TV personality Dr. Mehmet Öz (known more commonly just as Dr. Oz) has garnered a fair amount of controversy over his medical advice and claims since rising to prominence on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 2004. Recently, a group of physicians (including the Hoover Institution’s Dr. Henry Miller) sent a letter to Columbia University asking for Dr. Oz’s removal from the faculty of its medical school—in part due to his stance on “the genetic engineering of food crops.”
In recent years, ultra-specific types of genetic engineering through restriction enzymes has given us the power to introduce individual genes into the genomes of the plants we use for food. This has led to the creation of crops known as genetically engineered (GE) plants or, misleadingly, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The misleading part of the moniker GMO comes from the fact that, at a very basic level, every type of food produced on a farm for the last 12,000 years is genetically modified. Human beings have genetically modified plants and non-human animals since the dawn of the Neolithic Age, albeit through the crude and inexact method of selective breeding. Our modern methods have only turned such modification into a more exact science.
It is this modern type of GE food plants that Dr. Miller supports, Dr. Oz wants labelled out of existence and consumers around the country eat in large quantities each year. Already, our country’s legal system has changed due to the influence of figures like Dr. Oz, with Vermont on track to become the first state to require mandatory labeling of ‘GMOs’ in 2016. Such labeling in Europe and other parts of the world has led to the disappearance of products branded as “containing GMOs” from their markets entirely.
But before the rest of us have the political debate about labeling GE products in our food, though, we should step back and evaluate the ethics of those products in the first place. The genetic engineering of food products is an important technological advancement worth keeping in our supermarkets and on our dinner plates, and intriguingly, both consequentialist (i.e. results-based) and deontological (i.e. rightness-based) perspectives on the issue make this fact plain.
From a consequentialist standpoint, genetically engineering food plants makes sense. The types of GE crops that have found their way onto farms so far have provided a high degree of utility with only a handful of mitigating factors.
One of the major goals of genetic engineering for agriculture, for example, is to improve how crop plants resist herbicides or pests, and GE crops seem to have delivered on that goal. Many common crops, particularly soybeans, have been engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, a chemical that EPA and USDA scientists call “less toxic to humans and not as likely to persist in the environment as the herbicides it replaces.” Replacing conventionally genetically modified plants with glyphosate-tolerant ones seems to not only create healthy and successful plants for human consumption, but also helps to reduce the amount of more toxic and longer-acting herbicides used for conventional or even organic farming. In fairness, the actual amount of herbicide use has risen since the introduction of GE food plants, but the kinds used for such plants seem to have less of an impact on the environment than previously more-common pesticides when used to the same degree.
A deontological lens on the technology allows for even deeper considerations, though. Such a lens fundamentally rejects the ‘ends-justify-the-means’ mentality that can define consequentialist utilitarian ethics, and as such, deontologically evaluating the technology allows for a separation of the idea of GE foods from their current implementation. In other words, we can oppose current (and problematic) ways that the business of GE agriculture handles the technology while still supporting the use of that technology in the first place. The problems that opponents of GE foods often have concerns about about, such as the behavior of Monsanto with its Roundup-ready crops towards farmers, become issues not inherently related to the idea of GE crops themselves. This allows for us to consider the agriculture industry on its own faults and genetic engineering on its own merits.
Those merits shine through this deontological lens. The fundamental impetus of genetically engineered agriculture is to provide more and better food for the hungry mouths of this world, which many would construe as part of the absolute duty of science to better our lives. And this mission has become broader than just promoting herbicide or pest resistance for the crops near and dear to our hearts here in the mainland US. Engineers working on such resistance have also turned their sights towards crops crucial to the people of Hawaii (papaya), sub-Saharan Africa (cowpea) and India (eggplant), and other groups focused on combatting malnutrition have worked to create the vitamin-A-enriched Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus plants for use in parts of Asia and Africa that heavily depend on the rice and cassava plants already.
These factors need consideration before the issue of GE foods goes any further in our country’s political process. Before pundits and politicians reduce the questions and solutions posed by GE crops and GE agribusiness down to sound bytes and slogans, we must realize just how powerfully positive the effects of genetically engineering our food can be if handled correctly.
Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu.