A Philosopher's Blog

Genetically Modified Food

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 15, 2015

While the majority of scientists believe that genetically modified foods (or, more accurately, crops and animals) are safe for human consumption, there is considerable opposition to these genetically modified organisms. As might be suspected, this matter is philosophically interesting.

There are two stock moral arguments against such “tampering.” One is the playing God argument in which it is claimed that such modification is playing God and it is then argued (or simply asserted) that humans should not play God. A closely related argument is the unnatural argument. This argument works somewhat like the playing God argument, but involves arguing that because such modifications are unnatural, they are morally wrong. Rousseau famously lamented the horrible impact of advances in the arts and sciences—and he was writing when the height of technology included the musket.

One stock reply to the playing God argument is to show that people have been “playing God” in a similar manner and that this is morally acceptable. While the ability to directly manipulate genes is relatively new, humans have been engaging in genetic engineering via selective breeding since the dawn of agriculture. This has been done with plants and animals, both for those raised for food and those kept for other purposes. For example, the various breeds of dogs are the result of human engineering via selective breeding. So, humans have been playing God a very long time and if dogs are morally okay, then genetically modified crops do not seem to be a special moral problem. To use an analogy, if it is okay to make houses and structures by hand, then using power tools and construction equipment would not seem to make modern building methods morally wrong—the technology is just better.

A stock reply to the unnatural argument is to show that what is allegedly unnatural does occur in nature. For those who believe in evolution, the process of natural selection functions as a natural “engineer”, leading to changes in species and the creation of new species. In the case of genetic engineering, humans are doing what nature does—only faster and with a purpose. If this seems to be playing God, this takes the matter back to the playing God argument.

There are those who argue against genetic modification of food sources on the grounds that such foods are dangerous. This can be a reasonable concern and it is certainly wise to confirm a modified food source is actually a safe source. As noted above, most scientists regard these modified food sources as safe for human consumption. This seems reasonable, provided that the food sources were tested for potential dangers, such as being toxic. Some people do express the concern that the modified genes will somehow get from modified food sources and change the genes of the people who eat them. Given the way digestion and genes work, this is extremely unlikely. After all, humans eat normal food that contains genetic material all the time, yet do not undergo mutation. For example, eating chicken does not cause a person to gain chicken genes. As such, genetically modified food sources do not seem to present a special danger, provided that they are tested to see if the modifications had an unintended and dangerous results (such as making the previously safe to eat plant poisonous to humans).

Some people are not especially worried about the genetic modifications themselves, but are worried about the use to which such modifications will be put by the agricultural corporations. This worry is not (in general) that corporations will make science fiction monsters. Rather, the concern is that the modifications will be used as a means to exploit farmers, especially those in developing countries, and to lock them into having to buy the seeds from the corporations year after year. For example, a company might develop a type of rice that can handle higher levels of salt and drier conditions very well and sell that to farmers who need such a plant because of the impact of climate change. Since the company owns the rights to the seeds, the farmers will need to buy from that company if they wish to keep growing rice.

In defense of the corporations, they could avail themselves of Locke’s argument: they are taking plants and animals from the common and “mixing their labor” with them, making these plants and animals their property. As such, they can insist on ownership rights and bring lawsuits against those who might, for example, try to create similar plants and animals. After all, one might argue, corporations have a right to make a profit and this right must be protected by the laws. It can also be argued that farmers can, in a free market, purchase seeds from another company. Surely, one might argue, farmers can easily find competing products at lower prices that are as good.

In any case, the corporation problem is not a problem inherent to genetic modification of food sources, but rather with the behavior of people. There are, in fact, researchers who are developing modified plants and animals that will be available to farmers and not owned by corporations.

Those who support genetically modified food sources do have a very good general argument. The argument is that genetic modification allows the creation of food sources that can solve various problems. As an example, a plant might be modified so that it can survive harsher environmental conditions than the original, while also being more resistant to pests and producing a greater crop yield. Since genetic engineering is faster, more reliable and more precise than the old method of selective breeding, it can produce positive results more effectively. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, genetic modification seems morally acceptable.

