Ethical Concerns and GM Foods
There are a number of ethical concerns over genetically modified (GM) foods and these have all affected public support of the products. The issues have also triggered controversy and regulations around GM foods and any company that produces these crops or products. Concerns range from the environment to risks to our food web or issues concerning disease, allergies and contamination.
Allergies And DiseaseA key ethical concern about GM foods is their potential to trigger allergies or disease in humans. Given that a gene could be extracted from an allergenic organism and placed into another one that typically does not cause allergies, a person may unknowingly be exposed to an allergen. In turn, this could lead to an allergic reaction. There is also the fear that new allergies could occur from the mixing of genes from two organisms.
Disease is a major health worry with regards to GM foods. Given that some of the crops modified are done so with DNA from a bacterium or virus, there is concern that a new disease may occur in humans who consume the GM food. With some GM crops having antibiotic-resistant marker genes, there is also the worry that these genes could be passed on to microbes that cause disease and health problems in humans. With widespread antibiotic resistance currently already occurring, any new resistance could prove disastrous.
Damage To The EnvironmentDamage to the environment is another ethical fear with regards to GM crops. Unfortunately, the technology is still new enough that there is much we do not know about the effect of GM crop production on the environment. Long-term studies take decades to complete and most studies of GM crop production involve short-term effects of the technology.
Another ethical issue around GM crops is our ability to contain them in a specific area. There are fears that if these crops do negatively impact the environment, they will spread in an out-of-control fashion and we will not be able to stop their damaging effects. For instance, one type of sugar beet that had been engineered to be resistant to a specific herbicide ended up unintentionally having the genes to resist a different herbicide. When farmers went to eliminate the crop, they still found that a small percentage had survived.
Cross-PollinationCross-pollination is a challenge for any crop growth but it can typically be managed if care is taken to use good growing practices. There is the possibility of genes from GM foods spreading to other plants and crops, which could create overzealous weeds that can't be contained at all.
Food Web And RisksRisks to the food web are a very real ethical concern around GM technology. Any pesticide or herbicide from the crop could harm animals and other organisms in the environment. For example, GM sugar beets that were produced to be resistant to herbicides did successfully reduce weeds. However, Skylark birds that consume the seeds from this particular weed would now be required to find a new food source, thereby endangering their existence.
An animal could also consume the GM crop itself, which means that if the crop has been engineered to produce a pesticide, the animal may become ill and die. In one North American study, caterpillars of the monarch butterfly were killed when they fed on pollen from GM corn crops.
Addressing Ethical Concerns For GM FoodsUnfortunately, the controversy and fears around GM foods and any company that produces these products still continue to persevere, although this could be viewed as a positive movement because it will challenge GM technology and help to make it safer and more regulated. In one public opinion poll, it was found that the more people read about GM foods, the more concerned they became about the technology.
Studies are ongoing into the many ethical concerns around GM foods but these are not conclusive and have thus far shown very mixed results. It is also very difficult to assess the long-term impact, thereby leaving many of the public fearing for the long-term safety of humans and the environment.
For now, it is hoped that people will become more educated on the ethical concerns about GM foods, which will ideally fuel further research and accountability in the field.