ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

16 February 2002


GMOs, Ethics and Public Policy: Some reflections
Professor Robin Grove-White
Lancaster University, UK

A notable feature of biotechnology regulation over the past few years has been the emerging official embrace of `ethics' as an integral part of the policy process.  New national and supra-national bodies have been formed to review the ethical dimensions of genetic modification (GM) in a host of areas, from research to human applications to applications in agriculture and the environment.

These are laudable developments, but a look at one issue area - GM foods and crops - suggests that there are many more ethical dimensions of concern than are yet being recognised in official policy processes. The role of ethical insight in the forms in which it is being grafted onto established GM regulatory frameworks in countries like the UK and US remains constrained. This may serve not only to diminish the quality of public debate about the social and political challenges posed by GM developments, but also to risk further loss of trust in the adequacy of the regulatory frameworks themselves ñ frameworks which are already arguably in crisis.

At the core of the present state of affairs lies the nature of the dominant risk assessment methods and practices for GMs. Historically these practices have emerged from a particular model of the technological innovation process and its appropriate patterns of regulation. Technological innovations characteristically develop in their early stages in isolation from wider public inspection.  Only later, when they are approaching the market, are they seen as demanding wider expert assessment and review for safety and environmental reasons, and to establish the terms on which they may or may not be diffused into wider society.

To this end, product-by-product risk assessment practices have evolved, harnessing specialist expertises of various technical kinds in structured fashion. The emphasis in such processes has been on state-of-the-art knowledge of identifiable `hazard' and `risk' pathways, both direct and increasingly indirect (Royal Society 1992, NRC 1996).

Such risk assessment rules and conventions have become embodied, by statute, in the key EU and US institutions responsible for regulation of GMs for both human and agricultural applications of biotechnology. However, with mounting recognition on both sides of the Atlantic of the potential implications of the biosciences for society and human welfare, there has been a need to reflect more widely. Hence the rise of `ethics', `ethicists', and `ethical committees,' as elements of society's regulation of biotechnology developments. Major players include the US National Biotechnology Advisory Commission and the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (formerly the Group of Advisers on the Ethical Implications of Biotechnology of the European Commission).
In the human and medical domains - on issues such as cloning, genetic data bases and the like - the resources of Kantian and utilitarian traditions have been mobilised, with mixed results. More recently, as controversy has grown in the GM food, animals, and crops domains, there have been a number of studies, harnessing similar approaches to the supposed ethical dimensions of what is at stake here too (Straughan & Reiss 1997, Nuffield 1999).

But these developments reveal a particular limited conception of `the ethical'. The forms of insight and reflection that have been institutionalised so far have been those which can go with the grain of the dominant discourses of the world of regulation. A tacit characterisation appears to be crystallising of ethics as essentially an additional form of specialist instrumental expertise -distinctive, but little different in kind from other technical specialisms already involved in risk assessment. Its (trained) experts are being encouraged towards the assessment and evaluation of scientific artefacts (e.g. GM constructs of particular kinds), and then to offer appraisals of the terms on which the latters' `ethical' implications may or may not be acceptable.

Hence ethics in such contexts risks becoming understood as essentially a supplementary modular form of expertise, as just another technical hurdle to be crossed as part of the risk assessment process. A body of recent experience suggests that many of those involved in ethical deliberations, whilst welcoming the possibility of making more publicly significant contributions, are uneasy nevertheless about official expectations of their role.

Is something missing from the currently emerging picture of the ethical - particularly as regards GM foods and crops? If so, how important is it?

The illustrations below suggest that there are serious grounds for concern. All of the following are issues of normative public policy significance which have featured importantly in the ongoing debates on both sides of the Atlantic, but which nevertheless remain outside the purview of `ethics' as currently institutionalised in evaluative processes of regulatory significance:

1. There are deep, if persistently under-acknowledged, ethical implications in the chosen trajectories of scientific research in both public and private sectors. Such choices tend to be the products of negotiations between competing `interested' parties, usually those with major stakes in the technology, such as state institutions and industry. Given the vast transformative potential of biotechnology, what meaningful influence can individuals, or society as a whole, exert over the emerging patterns and directions of relevant scientific R&D?

