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Agricultural Biotechnology: History, Science, and Society (October 2013): Ethical and Societal Implications

By Brian R. Shmaefsky

Ethical and Societal Implications

The creation of genetically modified organisms raised heated ethical and public safety debates between scientists and laypersons early in the history of biotechnology.  It is likely that there are more books published about the issues related to agricultural biotechnology than there are scientific and technical books on the topic.  In Vexing Nature?, Gary Comstock addresses the major philosophical arguments against the use of biotechnology in agriculture.  The arguments against GMO organisms range from the unknown hazards to the negative economic impacts of biotechnology on traditional farming.  Comtock’s views are supported in other books such as The New Alchemists: The Risks of Genetic Modification by M. Bizzarri and Engineering the Farm: Ethical and Social Aspects of Agricultural Biotechnology, edited by Britt Bailey and Marc Lappé.  Both of these books advocate a precautionary approach toward agricultural biotechnology because of hidden dangers and unethical practices.  Readers can find an unbiased scientific view of these purported hidden problems in Genetically Modified Crops: Their Development, Uses, and Risks, edited by George Liang and Daniel Skinner.

Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology, edited by Michael Ruse and David Castle, takes a balanced look at the ethical issues associated with specific crops, addressing the general public’s negative perception of these GMO agricultural products as “Frankenfoods.”  Food labeling of these agricultural biotechnology products is also a major concern.  Books such as Labeling Genetically Modified Food: The Philosophical and Legal Debate, edited by Paul Weirich, and Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food by Lisa Weasel provide public opinion rationale for requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods, namely, so that consumers can identify and decide whether to purchase these foods.

Many concerns about agricultural biotechnology are economic rather than ethical.  Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food by Mark Lappé and Britt Bailey views agricultural biotechnology as a monopolistic enterprise that will ultimately exclude small farms from commercializing traditional agricultural products.  In addition, the authors cite ethical arguments related to public health, e.g., that the foods may not be as safe as traditionally grown foods.  The authors believe that the introduced genes could somehow produce potentially hazardous chemical changes to the foods.

In Biotechnology and the Human Good, C. Ben Mitchell and colleagues show that many ethical and societal concerns related to agricultural biotechnology also relate to other fields of biotechnology.  The book summarizes the growth of biotechnology and its impacts on agriculture, commercial goods, and medicine.