Genetically Manipulated Food
Some opponents of genetically-manipulated organisms object because they see this as interfering in the natural order or God's plan. But it's way too late for this. Most crops world-wide have been radically altered from their original ancestors, and human civilization today is an artificial construct that outlaws nature. What can be more natural than a mother breastfeeding her child, yet this is considered indecent and taboo by many people. Most of the food we put into our bodies is an artificial, unhealthy concoction.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The relevant moral questions for genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are the effect on health and the effect on the natural and crop environment. On both fronts, there is great uncertainty about the long-run effects. One of the problems is that when it comes to retail goods, we have constitutional chaos. In some cases, the government commands labeling; in others, government prohibits some information (with beer, for example).
The basic law of goods should be that when a good is sold, the legal presumption is that it is safe to eat and safe for the environment, unless otherwise specified. If its cultivation and manufacture is a danger to the environment, then there should be a pollution tax on the producer, which the customer will end up paying. If there is a risk to health, the adult customer should have a free and informed choice about whether to take the risk.
So, given the possibility of long-term harm, all genetically- manipulated food should be clearly labeled as such. That should include food served by restaurants. The fact that the producers have been unwilling to label foods made from plants grown with recombinant DNA itself raises suspicion. According to Miriam Schulman ("Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?" Santa Clara Magazine, Summer 2000), "So far no medical harm to humans has been traced to ingesting GMOs." But gene-spliced plants could introduce allergies, and so the specific genetic origins should be disclosed, both for health reasons and for moral reasons.
The environmental problems from genetic manipulation across species is that the pollen will spread to wild plants and microbes and to farms which don't use genetically manipulated crops. There is also the possibility that beneficial insects and other animals may be harmed by eating the enhanced crops. Human history is full of disasters caused by introducing harmful exotic organisms.
But policy should always be a comparative analysis of the real alternatives. It is not meaningful to compare recombinant crops with utopia. The world's population is still growing, and it needs to be fed. The expansion of the food supply will either come from turning more natural forests and grasslands into farms, or by increasing the yield of current farmland. Greatly enhanced yield can come from ever more pesticides and other chemicals, or by transgenic crops that can resist pests, drought, and frost, and offer better nutrition. There is no utopian way to greatly increase the food supply which has no damage at all.
So the genetic option should not be arbitrarily closed off. It does require extensive testing, but the US government testing policy is irrational. The policies of the Environmental Protection Agency target techniques such as recombinant DNA rather than focusing on the risks to health and the environment.
According to Professor Henry Miller of Stanford University (1999 paper), EPA policy conflicts with the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and the National Biotechnology Policy Board. Miller says their "recommendations are unequivocal and unanimous that regulation should focus on risk-related characteristics of organisms, rather than on the use of certain genetic techniques."
For example, under EPA proposals, a hybrid between a tomato and a toxic, inedible member of the "deadly nightshade" family would not be regulated, even though it poses a potential hazard. The EPA would exempt hybrids created with traditional techniques, a policy the scientific community agrees makes no sense. Miller concludes that "regulation has stalled innovation but left the environment unprotected."
Besides testing focused on environmental risks, the property rights of farmers need to be clarified. Farmers whose crops become transgenic because of drift from other farms should not be subject to any forced payments to the companies that produced the GMOs. If GMO food is produced, both the farmers buying the seeds and the GMO producers should have the full financial responsibility for any damages, local and global, and that implies posting huge bonds. If that deters the introduction of genetically-manipulated food, so be it. The market requires producers to be fully responsible for external effects.
But the same policy should apply to traditional chemical pesticides and fertilizers and hybrid crops. Damage from more conventional techniques should be treated the same way. Then let the most productive producers have at it, once the social costs have been borne by the producers, not the public and consumers.
Copyright 2000 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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