GMC from a Utilitarian Perspective

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.

GM Crops

Act Utilitarianism

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.

Rule Consequentialism

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.



10 thoughts on “GMC from a Utilitarian Perspective

  1. I believe that, as you summarize well, caution should still rule our approach to GMC. Humans have been engineering better crop for millenia but the very long timescales over which these changes took place are not comparable to the weeks or months needed to create a new breed in a lab. The adjustments that the surrounding environment and our body need to accept this new material will not be seen for years. Therefore, I don’t think we should stop all research on GMC, but proceed with extreme caution and strong regulations, maintaining the contact with external environment to a minimum. As to testing prior to approval, we need to push for better in-vitro methods…… but this is an entirely new topic …


  2. I liked that the discussion about GMC was done using different perspectives to highlight the issues surrounding this controversial subject and not adhering to a standard for and against argument, however for those unfamiliar with the terms ‘act utilitarianism’ and ‘rule consequentialism’ it is initially more difficult to understand the view point offered, this is alleviated slightly by offering links to definitions however in the consequentialism section there is a short definition included and I feel this should be extended to the utilitarianism section and perhaps in both cases outlined at the start rather than the end of the discussion.
    The links included help highlight the main arguments in each section, allowing the discussion to remain concise and easy to read but allowing easy access to more information if desired.
    Some points could perhaps be expanded upon, such as why certain elements may be undesirable, what are the impacts of resorting to weed killers or poisons, what harm do ‘harmful chemicals’ do? Broader knowledge which has been assumed but may not be known by the reader, in this case perhaps, following previous usage, links to the relevant information could be added.
    Overall I found the article enjoyable and interesting, it raises it’s points clearly and appears well researched, although it is titled GMC from a utilitarian perspective perhaps a conclusion or summary could be included from the utilitarian perspective to finish the article.


  3. I comprehend the arguments from both point of views. However I cannot support one more than the other. My personal thought is that, since we are used to using normal crops for most of our life, we know the harm or issues that comes with it, and research that have been done can help us to combact the problems. Using GMC, a new product may present unpredictable undesirable problems in many aspects as mentioned in the article, when used in a wide scale. This would mean more expenditure on research for solving the new arising problems. Rather than developing the ideal GMC, an alternative approach could be focusing on developing solutions to existing problems such as developing harmless pesticide solution, crossbreed desired plant traits artificially, etc.. Unless scientists can fully justify and proof that GMC will not affect the world in anyway, I believe this approach poses much less problem than GMC.


  4. The discussion of problem of developing Genetically Modified Organism (GMOs) in academic moral range in my view can be devided into two respects. To say concretely, it is a problem of how people choose when facing known and unknown risks. GMO’s known risk, except the internet rumors and conspiracy theories, there are not much scientific findings showing that GMOs are hazardous. Therefore the development and promotion of GMOs is reasonable and meets academic moral requirements. On the other hand, the transgenosis technology is quite new and it haven’t been proved safe completely thus many people are sceptical to this technology. Before Scientists and GMO companies can dispel people’s misgivings, privately and hastily promote this technology in fact harmed people’s right of choice, and this is the present of some area where people have no idea about what they have eaten. This kind of behaviour is immoral and should be banned by government legislation.


  5. Good article! I didn’t know about the adverse effects present in rats which was surprising, considering that the food isn’t that much different from normal food. I disagree with the commonly touted con-point that the traits could be inherited by other plants within the area. It’s not like the traits could jump from one species to another through *natural* gene injection. It could spread to other plants of the same species however and that could easily be counteracted by growing the test crops in areas without the natural version of the plant.


  6. I like the overall structure and arguments presented for both point of views. Perhaps some examples on GMC already in use and has that use seen any downsides or upsies? The potential for further research on non-food crops can also be brought in as it can act as a good source of data. A thorough and slow process of introducing GMC might be important in the long run.


  7. Gmc is a good way to improve nutritional values in crops as mentioned above, and for example GM rice have extra carotene level, this may improve health of people in poor country. However, there are still many problems to be solved such as allergy problem and product safety, more clinical trials should be carried on to eliminate such problems and build more trust of consumers on these products.


  8. Great article! Both sides have given solid arguments from their perspective. I would say that there is no absolute right or wrong in this topic, as there is still many studies and tests to be carried out to validate whether GMC is truly beneficial for both human consumption and environmental factors. Even though tests were carried out on mice, the results cannot reflect what would happen to the human body post-comsumption. Take the thalidomide incident as example. It was tested safe in animals, but was found to have disastrous side effects on human fetus.
    No doubt GMC products have helped fight the battle against crop infection, lack of nutrients etc, however the original genes of the crop/plant should also be well preserved and protected. For centuries dogs were bred to modify their original genes and a lot of congenital diseases had been found to be associated to those acts.
    Overall it was an enlightening topic to read about and discuss.


  9. The lure of GMC and the promised safeguard afforded by rule consequentialism could not eliminate the fears and doubts of a concerned person. Yes there are benefits to be gained and profits to be made but can one sleep peacefully that all the potential irreversible changes to the consumers and to the natural flora and fauna have been fully assessed and understood? Secondly, while some good reputable companies may play by the book, less scrupulous ones may circumvent the established safeguards for a fast buck. Unfortunately the whole issue reminds me of King Canute trying in vain to order the waters to recede.


  10. Interesting topic indeed and the discussion was done in a fairly intuitive manner. However, the application of utilitarianism may not necessary justify the means to the process and production of GMC which might very well be a great concern. Due to the principle behind utilitarianism i.e. to the greater good of the greatest number of people, the ends are emphasized and less so the means. The points to be considered here but not limited to these is that do we or are we actually in need of such genetically engineered products in maintaining ample global food supply and improving health? Could the yet to know side effects from the consumption of GMC be detrimental to the health of consumers and the equilibrium of the ecology system as a whole should not be left out as well. Bottom line is nature has its way in sustaining the living things that have existed thus far since the birth of the very plant itself and are we actually ready to add an unknown to the equation?


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