The matter of genetically modified crops (GMC) affects everyone; farmers, corporations, governments, and of course, consumers. GMC has the potential to improve the quality of our lives but this evaluation greatly depends on how this ‘quality’ is measured; by its effects on individuals, or the Earth and its environment as a whole. Here we will discuss GM crops from two different ethical viewpoints: act utilitarianism and rule consequentialism.
One can obtain great health benefits through the consumption of GMC. Examples of GM foods with improved health benefits are pineapples with antioxidants which may have a role in cancer prevention, soybean, canola and sunflower oils with fewer saturated fats and more Omega-3 fatty acids, and tomatoes with high levels of anthocyanins, which some studies show lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Over 600 safety assessments have been carried out, and there are about 2000 peer-reviewed reports which document the general safety and nutritional benefits of GM foods; almost 30% of which are publications produced and published by parties independent of large commercial seed companies.
From the perspective of socio-economic impact, growing GMC improves agricultural productivity. Genetic engineering can be introduced to increase crop yield by strengthening the crop’s resistance towards threats such as pests, diseases and environmental stresses (soil conditions and extreme weather). For instance, a team of Australian scientists discovered an anti-freeze gene in an Antarctic plant, which can be introduced to crops to prevent them from being destroyed by frost. GM technology allows crops to be grown in environments with harsh agricultural conditions and scarce food sources, which ensures sustainable and stable crop production. This may emerge as a potential alternative in addressing food security for the increasing global population; 97% of whom are residing in the developing world.
It would be fair to also consider the impact of growing GMC towards the local environment and biodiversity. As the crop is engineered to contain genetic traits resistant to pests and weeds, this would also indicate a substantial reduction in agrochemical use, and prevents excessive disruption of the local ecosystem and organisms. A report by the US National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy has showed that the adoption of GMC resulted in reduction of agricultural pesticide usage by 46.4 million pounds in 2003. This reduction in usage lowers the risk of exposing the local farmers and environment to harmful chemicals.
One may argue that the long term effect of adopting GMC remains unknown, hence it is imperative to regulate and observe the impact of genetically engineered food. Thorough risk assessment frameworks should be applied specifically onto each GMC, so that consumer health and environmental safety are not compromised. Transparency is another crucial factor in ensuring credibility of using GMC, whereby labelling and traceability are made accessible to consumers. Most importantly, policies regarding GMC should be strictly standardised among producers, farmers and consumer bodies to ensure fair treatment of each stakeholders and prevent the misuse of technology for one’s interests. From an act utilitarianism standpoint, the benefits from the increased nutrients of GMC, farmers obtaining better yields, and the effect of reduction in use of agrochemicals on the environment justifies the development of GMC.
Undoubtedly, genetically modified food helps immensely in combating global hunger. However, one of the concerns would be determining the edibility of the crops. As new crops are developed, tests would be necessary to determine if they are safe for human consumption. With most of the tests currently done only on animals, how would scientists predict the repercussions when eaten by humans? As it is an ethical issue on its own in testing these crops on human beings, none of the modified crops have actually been given a proper field test. Would it be morally right to request for volunteers who would be willing to be test subjects? With growing tumours and organ damage evident in rats which were tested, do these severe long term consequences outweigh the benefit having more food readily available for consumption?
In addition to increased nutrients as stated before, research has proven that the composition of vitamins and minerals within GMC differ from natural crops. This variation can potentially be a huge issue as consumers with allergies would be at risk after ingesting a GM food when its natural counterpart would not have triggered allergic reactions. With different companies implementing different alterations, the lives of consumers with allergies would be threatened if there is a lack of clear indications of the difference in mineral levels.
On the surface it does seem that genetically modifying crops in order to better resist natural predators and competition is something largely desirable. Yet, with the unpredictable nature of pollination, weeds and other plants within the area could inherit traits from the genetically modified crop. This in turn would create weeds which would be resistant to all sorts of weed killers, requiring extreme measures such as open burning or poison to eliminate said weeds.
Disruption to the ecosystem would also be one of the potential consequences of having genetically modified crops. As the genetically modified crops are introduced into the ecosystem, replacing natural crops, other living organisms which are antecedent to the original crop in the food chain will then slowly be eliminated from the ecosystem. This will then cause a domino effect, disrupting the balance of the ecosystem entirely, endangering and driving various species to the brink of extinction.
Definite rules and regulations should be set up by organizations drawing the line for the miniscule degree of genetic modification permitted within a crop. Parties unwilling or unable to fulfil the requirement should be forbidden to develop said crops. Rule consequentialism, defined such that the act is right only when it is accordance with a certain code of rules, not depending solely on the outcome would certainly uphold the importance of adhering to the restriction in development of genetically modified crops.