Social issues and GM crops
Social issues and GM crops

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Social issues and GM crops

6 Summary

There are two areas of general concern regarding the introduction of GM crops and food: the possible impacts on human health and on the environment. For some critics of GM technology, this reflects a feeling that GM technology is unnatural, as compared to conventional crop breeding. However, many techniques used in conventional crop development, for example, intergeneric and interspecific crossing, haploid breeding and mutation breeding, are highly technological and seem very far from being natural. Critics of GM argue that the newer technology is qualitatively different, and gives rise to new and different concerns.

An ethical judgement about the value or otherwise of GM crops and food will involve an assessment of the potential risks and benefits of the technology, and an attempt to reach just decisions. Achieving justice is complex, but might involve both an attempt to direct the potential benefits of the new technology to those who need it most, and an attempt to strike a fair balance between competing interests. The notion of justice is at the heart of the debate over whether GM crops might form part of a strategy to feed the world. However, it is important not to see the ethical debates in static terms, as 'second-generation' GM crops may change future attitudes.

A key episode in both the story of GM crops and the relationship of science and wider society in the last decade involved the work of Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Institute. The work in question focused on developing methods for testing the safety of GM food, specifically potatoes modified to express GNA lectin, an insecticide. A series of press releases from the Institute, and televised statements from Pusztai, implied that the work unequivocally demonstrated potential health risks, before any peer-reviewed papers had been published. In the ensuing controversy, Pusztai was condemned both by senior scientists and Government ministers, and was forced to retire. The episode reveals the difficulty of communicating science in areas of heightened public concern.

Assessing the health risk from GM products provided a new challenge for scientists and legislators in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The concept of substantial equivalence was developed to meet this challenge, and involves an assessment as to whether a GM product is 'substantially equivalent' to its conventional counterpart. In cases where the GM product is demonstrated to be substantially equivalent, the product is assumed to be safe. However, the concept of 'substantial equivalence' and the methods used to demonstrate it, have been the subject of sustained criticism. Arguably, the interpretation and the use of the term has evolved, at least partly as a result of this criticism.

In response to the widespread concerns about GM crops and food, in 2002 the UK Government launched a 'national dialogue' over the issue. There were three strands to the debate - a review of the science, an economic review, and a national public debate.

The science review concluded that the risk to health and the environment was low, but that the new technology should be considered on a case-by-case basis. The economic review concluded that in the short term, negative public attitudes were likely to limit the demands for GM food.

The GM Nation? public debate appeared to demonstrate that there were, indeed, widespread public concerns over the technology, coupled with mistrust of Government and big business. The participants also expressed a desire to know more and for further, independent research. However, the debate was criticised for sampling an unrepresentative pool of public opinion, and for the way in which the debate was structured. Another criticism of the debate was that it occurred too late to shape the development of the science, technology or regulations. Whilst the precise structure of the GM Nation? debate is unlikely to be replicated, public debates of a similar kind are likely to occur in the near future, for example over nanotechnology.

Question 1

(a) Give a simple interpretation of the concept of 'justice' that might be appropriate to guide decision makers influencing the introduction of a new technology. (b) Why might this concept of justice be difficult to use in practice?


(a) If a new technology is to be introduced in a just way, decision makers might need to consider whether the benefits and any problems associated with it will be shared fairly by those affected, and might try to direct the benefits to those who need them most.

(b) It is relatively easy to define a just approach, but much harder to enact one. Scientists, decision makers and the public may all reach different conclusions about the possible benefits and problems. They may differ in their assessment of how to strike a balance between the competing interests of individuals, groups, industry and the State. Fundamentally, they may differ in their ethical stances - leading them to quite different conclusions.

Question 2

(a) Given the experience of the Pusztai affair, what are the difficulties that arise from communicating scientific results via press releases and direct contact with the media? (b) Is it realistic to expect scientists not to communicate in this way?


(a) Press releases, interviews, direct postings to websites and so on, are not subject to the rigours of peer review and therefore have not been assessed as to their scientific merit, or otherwise.

(b) Whatever the problems with direct communication of scientific results to the media, it is surely unrealistic to expect scientists not to communicate in this way. The highly competitive atmosphere in which much prominent science is conducted means that scientists are under pressure to release interesting results prior to publication - to enhance their own standing, to establish precedence, and to satisfy the desire of the media for a good story.

Question 3

(a) What is the principle of substantial equivalence? (b) Why was it the subject of sustained criticism from those opposed to GM crops?


(a) The principle of substantial equivalence is that if a new food substance can be shown to be 'substantially equivalent' to an existing food substance, it can be treated as being safe for human consumption.

(b) Campaigners opposed to GM food argued that the principle was poorly defined and amounted to an excuse not to expose GM products to rigorous safety testing.

Question 4

Participants in the GM Nation? debate were broadly opposed to the introduction of GM crops. Does this indicate that the participants distrusted science?


It may be that some of the participants were broadly opposed to science, but the evidence is that the opposition of the majority was based on a range of social and political considerations. In particular, the participants showed a marked distrust of Governments and multinational corporations. If anything, the respondents wanted to see more scientific research into the possible risks of the technology, but they were keen that this research was carried out independently.

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