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Biotechnology Ethics

image Published: Sep 03, 2001


Future technological developments concerning food, agriculture and the environment face a gulf of social legitimation from a sceptical public and media, in the wake of the crises of BSE, GM food, and foot and mouth disease in the UK. There is distrust of the bioindustry, the regulatory system and the assurances of Government. This paper examines agricultural biotechnology in terms of a social contract, assessing the conditions which would be necessary to re-establish a measure of public trust against a climate of suspicion. A vital factor is how far new shared visions can be found for future developments in this field.

Mismatched Visions about Biotechnology

A vision is something which motivates us, rooted in certain values which we hold. Prevailing attitudes within the scientific community, the bioindustry, government and regulatory agencies continue to hold a positive vision of biotechnology. These are expressed in terms like discovery, innovation, enhancement, efficiency, sustainability, prosperity, growth and competitivity. Developments should be guided by suitable systems of safety and regulation, but should not be held back by them. Underlying all, and largely taken for granted, is an Enlightenment vision of rational human progress through technology.

This was a generally shared vision within UK society in the decades following second world war, but it has now became increasingly called into question by a significant proportion of the public. Mismanagement, accidents and health and environmental concerns have led to a more critical spirit towards technology. A succession of crises in agriculture and food production have left a legacy of risk aversion, scepticism at technological intervention in biotechnology and distrust of regulatory authorities. The presupposition of progress can no longer be assumed as a shared value which legitimates all areas of biotechnology. While medical applications still tend to have broad support in Europe, for environment, agriculture and food applications an automatic acceptance of technological goals can now no longer be assumed. New technical interventions are as likely to be framed in terms of its risks as its possible benefits, contrasting with North America, where innovation remains regarded in a more positive light.

Value Questions that were Dismissed

A key factor in this sceptical mood was the failure of governments, the EC, regulators and the bioindustry to take seriously the wider values being expressed within civil society about genetically modified food, a set of issues for which ‘GM’ has become a symbol. These include how far science should alter nature, what are proper systems of agriculture, what are acceptable environmental and health risks, the power, control and accountability of the corporate sector, and democratic participation in policy and regulation. Expressions of concern were commonly dismissed as “irrational” and “emotional” by an establishment for whom scientific rationality was the only accepted mode of discourse. The concept of substantial equivalence and labelling GM food only by content were assumed to be entirely sufficient to satisfy regulatory needs. The response was that the public needed educating out of fears stirred up by green NGOs and the media. This failed miserably because, although there were misconceptions like the fear of ‘eating genes’, the issues concerned much deeper values and perceptions which mere facts about genetics and regulation would not address.

There was firstly a disquiet that genetic engineering might be intervening too far with natural processes. Terms like “playing God” and “tampering with nature”, although usually used rather carelessly, nonetheless expressed either an intrinsic ethical objection to mixing genes at will across species that do not normally inter-breed, or severe doubts at the wisdom of doing so. Against this climate, various groups presented their different visions of reality. The perception that when it came to food ‘nature knew best’ was played upon in the media to great success by the environmental and organic movement. The connotations evoked by the sound byte ‘Frankenstein foods’ were dramatically effective in damning the credentials of GM food and their proponents in the public eye. A general public mood emerged sceptical of high-tech methods in agriculture, with a corresponding growth of interest in alternative approaches which appeared to offer more natural and ‘sustainable’ ways of using the biosphere. Although the bioindustry pointed to environmental and nutritional benefits from GM crops, allegations by opponents that novel genetic constructs could give rise to unintended harmful long term consequences appeared quite plausible in the wake of BSE. However unlikely the regulators and Government said these risks were, their reassurances were now seen as so much devalued currency. The earlier lessons of nuclear energy were not learned, that scientific risk assessment has little credibility against people’s adverse risk perceptions based on different value criteria, trust and intuition.

The other ethical claim made by government, EU and industry was that GM crops were needed to feed the world. Monsanto’s UK advertising campaign failed disastrously, debased by the reality that applications on the market and under research were primarily geared to benefit large scale producers in North America or well fed consumers in Europe, not the world’s disadvantaged peoples. Opponents argued that a technology promoted by a rapacious corporate sector was also more likely to cause harm than good to poor farmers.

The establishment dismissal of these concerns led to a general consumer rejection of GM food, and a distrust of anyone promoting and regulating it. Against this background, do GM crops have any future in Europe or will they remain, like irradiated food, not banned, but unable to gain public acceptance? If there is to be a future it requires a radical shift in the technology from something imposed by a power elite to something rooted in society, to return technology into societal accountability.

