Ethicists Ponder the Moral and Religious Questions
Regarding Agricultural Biotechnology
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.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