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Ethicists Ponder the Moral and Religious Questions
Regarding Agricultural Biotechnology

From: http://pewagbiotech.org/buzz/display.php3?StoryID=6

In the public arena, the debate over genetically modified foods is dominated by disagreements over the potential risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. These discussion, however, largely avoid explicit consideration of moral and ethical values even though they take place against a backdrop of values and principles often shaped by unexpressed religious and moral viewpoints.

In constraining the conversation to risks and benefits, policymakers and advocates wrongly assumed people evaluate the transfer of genes between species on the narrow grounds of safety. Quite simply, the risk-benefit structure avoids the question: Is it morally wrong to re-combine genes from different organisms?

Scientists, the public and policy makers are turning to religious and ethical scholars to help get a grip on the broad issues at hand: What is the nature of the relationship between an organism and its genes? Will people have the opportunity to make decisions about specific uses of the technology? How should we equitably distribute the potential risks and benefits of the technology?

Although [discussions of risks and benefits] are important, I think this is not the right way of framing things," says David Magnus of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "Every major religious tradition has a tension in it between preserving the garden and improving the garden.? He believes, for instance, that the popularity of the term "frankenfoods? suggests that the public has an underlying concern about tinkering with creation.

But he says the technology holds the tremendous potential to improve things. "To some extent, opposing the technology per se is like opposing medicine,? Magnus says. "Medicine has had the power to improve people?s lives and allows them to live longer and healthier lives, but at the same time it has the power to be abused. But just because it can be abused doesn?t mean you should reject it.?

Islam, Judaism, and Christianity concur that the process of genetically modifying plants or food animals is not in and of itself intrinsically wrong and may benefit mankind, says Judith N. Scoville, an ethicist at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Christianity has always had a strong moral imperative to feed the hungry,? says Scoville. Yet while agricultural biotechnology might in fact be used to help combat hunger, she argues the larger problem of hunger can be traced to poverty and unequal distribution of resources. Biotechnology can't offer a quick fix to these underlying issues.

Additionally, she notes, how we assess biotechnology needs to include not only discussions of tradeoffs between risks and benefits, but also how those risks and benefits are distributed.

Robert Gronski of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa has a different concern. He believes policy discussions should focus on how patented crops benefit ? or harm ? small farmers and indigenous cultures. "If [agricultural biotechnology] remains, through patenting or expense, in the hands of a powerful few, Catholic social teaching reminds us that we must use it for the benefit of all," he says.

Gronski also believes agricultural biotechnology raises other moral questions, such as the ethical treatment of animals that reflect the need to ensure such manipulations don?t harm creation. Echoing back to the concept of "preserving the garden,? he advocates testing for adverse impacts and environmental disturbances before GM foods are widely used by farmers.

Some religious groups express wariness of genetically engineered foods, fearing that they might contain genes from animals that their faith does not permit them to eat, such as swine. They maintain that they have a right to know if foods contain those genes. Both the kosher (Jewish) and halal (Muslim) communities have mechanisms in place to determine which products are acceptable to their followers. They have thus made their own decisions about this technology and have not concerned themselves with secular labeling issues. For instance, both Orthodox Rabbis and Muslim leaders have ruled that simple gene additions that lead to one or a few new components in a species are acceptable for kosher and halal law. The Muslim community, however, has not yet resolved whether a gene derived from swine should be an exception to the rule.

In another example, Jewish kosher laws prohibit the mixing of meat and milk, making cheese produced with the enzyme rennet, which is derived from the stomach of calves, non-kosher. But rabbis have determined this enzyme, once removed from the cow and made in bacteria, can be used to make kosher cheese. In this instance, genetic engineering has helped to expand the food options for those with special dietary requirements or beliefs. In the future, such decisions are expected to be made on an ongoing basis, particularly as more genetic changes are seen in plants and animals.

The issues surrounding the use of biotechnology are complex and thus difficult for religious bodies to deal with on an official level, says Scoville. But religiously affiliated organizations, particularly those that deal with rural life or poverty, are beginning to bring these issues to the table, she adds. Bioethicists, like Magnus, are also working with industry and religious and ethical leaders to create ethical guidelines for the use of biotechnology ? a topic, they agree, that is ripe for further discussion.

Although ethical and moral concerns have not received as much attention as other issues, it is quite possible they will be more prominent in the future debate.

Note: The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology will hold a special policy dialogue, "Genetically Modifying Food: Playing God or Doing God?s Work?" on Thursday, July 26, at 10:00 a.m., at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This panel discussion, moderated by Margaret Warner of the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, will permit participants to explore the religious, moral and ethical considerations that come into play in the pursuit of technology. For more information or to register to attend the event, contact DJ Nordquist via e-mail at djnordquist@pewagbiotech.org or call (202) 347-9044.

The dialogue will be presented via a live Internet web cast. Members of the media and the public can submit questions prior to and during the event. To submit questions go to http://www.connectlive.com/pewagbiotech or http://www.pewagbiotech.org.