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Proceed with caution with GM crops, says UK ethics panel

3 June 1999

[LONDON] A decision last month by the British government to strengthen the monitoring of genetically modified (GM) foods but to resist pressure for a moratorium on their commercial planting has been endorsed by the country's main bioethics advisory body.

In a report published last week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says that there are many aspects of the development and introduction of GM foods that warrant firm government action. These range from steps to limit to breadth of patent claims, to the 'moral imperative' to boost research into the development of GM staple foods for the Third World.

But it has little time for opposition to GM crops based either on broad claims about their 'unnaturalness' or on their potential for misuse. The genetic modification of crop plants, it says, "does not differ to such an extent from conventional plant breeding or other human interventions with the natural world as to make the process morally objectionable in itself."

The overall message has been welcomed both by the agrobiotech industry and the government. Jack Cunningham, the cabinet minister responsible for the new government initiatives, described the report as "providing independent backing for the government's approach".

The response has been much cooler from some environmentalist, Third World and religious groups, upset that the report's avowedly 'utilitarian' stance does not go further in taking fully into account public reaction to the ways that GM technology has been - and is likely to be - used.

The report, Genetically Modifed Crops: the Ethical and Social Issues, was drawn up by a working party chaired by Alan Ryan, professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford. It outlines three types of principles in which, it claims, moral considerations are relevant: general welfare, people's rights (for example, to freedom of choice as consumers), and the principle of justice - the fair sharing of burdens and benefits.

From this perspective, for example, while endorsing the general patenting of genetic sequences, it urges national and international patent bodies to discourage patents "which allow extensive control over a single crop species", and to draw up new guidelines for doing do.

The report also comes out strongly in favour of the need to promote GM crops for use in the Third World, arguing, for example, that the British government should allocate a "substantial amount" of a recent increase in its aids budget to research and development on GM food staples grown in developing countries.

At the same time, it urges careful attention to the potential environmental impacts of such crops, as well as to the need that ensure farmers in such countries are given a choice between GM crops and traditional varieties.

By sticking to its three sets of ethical principles, the working group explicitly rejects the demands of some critics to take a more rigorous stance. It explains that "it is the deleterious consequences of our farming techniques to our environment and public health, not their 'unnatural' that should preoccupy us".

Thus although supporting in principle the labelling of GM foods - "we think that it is very important that people who think GM is 'unnatural' should be able to avoid them" - it opposes labelling as "not necessary or practical" for foods produced by a GM process where no traceable change can be found.

Donald Bruce, who heads a project on GM foods for the Church of Scotland, says that while agreeing with much of the working party's conclusions, it invokes a "very restrictive range of ethical criteria". "It tends to dismiss the 'unnaturalist' argument on the grounds that what you should really be concerned about are the consequences; but that comes over as a dogma rather than as a serious argument."

But Ryan defends the stance of the working party by arguing that its report "is intended to be read in a highly pluralistic society", and that "part of the ethics of all this is; how can you try to get a consensus that everyone feel respects their views".


For further details of the working party's report, see ''GM crops a 'moral imperative for the Third World'. For the full text of the Nuffield report, click here.

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