Applied Sciences

Guest Commentary

Valeria Jefferson, R.E.H.S., C.F.S.P., M.P.A.

The Ethical Dilemma of GeneticaUy Modified Food

w’ ith an ever-increasing global pop-ulation, hunger in the developingworld, and the health risks of pesti- cides, some experts view genetically modified food as a panacea. Others view it as one of the most serious threats to human civilization. These diametrically opposing views point to an ethical dilemma, that will certainly he difficult to resolve; whether the benefits of develop- ing and supplying the world with genetically modified foods outweigh future consequences that these products may have for the human species, animal life, and the ecosystem.

Plant and animal modification is not a new concept. Before genetic engineering, gene modification was accomplished through breeding. The traditional breeding method ultimately produces the same desired effect as genetic engineering, but it occurs over a much longer time span and is self-limiting. Selected individual genes are transferred from one organism to another between plants and between animals, hut not between plants and animals. Through genetic engineering, genes can be transferred between any organisms: A hypothetical example might be a gene from a fish that lives in cold seas being inserted into a strawberry so that the strawberry could sur- vive frost (Better Health Channel, 1999).

Genetic engineering (GE) belongs to the field of biotechnology, which is the science governing genetic modification, genetic en- gineering, genetic manipulation, other gene technologies, and recomhinant-DNA tech- nology Recently, use of biotechnology has expanded from the pharmaceutical and med- ical industries into the agricultural industry

The collective term “genetically modified organisms,” or GMOs, is used frequently in regulatory documents and in the scientific literature to descrihe “plants, animals and

microorganisms which have had DNA in- troduced into them by means other than by combination of an egg and a sperm or by nat- ural bacterial conjugation” (Institute of Food Science & Technology, 2004). For instance, the genetic makeup of plants can be altered to produce insect-resistant plants. Genetic engi- neering may also produce animals, plants, or bacteria that contain desired nutrients.

Despite government approval of genetical- ly modified foods in the nation’s foods supply, genetically modified food (GMF) does pose philosophical problems (Formanek, 2001). Opponents argue that government agencies are violating their religious and consumer rights, while proponents have taken a utili- tarian approach, arguing that the economic and social benefits of GMF far outweigh any possible negative consequences. Utilitarian ethics hold that “the rightness of an action entirely depends on the value of its conse- quences, and that the usefulness ean be ra- tionally estimated” (About, 2006). Increased productivity and the usefulness of GMF ap- pear to be the driving force rationalizing this new technology

Genetically modified foods grow faster and larger than non-GMFs and may be more re- sistant to pests, heat, cold, and drought. They also help the environment by reducing pes- ticide and herbicide use. Other far-reaching goals are envisioned for GMF, such as stop- ping the hunger problem in developing coun- tries. Over 800 million people in the world are chronically or severely malnourished. Many eat less than the minimum quantity necessary for survival, resulting in a mortal- ity rate of 36 million deaths per year (United Nations, 2001). Somewhere in the world, a child dies every seven seconds, and the cause of death is directly or indirectly attributable

to hunger (United Nations, 2001). In hunger- stricken areas, malnourished woman are iron deficient; in poorer eountries, 50 percent of pregnant women suffer from iron deficiency, a condition responsible for nearly 20 percent of maternal deaths (United Nations, 2001). In addition to alleviating world hunger, the production of GMF can easily meet agricul- tural demands associated with population increase. There will be approximately 1.5 bil- lion more people in the world in the next 20 years, and what better way to keep up with agricultural demand than with GMF (Cal- lahan, 2000)? In spite of the common good offered by GMF, opponents argue that gene manipulation is unsafe. Genetically modified food may have harmful effects on animals, ecosystems, and humans, and these effects may be irreversible.

The debate over genetically modified food originated in the early 1980s. Concerns range from ethical issues related to the long-term health effects of eating GMF to the detrimen- tal effects gene manipulation may have on animals and the ecosystem. In the book Vex- ing Nature, Gary Comstock (2000) describes two ethically derived objections to genetic engineering: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Those who intrinsically object to GMF be- lieve that “it is unnatural to genetically engi- neer plants, animals and foods” (Comstock, 2000, p. 183). Fxtrinsic objections focus on the potential to cause harm. These effects may be irreversible. Animals may suffer as a result of genetic modifications or modifications to their genetic material. The component of hereditary material, or germ plasm, that specifies characteristics of different cells may be lost through bioengineering. Comstock justifies the suffering and death of research animals using the “Miniride Principle (MP).”

