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Ever Wondered About... Food ethics?

Updated Wednesday, 27th April 2005

Behind the dramatic scenes of activists destroying crops lies nothing less than a clash between philosophical world-views.

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Herbs

We all have a set of ethical beliefs - about how we should behave, what’s right and wrong - and we can’t help but bring them to contemporary issues. Philosophers describe these in their theories, which are often written in suitably weighty and abstruse language. But the fascinating thing is that you don’t need to be a philosopher to express the ideas. In fact, if you ask ordinary folk getting on with their everyday jobs, their answers can almost certainly be directly mapped back to a philosophical theory.

Adam Duguid is a farmer who is participating in the government’s GM trials. He has had crops destroyed by protesters:

"I think sometimes people take the term "natural" out of context where they say that GM technology isn’t "natural". Because I don’t know if it’s "natural" to have a field of wheat where you simply select one plant because it has characteristics that you like and then you plant another field using simply only that plant. Or you do the same obviously with animals. You’d breed animals for particular characteristics and you only select those animals that meet your characteristics. So it’s no more unnatural than that."

Professor Jonathon Jones works at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. His work is on how to prevent crops from succumbing to disease:

"All forms of life are basically the same, at least they have a common evolutionary origin whether it’s bacteria or yeast, or plants, or worms, or flies, or us, and you can see the same mechanisms at work in all of these different organisms. And so, that’s why for me it’s no big deal to contemplate getting a gene for antifreeze properties out of an Arctic fish and putting it into a tomato to try and reduce frost damage. I mean it’s just a protein that does a job, a DNA sequence that encodes a protein that does a job. And that, to me, is a completely ethically neutral proposition."

Jenny Samson is an active member of several environmental groups, organising protest campaigns against GM:

"You can basically think of what is wrong with GM on two levels. You can think of it from the moral point of view - what life in the world has come about through. It’s come about through either evolution, billions and billions of years of evolution or creation: some people think that God created it. And from a moral point of view, do we really think we are clever enough to be messing with something that’s been produced by evolution or God’s creation?"

Alan Gear is Chief Executive of the Henry Doubleday Research Association, Europe’s largest organic membership organisation:

"People will say what we’re doing now is no different from conventional plant breeding or conventional livestock breeding but it is totally different. You cannot mix genes about or you could not in the past mix genes about from species in the way that we can now, and I personally believe that it’s fundamentally wrong to take genes from completely alien species and transplant them into a crop or an animal just for our own use. I feel it’s wrong and I feel that whilst at the moment the science as to whether it’s going to be harmful or beneficial is unclear, irrespective of that I would say it was wrong."

 

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