Biotechnology seen as a Social Contract

There is a synergic relationship between technology and society. Technology is a product of the values and aspirations of the culture in which it emerges. These are expressed by and embed in its artefacts and systems. In turn, technology shapes and alters those values and aspirations. For example, over the past century transportation and refridgeration technologies have contributed to a greatly changed expectation of the variety of our diet and the quality of food. A feature of innovation, however, is that the full range of outcomes are seldom knowable in advance. Once a dependence has been established on a technology, the more central the role it plays the more damaging are any failures or unforeseen adverse effects. This may lead to a loss of the trust that was previously given, and an alteration of values in the light of the experience.

Against this broad context, the acceptance or rejection of novelty and innovation in technology are seen to be dependent on a complex measure of factors, which constitute an invisible social contract. A society is prepared to embrace technology to deliver certain benefits, and will accept a certain degree of risk and adaptation of life styles, provided certain basic conditions are fulfilled. These conditions include :

Values : does it uphold or challenge basic values?
Familiarity : is the technology familiar and understood, socially embedded?
Comparison : if it is unfamiliar, has something like it gone wrong before or proved reliable?
Control : how much do we feel in control of the technology or the risks?
Trust : how much do we trust those who are in control?
Vision : how much do we share their values, motivations and goals?
Choice : is it a voluntary or imposed risk?
Frequency of risk : if it’s too frequent it’s unacceptable
Magnitude of risk : there is a much greater aversion to high consequence risks
Immediacy of risk : is it noticeable or does it creep up insidiously?
Benefit : does it offer realistic, tangible benefits to the consumer?
Profile : has it been given a positive or negative image in the media?

If several of these factors are not fulfilled, the technology is unlikely to be accepted. This was dramatically illustrated in the UK public reaction to food products derived from imported US GM soya and maize. These applications failed most of the above conditions, and can be said to have broken the invisible social contract. It was an unfamiliar technology which brought together two very sensitive issues - genetics and food - which challenged basic values, as already shown. Although its risks were largely unproven, they were high consequence, low probability hazards, insidious in nature and probably irreversible, which typically evoke an aversion much greater than their calculated risk. The immediate points of comparison were the recent experience of BSE/CJD, a very remote health risk which nonetheless proved to be real, or the various cases of the unintended spread of an introduced species within a local ecology. Because no choice was offered for those wishing to avoid GM foods, any risk, however remote, was unavoidable.

The ordinary public had played no role in the introduction of the technology and had little or no trust in those who controlled it. Their goals and values were not shared. The UK Government’s motivations - in reducing input costs in farming and promoting a competitive UK biotechnology industry - were not seen as relevant to consumers. The main benefits were agronomic and accrued to foreign growers, and especially to US-based multi-national corporations. Their perceived arrogance in promoting their own interests by forcing GM soya and maize on to the European market, oblivious of consumer values or choice, provoked a deep antipathy to commercial motivations. Very reasonably, people asked why they should accept foods which might carry an imposed risk, which they did not need, which offered no tangible benefits to them, and which served only the corporate ambitions of powerful foreign companies. It smacked of an imperialism reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party, but in reverse, and provoked a similar response.

Can GM Satisfy the Social Contract?

Is this failure intrinsic to all GM technologies involving food, or specific to the particular applications and the circumstances of their introduction? Prior to 1999, Zeneca’s GM tomato paste had sold fairly well in the UK without undue opposition. Certain critical differences are illuminating, over media profile, risk awareness, choice and benefit. In 1996, GM was unfamiliar and potentially problematic, but it had not received exhaustive media coverage and an issue had not been made of its risks. Supermarkets promoted the paste as slightly cheaper and tasting better than the non-GM variety. They stopped selling it once they saw a market interest in promoting themselves as ‘GM free’. The consumer had a clear choice, because the paste was a single product sold in a GM-labelled tin, whose tomatoes were separately sourced. In contrast GM soya and maize were invisible. They were commodities sold primarily as ingredients to the food processing industry, and no attempt was made to segregate GM from non-GM sources. It was not clear to the consumer which of a wide variety of food products would have had GM-derived ingredients and which would not. As Zeneca’s market research had shown, an absolute condition for any GM food is visible choice through labelling and segregation. But would choice alone now be sufficient to redeem GM food?

It remains to be seen whether the stigma now attached to GM food as a concept would irredeemably taint any future applications, regardless of how well they might satisfy the social contract. There are now strong vested and political interests involved. Sections of the biotechnology industry have seized on vitamin A GM rice in an exaggerated way as an example of positive benefit, albeit one promoted by charitable and public funding. They also point to the nutritional and other advantages of second and third generation GM applications on the way. Environmental groups, the organic movement and sections of the media continue to promote the sense of stigma through expressions such as pollution and contamination. The ordinary citizen is caught in the middle, not knowing who to believe. If GM crop and food applications have any future it lies in focusing on aims which find common cause with these consumers. Three possible examples are “functional foods”, environmentally sustainable crop production, and disease resistance in farm animals.

