Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 228 | Julio 2000



Transgenic Foodstuffs: Gateway to a Controversy

Nicaragua’s passage a few months ago of a law protecting the obtainment of vegetable matter opened the gates to a debate on transgenic crops. It is a complex discussion and the information is concentrated in few hands, so it helps to have a few principles clear.

Javier Gafo

Emotions and feelings are unquestionably important in human life. They are also important in approaching the ethical dilemmas resulting from the extraordinary advance of the biomedical sciences. The recent history of bioethics has been accompanied by strong emotional reactions: the first heart transplant, the start of genetic engineering techniques and the announcement of the cloning of Dolly the sheep two years ago, to name but a few. More recently, the development of transgenic foodstuffs has also triggered strong emotional reactions. But what are these foods? They are products originating from plants into which genes have been introduced to give them certain qualities, such as resistance to insecticides and pesticides. The best-known plants of this kind are transgenic corn and soy.

The need for rational debate

Western philosophy in general—and ethics in particular—has not been particularly sensitive to the value of feelings and emotions. We are the heirs of Descartes’ famous statement, "I think, therefore I am." In recent times, however, certain voices have been raised in vindication of the role and importance of human experience. Daniel Goleman’s work, Emotional Intelligence, has marked a milestone in this sense, as has José Antonio Marina’s book, El laberinto sentimental, among the Spanish. We should also not overlook the fact that Hume’s theory of knowledge is based on the importance of beliefs as a way of discerning good from bad in human actions—what we experience spontaneously when faced with a homicide, for example. It is no coincidence that Hume is at the basis of the Anglo-Saxon animal rights movements or that it is in his homeland, Great Britain, where the biggest controversy is brewing over transgenic food.

The importance of feelings in the determination of what is good and bad cannot be denied, but emotion, which has the advantage of being quick and effective, can also lead to rather simplistic and over-generalizing conclusions. The fact is that only reason can act as the judge or arbitrator of emotions. As Fernando Savater put it, "Certainly reason has its limits. But there are no other alternative means of knowledge, there is no other non-rational kind of knowledge that is much better than reason. It would be most absurd to suppose that there is another kind of knowledge that, while being knowledge, has nothing to do with reason. Reason does not make leaps, it has no shortcuts; in other words it is always developed on the basis of work, study, reflection... It never has any kind of intuitive and magic vision of the reality of things."

The power to control our own evolution

Science has made great advances over the last quarter of a century and those in which science has penetrated into areas in which it supposedly should not meddle have been particularly controversial. It is notable how we have recurred to old Biblical symbols in our modern culture, such as "you are gods," the prohibition of eating from the tree of good and evil and the sanctum sanctorum, to update that image of the angel at the gates of Eden with his flaming sword, prohibiting human beings from entering the most intimate areas of life, human life in particular. From my point of view as a Catholic moral theologian, I must say that I find unacceptable this image of a God that marks off areas of knowledge and power from which humans must keep their distance, like Moses from the burning bush.

I often quote a pronouncement made by John Paul II in 1984 to mark Mendel’s hundredth anniversary: "Will human beings have the capacity to use the marvelous conquests of this branch of science, which started in the small vegetable garden in Brno, at the exclusive service of human beings? Human beings are beginning to hold the power to control their own evolution and the measure and the effects—whether good or not—of this control will depend not so much on science, but rather on their wisdom."
This is an important text because it emphasizes the possibility of genetics having a presence and penetration in human evolution itself. This is not disqualified, but rather made to depend on wisdom, or ethics; on a rationality that includes the world of feelings to ponder the good or bad effects of this great technological capability that our generation has come to obtain.

Environmental awareness has changed everything

The current debate over transgenic food, plants and animals is inseparable from the strong environmental awareness nurtured over the last 30 years that was partly responsible for the very term bioethics. It was coined for the first time by Potter and reinforced a year later, in 1972, with the publication of the Club of Rome report The Limits of Growth (1982) and the first World Conference on the Environment, held in Stockholm.

Environmental awareness has grown since then and there are many signs of profound concern about the irreparable ecological deterioration that is occurring. Intense awareness has been created of the need to form new relations between humans and nature. Christianity has had to dig deep into its Biblical roots to tone down the central position of humans within creation as a whole and their dominion over nature. This idea has impregnated Western culture and accentuated the sharp division between the Cartesian human (res cogitans) and the rest of reality (res extensa), equating animals to perfect machines that could be designed by humans.

Today this human-nature dualism is unsustainable and there is urgent need for a much more integrated vision. Our view is that the solution for obtaining a more harmonic relation lies not in ecocentrism, in which human beings are just one more element within the biosphere, but in an ecoanthropocentrism sensitive to the human particularity within nature as a whole but also deeply respectful of non-human reality.

