments is sound, and I argue for this
view in: "Is it unnatural to genetically engineer plants?", Weed
Science 46 (1998): 647-651. Available on-line at:

2. Extrinsic objections to GMOs

Consequentialist or extrinsic objections allege that GMOs should not
be pursued because of their anticipated consequences. Briefly stated,
some of the extrinsic objections go as follows.

GMOs may have disastrous effects on animals, ecosystems, and humans.
Potential harms to animals include unjustified pain to individuals
used in research and production. Potential harms to ecosystems include
possible environmental catastrophe, inevitable narrowing of germplasm
diversity, and irreversible loss or degradation of air, soils, and
waters. Possible harms to humans include perpetuation of social
inequities in modern agriculture, decreased food security for women
and children on subsistence farms in developing countries, a growing
gap between well capitalized economies in the Northern hemisphere and
less capitalized peasant economies in the South, risks to the food
security of future generations, and the promotion of reductionistic
and exploitative science.

Of the two sorts of arguments, intrinsic objections are the more
powerful because if they are sound, then the extrinsic objections are
moot. If GMOs are intrinsically objectionable then we should not
develop them, full stop, even if they have many beneficial
consequences. When it comes to ethical analysis of GMOs, therefore, I
believe we should begin by clearly distinguishing these two kinds of
objections, addressing the intrinsic objections first and head-on.
Once the weakness of those arguments has been displayed, attention can
be turn to the critical, scientific, questions raised elsewhere in
your message. For answers to those questions, we must have rigorous
scientific and social scientific inquiry. Philosophers, alas, cannot
be of much help there.

Every good wish,

Gary Comstock
Coordinator, Bioethics Program
Iowa State Un