Navigating the Moral Landscape: Is the Genetic Modification of Crops Justifiable for Food Security?

In recent years, much debate has centered around the use of genetically modified (GM) crops and their potential moral, ethical, and socioeconomic ramifications for the worldwide agricultural industry. This article will explore the justifiability of using GM crops to ensure food safety in the 21st century and beyond.

Image Credit: Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock.com​​​​​​​Image Credit: Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock.com 

The Ethical Debate on Genetic Modification

The ethical debate around GM crops has intensified in recent decades, but genetically modifying plants intended for human and animal consumption has been carried out for thousands of years through selective breeding of wild strains to produce the huge diversity of crops consumed worldwide today.1

In genetic modification, a plant’s specific characteristics are modified by inserting a specific DNA strand, usually via a vector such as a genetically modified virus or bacterium. Examples include changing how it grows, increasing its yield, or improving climate and disease resistance.1,2

However, while this has huge benefits for food security, such as producing GM crops whose offspring will be better suited to withstanding environmental impacts such as higher temperatures, droughts, and flooding and producing higher yields that can feed a growing global population, many experts and individuals have called for caution around the technology.

Concerns exist around the potential environmental and socioeconomic impact of this emerging technology. For instance, it could have detrimental effects on biodiversity, natural ecosystems, and human health. The debate around the safety of GM crops is ongoing: currently, the risks of this emerging technology are poorly understood and need more research to fully elucidate the risk/benefit balance of transgenic crops.

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Arguments For and Against GM Crops

The arguments in favor of GM crops center around the challenges they can help solve in modern commercial agriculture. Explosive global population growth, the proliferation of pests and crop diseases, which account for around 20-40% of global crop losses, and the impact of climate change on the world food supply have all focused the attention of agricultural scientists on innovative solutions such as this.

GM crops have largely been successful in mitigating these impacts since their introduction. Furthermore, genetic modification gives much faster results than selective breeding alone: this can be potentially measured in just a few generations.

However, whilst the obvious benefits of GM crops are known, there are concerns around their cost: GM crops are quite expensive compared to traditional selectively bred crops, which could impact their use in poorer communities, which could benefit from improved yields and climate and pest/disease resistance. Furthermore, there are concerns about corporations having too much control over the global food supply.

There are also those who have raised alarm around interfering with nature and the potential unknown health impacts of GM crops, such as allergic reactions in individuals. Moreover, there are also worries about increased pest resistance over time, which could impact future food security. Also, the proliferation of favored genetic characteristics in agricultural crops could artificially impact crop and wild strain biodiversity.3

Case Studies: Ethical Outcomes in Action

There have been a number of successful studies on GM crops in recent years, which have highlighted their benefits and risks/challenges. For instance, in Western Australia, GM strains of canola, an important break crop, were introduced by Bayer and Monsanto.1 Canola is especially vulnerable to pests such the fungus L. maculans and weeds such as wild radish.

Roundup Ready® canola, developed by Monsanto, has been proven to control weeds that normally impact canola crop yield. Between 2009 and 2014, the planting area was nearly tripled.

Golden rice is a GM crop that produces elevated levels of beta carotene, which is important for the production of Vitamin A, especially in areas where Vitamin A deficiency is commonplace.4 However, fears such as the cost and contamination of wild rice have led organizations such as Greenpeace and independent observers to call for a halt on the development of golden rice.

There have been a number of controversies over the decades to do with GM crops such as the Monarch Butterfly Controversy in 1999 and the Séralini affair in 2012. These studies, whilst challenged in subsequent years, did raise consciousness in the press and public about the potential dangers of GM crops and a need for proper scrutiny of the risks and benefits. There are currently total or partial bans on GM crops in several countries.1

Moral Philosophies and Frameworks

How, then, do balance the benefits and challenges/risks associated with the proliferation of GM crops? While food security is essential to ensure that current and future generations can be fed in a world beset by climate change and resource scarcity, ensuring GM crops are used within an ethical framework that benefits the whole population is essential.

A number of moral and ethical philosophies and frameworks could help here. Utilitarianism, for instance, is an ethical philosophy that emphasizes actions that maximize well-being and happiness for affected individuals. As the name suggests, utilitarian frameworks emphasize utility.

Rights-based ethics concerns the moral rights of individuals and encourages duty bearers such as governments to uphold the rights of the individual through a series of obligations and legal frameworks. Virtue ethics, which has its roots in the teachings of Socrates, treats character and virtue as the foundation for ethics. These frameworks could benefit ethical agriculture and the use of GM crops.

Future Directions in Ethical Agriculture

As can be seen, there is a need for a balanced approach to GM crops which would help to bring about an ethical agricultural framework for their use. Concerns about environmental impact, socioeconomic challenges, and issues such as gene flow between GM and wild strains must be addressed as the technology matures.

There are a number of current avenues which will affect ongoing and future R&D efforts. Technologies such as precision site-directed nuclease techniques such as CRISPR have been the subject of numerous studies which show less off target mutations than conventional selective breeding, for instance. Future research avenues include stress tolerance and biofortification.1

Aside from technological avenues, the involvement of multiple stakeholders, especially those in developing nations, would be hugely beneficial for the future of ethical agriculture and GM crops, ensuring that the technology and conversation are not just placed in the hands of large corporations, which would benefit from the economic benefits of GM crops at the expense of small producers. 

Final Thoughts

GM crops seem like they are here to stay thanks to several successful projects and case studies that have highlighted their benefits to food security, climate resilience, and pest resilience. However, their use cannot come at a cost to the environment and society.

Still an emerging technology, a holistic approach to the field will ensure that any potential risks are mitigated and GM crops are employed within a moral and ethical framework that will benefit society as a whole. Time will tell if the benefits of genetic modification in agriculture outweigh its drawbacks.

References and Further Reading 

  1. Raman, R (2017) The impact of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in modern agriculture: a review GM Crops Food 8(4) pp. 195-208 [online] PMC PubMed Central. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5790416/ (Accessed on 3 May 2024)
  2. The Royal Society (2016) What is genetic modification (GM) of crops and how is it done? [online] royalsociety.org. Available at: https://royalsociety.org/news-resources/projects/gm-plants/what-is-gm-and-how-is-it-done/ (Accessed on 3 May 2024)
  3. BBC Bitesize (2024) Potential benefits and risks of genetic engineering [online] bbc.co.uk. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/ztwg7p3/revision/8 (Accessed on 3 May 2024)
  4. Paine, J.A. et al. (2005) Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content Nature Biotechnology 23 pp. 482-487 [online] Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt1082 (Accessed on 3 May 2024)

Last Updated: May 21, 2024

Reginald Davey

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Reginald Davey

Reg Davey is a freelance copywriter and editor based in Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Writing for AZoNetwork represents the coming together of various interests and fields he has been interested and involved in over the years, including Microbiology, Biomedical Sciences, and Environmental Science.

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