2. There appears to be little serious evaluation of the potential cumulative implications and potential unintended side-effects of biotechnology development trajectories (e.g. persistent scientific ignorance, potential for `surprises', tensions around increasing animal experimentation in order to take advantage of advances in genomics). As the recent GM controversies in Europe suggest, such matters are likely to have profound social and political reverberations in the period ahead, reflecting their high ethical content as perceived by the public.

3. What are the ethical implications of the escalating transformations of notions of ownership - not only through patents, but also through tendencies inherent in capital-intensive GM technologies towards oligopolistic control of food and agricultural resources? The intense debate over the mere hypothetical discussion of the so-called `Terminator gene' attests to the intensity of these worries.

4. What are likely to be the real social and distributional implications of diffusion of GM technologies in the developing world - for example, in relation to changed patterns of land ownership and control, and what are the foreseeable cultural changes, both negative and positive?

5. The normative assumption, embedded in current regulatory processes (through the doctrine of `substantial equivalence', for instance), that GM crops should properly be understood as a seamless progression from conventional plant breeding, rather than as new in kind, amounts to a tacit ethical judgement on society's behalf. Yet, it has not been debated in terms which recognise it for what it is - a judgement. For many who are not scientists or industrialists, GM presents properties (eg speed, scale, interspecies transfer, interference with property rights, concentration of knowledge) which do render it different in kind from other agricultural technologies.

6. Regulatory frameworks in the UK and US - and doubtless other countries besides - recognise only epistemological uncertainty where GM constructs are concerned, rather than deeper ontological uncertainties. In other words, attention focuses on what is not known about the behavior of GM constructs in the environment or in relation to public health. Uncertainty about the moral bounds of GM research have tended to be backgrounded. This again is a normative ethical commitment, which, recent social research suggests, is of wide public significance (Grove-White et al 2000, FDA 2000). It merits immediate debate - but this is effectively suppressed by dominant official representations of the ethical.

7. Similarly, the recurrent characterisation of `the public' as simply `consumers' to be protected, rather than as authentic social-moral agents, or `citizens,' capable of independent judgement, embodies a crucial ethical commitment to a selective conception of human nature itself.

In the past twelve months, there have been signs that both US and UK governments are becoming aware of the lacunae such issues suggest. Both administrations have moved to create new advisory bodies in the ethics-public values-GM crops domain - for example, the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission in the UK. However, significantly, these bodies are advisory only and sit within frameworks where the statutory regulatory advisers are committed to patterns of science-based risk assessment.

It remains to be seen whether in these circumstances the wider ethical agenda outlined above - the pursuit of which may constitute, unavoidably, a challenge to the authority of established policy frameworks by pointing implicitly to their limitations - can be granted credible or authentic expression. Up till now, many of the wider issues have tended to be marginalised, or even patronised, as `political' or `emotional', compared with the `scientific' and `rational' character of standardised regulatory assessments. Alternatively, the issues have been cast into frames that are narrowly professional, accessible only to philosophically trained ethicists or religious leaders. This casting of ethics as technical or professional specialty again deprives citizens and society of the opportunity for meaningful debate on the core values implicated in GM as a mode of production.

The tensions around these issues are real and significant, as is apparent from the worldwide demonstrations of public anger and unease over biotechnology. Yet their intellectual and political architecture continues to be poorly recognised by governments and major economic stakeholders committed to the commercialisation of GM crops and foods. How ‘the ethical’ is itself characterised and embodied institutionally may well determine whether such actors will be able to sustain (or perhaps, regain) public trust in the GM domain, or whether the tensions are set to deepen. Opening up this topic should be of central interest to all who are interested in the global governance of biotechnology.

Selected references

Nuffield Foundation, Genetically Modified Crops: the ethical and social issues  ( London, Nuffield Foundation,1999).

Straughan R & Reiss M., Ethics and Morality of GM Crops (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, UK, and Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Grove-White R., Macnaghten P. & Wynne B., Wising Up: The Public and New Technologies (Lancaster, UK, Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, 2000).

FDA 2000

Royal Society, Risk, Analysis, Perception and Management (London, Royal Society, 1992).

National Research Council, Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society, Paul C. Stern and Harvey V. Fineberg, eds. (Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 1996).

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