The 21st century food system is awash in ethical issues. To name just a handful: There’s the environmental impacts of farming, the human health effects of diets based on animal products and processed foods, the growing clamor around food waste, and the longstanding concerns about agricultural labor. The last decade has seen the emergence of “ethical consumption,” as people have been encouraged to avoid products that are associated with animal cruelty or unfair to farmers.
But consumers have never been so ignorant about where food comes from, and they are vulnerable to oversimplifications and faulty messaging. Many would include the first generation of crops from agricultural applications of recombinant DNA methods for genetic improvement—so called GMOs—among the foods they should avoid for ethical reasons. Unfortunately, these misguided concerns are missing the point altogether and distracting from a far more substantive ethical problem.
As we stand on the precipice of a new era in food and biotechnology – crops and animals with genomes altered through gene editing – it is more important than ever to let go of unnecessary fears and to pay attention to the real hazards of agricultural innovation.
But first, as a bioethicist with almost 40 years of experience working on issues in the food system, let me stress the overall context and rationale for trying to make changes in plant and animal genetics. Doing so, whether through conventional breeding or biotechnology, allows producers to meet the challenges of seasonal climate differences and increase yields.
And just because a food was created through ordinary plant breeding vs. genetic modification does not automatically make it safe. Things can and do go wrong in ordinary plant breeding, such as with potatoes and tomatoes. These both produce toxins in the green parts of the plant, and breeders exercise caution to ensure that toxins aren’t transferred to edible parts.
Despite real risks, there is no regulatory oversight that protects us from these known hazards. We rely on the professional ethics of agricultural scientists. And GMOs are, in comparison, much more carefully tested and regulated. The claim that they are “unregulated” is just false.
I do want to shift the public’s attention away from the anti-GMO debate to more substantive questions about contemporary agriculture that really have little to do with where the genes in their food came from, or how they got there.
No matter how important genetic improvements might be in terms of total global food production, we should not ignore the role that all gene technologies—including breeding—have played in displacing small farmers, depleting rural communities and shifting economic control of agriculture into a small circle of powerful actors. Globally, these changes have had disproportionately harmful effects on women and people of color.
Combined with mechanization and chemicals, gene technologies have freed planters from their dependence on impoverished and poorly educated field hands, but they did nothing to help the fieldworkers transition to a new line of work. These are the real problems that deserve the public’s and the science community’s attention, not the overly narrow worries about eating GMOs.
But these problems are viewed as “not ours” by agricultural insiders, and they continue to be ignored by scientists whose focus is solely on biology. Many of the concerns that are today viewed as “urban problems” or “social issues” have origins in agriculture. For example, in California tomatoes, the development of mechanical harvesting led to a rapid concentration of ownership and the displacement of thousands of field hands. In the South, similar technologies displaced black farmers working land owned by whites, causing migration to urban centers and unskilled jobs. I must fault the science community for a lack of willingness to even take the thrust of these more socially oriented critiques seriously.
The new suite of tools for genetic modification that go under the name “gene editing” promise greater precision. They should allow scientists to target the locus for new genes in a plant or animal genome, and minimize the chance for causing unwanted impacts on gene functioning. This added precision is reducing some of the uncertainties in the mind of technology developers, and they have been expressing hope that their own confidence will be shared by regulators and by the public at large. In fact, the U.S. government recently issued a statement that gene-edited crops do not require additional regulation because they’re just as safe as crops produced through conventional breeding.
It is indeed possible that the public doubts about genetically modified food will be assuaged by this argument. We can only wait and see. Whether or not gene editing will lead to more reflection about agriculture’s complicity in problems of economic inequality or structural racism depends much more on the culture of the science community than it does on the technology itself.