July/Augtist 2006 • Journal of Environmental Health J J

The MP holds that “where comparable barms are involved, override the fewest individuals’ rights” (Comstock, 2000, p, 263), The MP justifies production and killing of genetically modified animals provided that the research addresses comparable barms for the research subjects and buman life. For instance, MP would not justify the production and killing of genetically modified mice to study human hair loss. The loss of human hair is not con- sidered to be life tbreatening (Comstock),

Tbe question becomes wbetber tbe dam- age tbat bas been perpetuated upon the en- vironment through the use of pesticides and harmful chemicals causes more damage to the environment tban tbe narrowing of the germ plasm through the development of GMFs,

Tbe bigh societal costs associated witb rapid destruction of natural habitats and agricultural productive capacity may be most extreme in tbe developing coun- tries of the tropics, where a wealth of ge- netic resources vital to U,S, agriculture is endangered. Greater emphasis should be placed on conservation of germplasm tbrough international cooperation. De- velopment and maintenance of stable biological communities in tbe natural environment sbould be a high priority goal worldwide, (U,S, Department of Agriculture, 2001)

The proliferation of biogenetic plants also poses a concern, Tbe pollen produced by tbese plants, carrying new genes, cannot be contained. As a result, genetic pollution of natural crop varieties and of wild plant rela- tives may occur. Genetic pollution may re- sult from accidental or deliberate release of genetically engineered bacteria, insects, fisb, and other life forms into the environment. Unlike other forms of pollution, as Michael

Fox points out in bis book Beyond Evolution, genetic pollution is uncontrollable, irrevers- ible, and permanent, posing a major tbreat to biodiversity and to the bio-integrity of the entire life community (Fox, 1999),

Food bio-engineering is a powerful and promising technology tbat offers both benefits and dangers to modern society. An enormous number of changes can be made tbrough mo- lecular manipulation. Biotechnology research sbould proceed witb precautionary principles in mind, Biotecb engineers sbould ask tbem- selves the following questions. Is tbis new technology necessary, safe, and effective? Is it traceable—can the product be recalled if necessary? Can it be regulated and, if so, at wbat cost to society? Wbat are the long- and short-term affects on tbe ecosystem, on the structure of agriculture bere and abroad, and on animal welfare? Tbese are just some of the questions Fox outlines in his bioethical crite- ria for acceptabihty (Fox, 1999), Tbe etbics of preserving tbe eartb’s bio-integrity must direct and constrain genetic engineering,

Tbe consequences of moving forward too rapidly witbout a full accounting of tbe possible adverse impacts are staggering. At tbe same time, I recognize tbat there is a need to advance technologically and that tbose advances could result in an end to world hunger. But what is tbe most important consideration? Sbould we be ending bunger by causing genetic mutations we bave not anticipated, or moving toward tbe goal of ending world bunger safely tbrough ap- plication of sound scientific principles? •?!

Corresponding Author: Valeria Jefferson, President, National Capital Area Environmen- tal Health Association, 8905 Clayton Lane, Clinton, MD 20735, E-mail: Valjefferson®

References About, (2006), Utilitarian ethics. Retrieved

Marcb 7, 2006, from http://experts,about, com/e/u/utAJtilitarian_ethics,htm,

Better Health Channel, (1999), Genetically modified foods. Retrieved October 31, 2004, from http://www,betterbealtb,vic, gov,au/bhcv2/bbcarticles,nsfypages/Geneti- cally_modified_foods?OpenDocument,

Callahan, D, (2000), Food jor thought—Con- troversy over genetically modified agriculture. Commonweal, Retrieved October 7, 2004, from http://vnvw,findarticles,com/p/articles/ mi_ml252/is_7_127/ai_61764162/,

Comstock, G, (2000), Vexing nature?: On the ethical case against agricultural biotech- nology. Norwell, MA; Kluwer Academic Pubhsbers,

Formanek, R, (2001, March-April), Proposed rules issued for bioengineered foods, FDA Consumer Magazine, 35(2), Retrieved Sep- tember 10, 2004, from bttp://www,fda,gov/ fdac/features/2001/201_food,btml.

Fox, M, (1999), Beyond evolution. New York; The Lyons Press,

Institute of Food Science & Technology (2004), Genetic modification and food. Re- trieved September 10, 2004, from bttp:// www,ifst,org/bottoplO,btm,

United Nations, (2001), The right to food. Retrieved September 15, 2004, from bttp://ods-dds-ny,un,org/doc/UNDOC/ GEN/NO 1/465/52/PDF/NO146552, pdf?OpenElement,

U,S, Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Researcb Center, (2001), Researcb section, program rationale. Retrieved September 10, 2004, from http://www,ars,usda,gov/ researcb/programs/programs,htm?np_ code=301&docid=790.

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