There are, of course, some potential harms in genetic modifications. While it is very unlikely that any science fiction disaster scenario will arise and play out, there is always the possibility of unintended consequences and these are worth considering—but in terms of their relative likelihood and not on the basis of the plots of bad science fiction.


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8 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on June 15, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    “In pockets across the nation, commodity growers are becoming fed up with traits that don’t work like they used to. Not only are the seeds expensive (GMO corn can cost $150 more per bag than conventional corn), they’re also driving farmers to buy and apply more chemicals…” Read more: The Post-GMO Economy – http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/post-gmo-economy/

  2. Glen Wallace said, on June 15, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    The relative likelihood of any outcome in this field is difficult to determine given its relative short existence. And whether the plot came out of good or bad science fiction, the fact still remains that it would just take one big screw up by Monsanto to have disastrous consequences worldwide. It would be one big ‘oops’ if a seed was, for instance, accidentally programmed to grow plants that provide seeds for just one season. As a result even the seeds Monsanto had for sale the following year would be sterile — the farmers would plant them and then just have a bumper crop of bupkis. Would the farmers then be able to recover quickly enough to be able to access enough good seeds worldwide and have the financial wherewithal to plant in time to avoid a global famine situation?

  3. Glen Wallace said, on June 16, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Additionally, genetic engineering of crops tends to encourage monoculture farming and all the pitfalls that goes along with that practice.

    I think the greatest food benefit to humanity could be gained by incorporating a combination of polyculture farming in a more native natural setting and ordinary Mendelian crossbreeding of traditional annual food crops and native perennial plants. By, for instance, crossing a drought resistant perennial grass with the annual wheat plant you could end up with an annual wheat harvest without ever having to buy and plant any seeds. And by maintaining a more native natural setting, the crops that need insect pollination would be pollinated by the variety of insects already residing in the area. Therefore, there would be no need to pay anyone to truck in whole tractor trailers full of bees to pollinate the crops.

    • WTP said, on June 17, 2015 at 9:16 am

      And yet what we have evolved to via genetic engineering, which in many cases is simply speeding up Mendeleav’s process by several generations, works. It takes fewer and fewer people to work as farmers to feed many, many times more people by exponential factors, than even just a century ago. Thus freeing up more and more labor for wider and wider opportunities. Hunger is only a problem in places where access to genetically engineered food is not available.

      To paraphrase and somewhat butcher something Margaret Thatcher once said, would it be better that more people starved to death rather than third world farmers have the opportunity to pay more for seeds that would feed more people?

  4. ronster12012 said, on June 20, 2015 at 10:15 am


    I know what you mean about the Guardian, it is similar in rag status as the NYT……the sooner they go broke the better.

    However, that is not to say that everything they report is wrong or untrue. Obviously. The date and price are bound to be correct, same with the sports results and so on in descending order till the astrology section. Somewhere in between is the usual mix of truth, lies, advertising and propaganda.

    So, given all that, where exactly is the above report wrong?

    Just to throw something else out there, google ‘american farmers abandoning GM’ and take your pick(or none, up to you). The question IMO is whether that is 1/true 2/ exaggerated 3/ undereported 4/ the beginning of a trend?

    Another related aspect is the recent WHO announcement as to glyphosate being a possible carcinogen and bans imposed in Europe……the lawyers will do the rest.

  5. ologun36 said, on June 24, 2015 at 1:35 pm

    I think that GM crops could be a valid future investment except for the immoral avenue taken by big corporations to create modified plants, as in all for profit with a) the development of sterile plants upon germination that require further seed purchasing by farmers and b) do not address the state of the soil or why plants need to be modified in the first place. It isn’t just about playing god, which becomes more about owning nature and whether we are keeping diversity in farming. In the US I am led to believe that a huge percentage of farm lands are owned by the big businesses and that the small farmers have more or less been wiped out. This comment could go on for a while regarding bias in politics and lobbying and corruption and whether or not the science behind GM foods is there so that produce has been tested for safe consumption. I think that philosophically speaking we should go with logic as we do hopefully with anything put in our bodies. Test the food and publish the results is the only fair course of action. If it’s true and it turns out to be safe for the environment and safe for consumption then fine. But it will never be right to simply get to a point where only the specialised few own seeds while the rest of us end up paying for what nature gave us.

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