Genetic engineering (GE) of crops is a major topic with two diverging opinions. On one hand geneticists claim GE holds the key to alleviating world hunger and saves billions of lives. On the other hand, experts warn of major health problems arising from their consumption. Is it right for geneticists to play God with our foods? Are genetically modified organisms (GMO) the solution to major world problems, or will they eat us up in terms of our health, environment and ultimate freedom?
FOR GM FOODS
With human population predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050, crop production needs to rise by 50% by 2030, however due to drought increase and rapidly declining environmental resources, current farming resources will be inadequate, thus malnutrition, starvation and deaths will increase.
Recently thousands of people backed up by activist organisations like Greenpeace, marched in an anti GMO protest, however GE of crops has been used for over 40 years with several benefits. One example is that of rice crops. When submerged in water for more than 3 days, they die and due to climate change, flooding of rice fields has become a major issue. At one point, 70 million rice farmers experienced flooding. Through GE, a flood resistant variety of rice capable of withstanding more than 18 days of flooding was developed, and by implementation strategies, 3 million farmers have started using this resistant variety.
Is it right for people who live in western countries with access to good farming technology to push the government to enforce anti GMO laws and stop geneticists? Knowing that for poor farmers in developing countries who don’t have good farming technology, a significant loss to their crops will mean starvation and death, and this would lead to a reduction in rice production, exports, and a fall in GDP, hence increasing the price for rice due to food scarcity.
Stopping GE will mean that governments, farmers and citizens of developing countries will be undermined, and only the wants of rallying activists would be met. This is anti utilitarian and is akin to selfishly impoverishing millions of people globally.
Geneticists are accused of inserting harmful substances into crops, thus geneticists face a moral dilemma; continue crop engineering with the possibility of major health and social problems occurring or stop crop engineering, however face starvation and death of millions.
Faced with such a dilemma:
- The government could ban GE and impose trade bans.
- Geneticists could use only traditional farming methods such as grafting.
- Continue crop GE and engineer more crops.
- Stop crop engineering completely.
Looking at this problem through the lens of utilitarianism, which states that the best decision is the one that guarantees the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, option 3 is morally right. This option ensures that the key stakeholders (government, farmers and citizens) of developing countries, which have the largest populations globally, will be fed in a sustainable manner that is economically viable. If GM were to be stopped completely this would lead to impoverished farmers, starvation, malnutrition and death. However, the potential health risks associated with GM are minimal when compared to the benefits.
AGAINST GM FOODS
The necessity of GMOs to ensure food security in sustaining our growing population is an argument hugely emphasised in the GMO debate. The majority of GMOs are used in animal feed rather than directly feeding people. Does anyone have the right to release modified genes into our environment with little knowledge of what might happen? It is one of the greatest tests the human race has ever conducted.
The distribution of foods is a major issue in society. As it stands we currently grow enough food to feed 10 billion people. However this food is poorly distributed worldwide, with at least 50% of grains fed to livestock. Some useful statistics to bear in mind are 1.5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food and 1.5 acres can produce 375 pounds of meat. This leads to the argument that modifying seeds in scientific laboratories is totally unnecessary as growing organic crops is far more efficient than growing GM crops to feed animals to then feed humans.
Beside this there are many other serious concerns about GMO crops. First of all it is almost impossible to foresee all impacts on consumer health and the ecosystem. Modifying genes of plants can dramatically change their properties with unknown effects to the human body and interaction within the ecosystem. Scientists have identified some of the health risks of GM products as follows: reduced fertility, mutations, reduced nutrient content of food and cancer. This is a concern to everyone as we are all interested in safe foods and a sustainable ecosystem.
There is further threat to farmers as GMO seeds and the herbicides are developed, patented, produced and sold by Multi National Corporations such as Monsanto and CropSciences. These companies forbid farmers to save seeds from previous harvest, causing dependence and violating their right to free choice.
Using a utilitarian approach for this moral issue promotes making ethical decisions by thinking what is right for the greater good. By using GMOs, many stakeholders in particular, consumers and farmers will be negatively affected. Freedom of choice for consumers is currently violated because there is no general regulation to label GMO food. People are therefore inadvertently supporting a growing uptake of GM usage in food.
A huge global issue is sustaining our planet for the future and the greater good of all humans and animals. GM threatens biodiversity, promotes monocultures and prevents the natural development of our ecosystem. By destroying the earth we all lose and therefore any benefits associated with GM are outweighed. Over all we all have a moral obligation to ensure the future sustainability of both our natural environment and our diets. GM is not a solution to food shortages around the world but it is an excellent moral issue for the companies to hide behind to justify their growth.
Adewale Adeyosoye, Kelachi Omehia,
Rachel Morecroft, Soren Maack