Animal rights

In the context of relations between humans and nature, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the development of science have tended to consider human beings as an end in themselves—they have value and not price, as Kant put it—while turning the rest of reality into nothing more than a means. In view of the statements by Diego García (Informe sobre la clonación, Madrid, 1999), we believe that this view can no longer be sustained. The radical links between human beings and the biosphere means that animals, plants and nature as a whole are "contaminated" or affected by this essential human reference. The difference lies in the fact that while each individual is an end in himself/herself in the case of human beings, animals and natural realities are an end as a whole, although not necessarily as individuals. This implies shaking off the conviction—which underlies all ecological deterioration—that animals, plants and nature are merely means, and as such are objects to be exploited for mere use and abuse. The global consideration that nature, if not all beings that comprise it, is an end in itself should lay the foundations for a different approach to the biosphere. It could be said that, faced with a modification of nature, the burden of proof is on the one who is using it for genuinely human interests.

In this context, there has been an intensification of the debate over "animal rights." Without getting into this controversy, which as somebody has written even involves certain "zoolatrous" attitudes, it appears indisputable that animals should be granted a superior status to plants and the rest of inanimate nature. The capacity to feel pain, to share with humans a common range of sensations places them in a situation quite different from that of plants, providing transgenic animals with an element that differentiates them from genetically modified plants.

The rights of those yet to be born

Another transcendental factor should be added to the need for a different relation between humans and nature: human actions must be contemplated in terms not only of the consequences they could have on existing individuals, but also of the rights of future generations. In this respect there is increasing insistence on the need to create a new set of rights: those possessed by human beings who will be called upon to live on this planet after us. Our great technological development precisely implies the risk that certain actions will have dramatic consequences on the lives of millions of people, consequences that are not only synchronic or contemporary but also diachronic in that they will affect future generations. The most emblematic case in this regard is Chernobyl.

The ethics of responsibility: Three principles

The philosopher who has perhaps most emphasized this new dimension of ethics in the recently ended century is Hans Jonas, following Max Weber’s line of the ethics of responsibility: "Here as well the anthropocentric orientation of the whole classical ethics must be conserved" as humans continue being "the final reference." But it is no longer possible to avoid the question of whether nature has become a good entrusted to our protection, thus making moral demands of us in relation not just to human beings but also to nature itself. "This would imply that we have to seek not only the human good but also the good of extra-human things. It would imply extending the recognition of ‘ends in themselves’ beyond the human sphere and incorporating their care into the concept of human good." Thus from the perspective of an ethics of responsibility, Jonas proposes three principles, which are also derived from Kant.

First formulation: "Work in such a way that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of an authentic human life on Earth."
Second formulation: "Do not endanger the conditions for the indefinite continuation of humanity on Earth."
Third formulation: "Include in your present choice, also as an object of your desire, the future integrity of humanity."

Transgenics: An extraordinarily specialized subject

I tend to repeat profusely that "after all, good ethics starts with good data." Science does not in itself provide the ethical sense of what is good and what is not for humankind, or of course for future generations, but it does constitute a fundamental substratum on which to build any ethical reflection. It is often said that ethics and law must come after science, as they can only get to work once science has revealed certain data. This is not entirely true, particularly in respect to ethics, which can and should initiate its reflections even before a scientific fact has become a reality, as has been happening in the case of cloning or of the Human Genome Project. It is important to underscore that right at the start of that great project, the United States created ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications), dedicating first 3% and later 5% of its annual budget to the ethical and legal aspects of the project. It announced its first great success in June of this year, after ten years of research.

It is also true that such considerations will always have an ultimately provisional nature and should be reexamined in the light of concrete scientific data. In any case, the preeminence and prevalence of scientific data in the case of transgenics constitutes an essential starting point, and the conclusions of specialists—specifically on the consequences of transferring genes to plants—will play a basic role in ethical deliberations. In such an extraordinarily specialized and complex subject, the opinions of geneticists must occupy such a decisive place in the ethical analysis that, in the words of García Olmeda, "transgenic products should be approved on a case by case basis and the lack of toxicity of the transgenic product must be ascertained from bibliographical records and investigated according to well-established tests."
It has often been written that neither biotechnology nor transgenics are new phenomena, that they have histories dating back to the neolithic dawn. The classical procedure of selective crossbreeding and other improvements have provided extraordinary results in the agriculture and livestock fields. The new element today is the direct modification of the genome of living beings and the introduction of genetic elements into certain species, even species distantly related on the phylogenetic tree. The advantages of such modifications are theoretically very important, but they should be rigorously compared to the negative consequences they might also produce. Risk is inseparable from any scientific process, which develops according to its own nature in the face of uncountable risks. In general, science has advanced blind to risk, but alert to its possible symptoms.