Foods genetically engineered to add ingredients which give a nutritional or health enhancement compared with non-GM varieties could significantly alter the benefit criterion, if the advantages were enough to overcome residual fears of health risks. Nutrients alone might not suffice, but additives which enhanced resistance to cancers or heart disease might well be seen as acceptable. GM applications which removed allergenic compounds might have a particular attraction, such as a GM wheat which eliminated the chemical causes of the gluten reaction. Environmental risks would figure less in this type of application, unless the crops also incorporated GM-based herbicide or insect resistance. Suspicions of commercial motivation and control would remain. Vaccines produced in plants using GM viruses would satisfy most of the criteria, provided vaccines were extracted rather than eaten in situ in the plant. The main doubts would be over risk comparison, with the association of viruses with human disease, and the fear of unforeseen transformations.

The application of GM to crops for targeted environmental improvements is supported by some wildlife conservation bodies, but the consumer benefit would be second order and would run the gauntlet of being written off as a technical fix and the perception that GM crops are by definition ecologically dangerous. For example, gene flow might be avoided by making GM crops sterile, but ‘terminator’ technology has gained an ethical stigma. While its use would be a deep injustice in those developing countries where seed is normally resown, in the UK nearly all conventional crops sown are hybrid varieties, whose seeds have to be bought fresh each year anyway. To overcome perceptual barriers, GM developments would have to offer environmental solutions that were difficult to achieve in other ways, and without posing new risks.

GM food animals bred for resistance to scrapie, BSE, foot and mouth or other animal diseases might satisfy the benefit criterion, but would the worthy goals of animal welfare and eradicating sources of highly publicised epidemics offset the current value-taint of genetic modification in food? Risk issues would be important. Logically the risks should be less than conventional meat, but unfamiliarity creates suspicion of unknown consequences. Much would depend on what point of comparison the media drew - disease relief or genetic tampering - and whether alternative strategies were available to combat the same diseases.

Conditions Necessary to achieve a Consensus

While some applications might succeed, but to re-establish a measure of trust against the current climate of suspicion of GM requires bridging a gulf of perceptions, values and visions, to find common cause with the wider population. To achieve this, several fundamental changes are necessary. Firstly, biotechnology needs to regard its ethical dimension as intrinsic, not extrinsic, to its task, and to identify and demonstrate its own ethical limits. Both science education and the ongoing training of existing biotechnology researchers need to encompass an understanding of ethics. This should include regular engagement with rationalities outside the scientific peer group, involving philosophy, theology and social science disciplines, and also lay people.

Secondly, biotechnology needs to learn to listen to its public, and to show a responsiveness to the public’s concerns by adapting its goals to their values and visions. Education thus becomes a two way process, instead of the ‘information deficit’ model. There is no single method of engagement with the wider public on biotechnology issues. Different models, like public debates, focus groups, consensus conferences and citizens’ juries, all have a role to play, tailored to particular situations.

The adaptation of goals requires new approaches in the strategic planning and management, involving the public to find ways to identify commonly agreed aims for biotechnology. This also means opening the process of research prioritisation. One method is a problem oriented approach which identifies a need and seeks a consensus about the best way to meet it, where GM is only one possibility amongst many, used only if it is really is optimal solution. In line with this, a company’s strategy on patent protection needs to be reviewed responsively with the public, in order to ensure that the less remunerative but crucial human or environmental benefits are not sidelined by the best commercial options. Changes are also needed to free up company-owned basic methods and applications with potential uses for the world’s poor.

Lastly, a common vision for biotechnology also includes a corresponding transparency by government and regulators. Cultures unused to open discussion need to develop it. To restore public confidence, the patenting process needs a parallel process of ethical assessment of bioinventions, and the risk regulation needs independent sources of critical data clearly segregated from any commercial interest. The long trend in most industrial countries to switch from public sector funding to private has produced a corresponding decrease in public trust in research. In today’s climate of deep scepticism of private sector biotechnology, the mentality of ‘commercial-in-confidence’ needs rethinking. It is more important to regain the confidence of the public than to keep commercial confidentiality for a product which no one trusts.

This paper has explored some roots of the crisis in public trust of GM food, highlightng key ethical issues which were ignored and the values held by power groups on different sides. A social contract for biotechnology is proposed, whose conditions indicate what would be necessary to re-establish trust. A more publicly responsive model of planning in biotechnology is suggested, in order to seek to find common cause with the wider population, without which there will be probably no future for GM crops in Europe.

1 Bruce, D. and Bruce, A. (eds), 1999, Engineering Genesis, Earthscan, London.

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