Social issues and GM crops
Social issues and GM crops

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Social issues and GM crops

2.3 A closer look at ethical issues

Science can define what is practicable, what can be done, but it cannot determine which developments it is right to pursue; this is largely an ethical judgement. One sensible approach in making an ethical assessment is to try to weigh up the benefits of a technology against its potential to do harm. Deciding whether GM technology is acceptable, in ethical terms, then involves a judgement about the plausibility and moral weight of competing sets of claims. Individuals may make widely different judgements based on the same information, exposing different underlying values and different views on how scientific information ought to be applied. Nevertheless, any judgement should begin with an assessment of the possible benefits and risks.

Question 3

From your viewpoint, list two or three potential benefits of GM crop technology and two or three potential disadvantages.


In terms of benefits, GM techniques could:

  • raise agricultural productivity

  • lead to the production of safer, more nutritious foods

  • increase food provision to poorer developing nations.

The potential disadvantages are that GM crop technology may:

  • harm human health

  • damage the environment, including other organisms

  • favour the interests of large multinational companies, at the expense of smaller providers.

The Nuffield report suggests that in making a judgement about the claims of a new technology, it is useful to consider the following questions:

  • Will the technology promote the general welfare by making for improved food safety or reducing the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture?

  • Does the technology pose unknown risks for consumers and the environment that we would be wise not to run if we are concerned about the general welfare?

  • What implications does the technology have for the right of consumers - for example, the right to be informed about the food one is eating?

  • What implications does it have for the rights of scientists to be free to conduct their research in ways that protect their intellectual integrity?

  • Who will be the principal beneficiaries from the introduction of the new technologies and what obligations do they have to compensate losers?

Specific questions of this type lead to the identification of broad principles that help in the process of evaluation:

  1. The principle of general welfare: Governments and policy-making institutions should act in the best interests of citizens.

  2. The principle that people's rights should be maintained - for example, the right of consumers to have freedom of choice.

  3. The principle of justice: both the burdens and the benefits of particular policies and practices should be shared fairly between those affected.

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