The ethics of biotechnology: Discussion at the stakeholders' conference goes beyond higher yields

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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May 5, 2003: When philosophers and biologists get together to discuss genetically modified food, the focus veers away from the potential for a production lift from Bt corn - a genetically modified corn that produces its own defense against the corn borer pest. The focus shifts to the nature of technology itself, particularly organic engineering, and the underlying assumptions of genetically modified food and its relationship to sustainable food systems.

The stakeholders' conference on agricultural biotechnology and sustainable agriculture at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the end of April created just such a discussion.

Maarten Chrispeels, professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, talked about biotechnology as a tool box for agricultural researchers, farmers and consumers. For Chrispeels, the issue is not biotech "yes" or "no." Genetic modification technology can help solve weed, pest, drought and salinity problems that currently lack any other solution. Sustainable agriculture will benefit from the growing number of tools in the biotechnology box when farmers adapt them to local agro-ecologies and subsequent farming systems.

Gary Comstock, professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University, talked about "Vexing Nature? Ethics and GM Food." He criticized industry's prime argument that GM food will improve agricultural sustainability. According to Comstock, the argument is unsound: it discounts the opportunity costs of other choices for research and funding.

Comstock also analyzed and discounted as unsound the main arguments against GM foods: the potential harm outweighs the benefits; we are playing God; we are changing the world; and crossing species barriers is unnatural. He called for a broader discussion of the ethics of GM foods if their benefits are to be realized and environmental risks minimized.

Egbert Schuurman, who teaches philosophy at the Agricultural University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, made the case for the profound differences between technology that creates new inorganic tools like metal widgets or electricity, and technology that develops new organic tools like genetically modified seeds and bioengineered animals.

He cautioned against the assumption that drawbacks of a new technology can be fixed by still more technology. The DNA of organic life is not just a collection of Lego blocks waiting to be restacked by human ingenuity. Organic life has an inherent level of uncertainty. Once in the environment, new organic tools reach beyond our scientific/technical control and will, given time, develop a life of their own.

Schuurman recommended the development of an ethical framework specifically for technology that manipulates living organisms - a framework that admits to uncertainty and protects quality of life both now and in the long run.

While GM food finds its way to grocers' shelves, its social and ecological implications remain unclear.


For more on the myths about hunger and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a Christian response to hunger visit


Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.