Social issues and GM crops
Social issues and GM crops

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Social issues and GM crops

2.3.1 Applying the principles

Trying to use 'guiding principles' of this type does not make assessment straightforward. For example, such principles can't be rigidly applied in an abstract way, reflecting absolutes such as what is 'right' or 'wrong'; their operation depends on context.

We can explore this further by attempting to apply the third of these principles. Justice might be considered to involve directing the benefits of a new technology to those who need it most. At the same time, the role of policy makers is, arguably, to 'strike a fair balance' between the competing rights and welfare of individuals, groups, industry and the state. But achieving justice in this way is again not straightforward. An example would be compulsory labelling of the products of GM crops. Suppose that labelling was very expensive to a relatively poor farmer marketing GM crops, and that the likelihood of harm was generally agreed to be minimal. Many people might take the line that any gains from labelling would be outweighed by the damage to the farmer's livelihood. Achieving justice in this case might involve taking the side of the farmer.

Question 4

But suppose labelling were inexpensive, the manufacturer rich, and that there was strong public demand for it and yet the likelihood of harm was no greater. Would the argument for labelling be more compelling?


Many would surely argue that a just outcome in this case would be one requiring labelling.

The assessment of what constitutes a just outcome would be quite different if a stronger ethical line was taken; for example, if it was considered that consumers should have the absolute right to know what they are eating, whether or not the products pose any risk. In that case, justice might demand that all products of GM crops are labelled, whatever the effects on the producers.

As the Nuffield report comments:

The principles at stake are not complex, but their implementation is. Achieving agreement is complicated by the fact that producers have an interest in exaggerating the difficulty of complying with new regulations and pressure groups have an opposite interest in exaggerating the public demand for them.

It is also true that firm ethical principles are of limited value if they are impractical. For example, the segregation of non-GM and GM food is beset with practical problems, and very modest levels of GM 'contamination' are allowed even in food labelled as organic. European Law allows up to 0.9% contamination, while the Soil Association, the body that ratifies organic food in the UK, allows up to 0.1%.

Keeping principles and contextual issues of this type in mind, let's return to the issue of whether GM technology should be encouraged for developing countries. The Nuffield report argued that it should, although they would like to see the responsibility for doing so falling initially to international agricultural research centres, not commercial organisations.

Activity 1

Timing: 0 hours 45 minutes

If you have studied S250_1 Genes manipulation in plants, think back to your answers to Activities 1 and 5. Considering the ethical issues and the notions of justice that you have explored, answer the following questions. In each case, your answer should be less than 100 words.

(a) In your view, who has benefited from GM-based agriculture so far? Who should benefit?

(b) Would it be ethically justified to develop GM crops for developing countries, if these were to raise yield and profitability at the expense of traditional farming methods?

(c) Some commentators predict that within 10 years, almost all the best varieties of the major crops will be GM. Would it be ethically sound to exclude developing countries from adopting GM crops in such circumstances?


These answers were written by one of the authors in early 2006. Your answers may differ from ours, because you may have different values and experiences to ours, or because the global position of GM agriculture may have changed since the time of writing. These are contentious issues, and for many of the points made below, there are valid counter-arguments.

(a) The ethical judgement would be that the benefits should be directed to those for whom the practice will do most good. In reality this has not happened, within either developed or developing countries. The benefits of GM farming have accrued largely to the agrochemical multinationals, large-scale farmers and food producers. Few benefits to consumers have been apparent. From an ethical viewpoint, it is clearly unjust that the commercial development for GM has been largely devoted to the large-scale industrialised agriculture prevalent in developed countries, rather than to the small-scale peasant farmers of the developing world.

(b) Many people take the line that abandoning traditional agricultural practice would be unethical, partly because of the social disruption such a switch would cause. But what if the degree of gain for the producers and consumers in the developing world was significant? Any solution to this ethical dilemma might be influenced by the fact that many traditional farming practices are producing ever-declining yields, with the result that small-scale peasant farming is unsustainable in many parts of the world. Of course, if GM crops were found to be harmful to human health or to the environment in some way, the issue of fairness would be judged differently.

(c) Some people argue that if GM technology were confined to the developed world, agriculture in developing countries would be severely damaged, as their cash crops became uncompetitive. By this measure, encouraging developing countries to develop GM would be a just approach, a judgement influenced by the belief that enhancing traditional methods of farming could not improve quality or productivity sufficiently to render it internationally competitive.

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