Transgenics: Three great risks

The following risks must be dealt with in the case of transgenics:
* The loss of biodiversity. Everything appears to indicate that the new "green revolution" ushered in by transgenic crops involves no greater risks than the green revolution that preceded it, based on conventional improvements through guided crossings, which has had important results in the fight against hunger. It has been pointed out, however, that very few varieties of grasses are now being used in world agriculture. The loss of biodiversity and of genetic factors—known as "genetic erosion"—is worrying and could constitute a very serious problem in the future. In the United States, six varieties account for 70% of the maize produced, while four varieties account for 76% of Canada’s wheat production. The intensified conservation of phytogenetic resources and germplasm banks, which include wild varieties of possible future interest, are urgent measures that can be ethically required to avoid this serious loss. Each species or variety that disappears takes with it an unrecoverable genetic treasure.

* The impact of transgenic plants on the ecological balance of different habitats. This aspect should also be rigorously considered. Although this problem has emerged in many other cases and is therefore nothing new, it requires a special sensitivity. Past mistakes should be an incentive not to make new ones in this delicate area. Carrying out prior research designs and evaluating the first results obtained should constitute an ethical reference point.

* The negative consequences of transgenic foods on human beings. This factor should be studied even more rigorously. The argument that equally negative impacts have been produced by the previous green revolution or that environmental deterioration is causing similar effects cannot justify the assumption of new risks. Whether or not the current alarm over transgenic foods is justified, we consider that the consumer should be provided with information about the origin of the product, and its particular nature should be stated on the label. The emphasis on informed consent in bioethical matters should be extended to the new transgenic foods. It cannot be denied, however, that this precautionary measure cannot be taken with bulk-marketed products, such as soy and corn, as starting with the first silo it is impossible in practice to isolate it within the distribution network.

"Organic" agriculture is not enough

The great advantages associated, in principle, with transgenic plants cannot be denied. The need for a new green revolution that eliminates the defects and limitations of the previous one and could lead to an increase in production has been well documented. With the global possibilities of cultivatable soil and water reaching their limits while the world population "celebrated" the birth of its six billionth child in 1999, it seems utopian to think that organic or "biological" agriculture could represent anything more than a certain luxury for the inhabitants of wealthy countries. And it appears deluded to think that it could provide food to such a numerous human population that should logically have access to far higher nutrition levels than is currently the case. Organic agriculture produces yields that are only 60% to 85% of those of conventional crops.
In recent decades, the rise in demand has been met more by increases in production per surface unit than by increases in the area cultivated. Another fact: annual per capita food production—on a global scale and in developing countries—has been stagnating for over five years and is starting to decline because we have already seen the biggest effects of the green revolution that started some three decades ago. Such figures lead the Spanish scientist García Olmedo to conclude that, "given that the availability of water and agricultural soil cannot substantially increased, there is no other option than to increase productivity—the production level per unit of land cultivated—if we want to safeguard our future access to food."
The possible positive effects of transgenic plants to at least palliate the negative consequences of the former green revolution should also be underscored. These include economic and environmental savings resulting from the reduced use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides. The kind of intensive agriculture that will be required in the future cannot be based on current technology. The intensive use of fertilizers, energy and agrochemical products has an undeniably negative effect on the environment that makes it necessary to find new crop varieties that have a greater yield, are less sensitive to adverse factors and require fewer agrochemical treatments. Such treatments should involve the use of a new generation of products that are more active and effective using smaller doses than is currently the case, and that are also more specific with fewer secondary effects on flora and fauna. That is why it is so important to develop transgenic plants that can be protected with less aggressive treatments and new phytosanitary products that are biodegradable and can be used in smaller doses.

And the countries of the South?

Whenever the ethical aspects of biotechnology are discussed, it is always stressed that there is a risk of it representing a form of neocolonialism exercised by the technically developed countries over the poorest ones. It has been insisted that there is a danger of the countries of the South being forced to buy transgenic seeds with no ability to oppose the economic interests of the big transnational companies. Given the huge economic interests linked to this new genetic technology, the fear that undue pressure will be exerted to ensure the social acceptance of these products cannot be ignored. It should be pointed out, however, that the precautions taken in relation to transgenic plants are greater than in the past; in fact they are unprecedented in our scientific history. Without denying the risks, it should also not be forgotten that the previous green revolution significantly increased agricultural production in developing countries.

To close, two quotes from the prestigious scientific magazine Nature:
"The declared position of the world’s most important regulatory and scientific institutions is that, in principle, genetically modified crops do not represent a greater risk to human health than that represented by traditional improvements."
"The majority of scientists believe that the risks are broadly hypothetical and that the usual security measures are adequate."

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