Are GMOs per se unethical? I doubt it

I had an interesting conversation at a barbeque last weekend at which a lot of the attendees were in Michigan’s SNRE program (“snerds”, in the campus lingo), and we got into talking about GMO foods. Snerds mostly dislike GMOs, whereas I tend to think they’re a good thing. One thing I tried to do was get at the range of different factors that cause people to oppose them, because I think they are too often confounded. I was especially interested in separating the question of ethics from all the other things people worry about. Here’s what we came up with:

  1. Monsanto. They produce a lot of GMO foods and seeds. I don’t know a ton about their business practices but they sound like jerks and monopolists.
  2. Pesticide and herbicide use. Apparently you can use genetic engineering* to make crops that are more robust to these, and then they get used more, leading to overuse. I have heard the opposite claim as well – that GMO crops let us use less of these noxious chemicals.
  3. Unintended consequences. Who knows what could happen if these things get out into the wild?**
  4. Substitution away from other beneficial farming practices. If people use GMOs, they won’t move toward multicropping, which has ancillary benefits.
  5. Ethics. It is unethical to create organisms in the lab by combining genes from multiple species.

Ethics was the one point where the anti-GMO folks and I fundamentally disagreed. Not the ethics of what Monsanto does, which sound awful, but the basic ethics of modifying life. As I put it, I don’t see using fish genes to modify the genetic code of tomatoes as unethical in any basic sense, whereas one person I was chatting with absolutely did. In particular, she claimed that it was unethical to combine genes from different species.

Now, I’ve always been confused by a lot of what gets called ethics. For example, I once took a test about a (very unrealistic) scenario where you can either choose to kill one person or choose to let five die. The test varied the description, but I chose the same answer every time and apparently my answer – which seems like the only defensible one to me – is one that only 10% of people will ever pick. But my take is that there should be some general principle that underlies judgments of what is ethical and what is not. And I can’t see one driving the belief that adding genes from one species to another is unethical, for three reasons:

First, we already do tons of genetic modification of organisms, which very few people call unethical. If you want to create a pug, for example, the strategy is to: a) breed lots of small dogs; b) wait for mutants to show up with weird smushed faces that make it hard for them to breathe; and c) cross-breed those mutants to isolate that gene. We didn’t go get it from another species, but we waited for it to show up via mutation, which seems fundamentally identical. That might sound unethical (and maybe it is – most pugs I’ve met seem miserable) but if you replace weird faces with a herding instinct, you’ve got border collies.***

Second, we’re just talking about moving around chemicals in sequences of DNA. Most biochemistry isn’t inherently ethical or unethical – but specific acts, like reproducing smallpox, might be unethical, while producing a drug to suppress HIV infection might be very ethical.

Third, “species” is not a well-defined concept. Some taxonomists have put endless effort into defining where one species stops and another ends, but as Darwin pointed out in The Origin of Species****, there are no bright lines demarcating species. All living things exist on a gradient of relatedness, and there’s really no reasonable way to say when one species ends and another begins. My interlocutor said she was comfortable with the traditional definition of species: two groups of animals are of different species if, when they reproduce together, they produce infertile young. By this definition, however, grizzly bears and polar bears are the same species – which might leave neither eligible for endangered species protection.

One thing I want to separate here is the ethics of doing genetic modification of organisms from unethical acts during or resulting from the process. For example, cross-breeding dogs to develop new breeds is not unethical, but creating a breed with horrible congenital problems would be.

Now, it’s not impossible to defend the ethical claim that it’s wrong to modify one animal’s genome by using genes from another’s. But you’d have to come up with a definition of species you’re willing to stick to, and then you’d have to take the idea that this is unethical as a first principle: no mixing of kinds allowed. And that seems like an arbitrary rule, out of place in an ethical framework dedicated to preventing harm.

*What happened to calling this stuff “genetic engineering”, by the way? It sounds a lot more futuristic than “GMO”.
**There is one case in which we do know the answer, and that is concern over “terminator” genes that make later generations of an organism infertile. For simple reasons of natural selection, there is no risk of such genes becoming dominant in the gene pool. We can worry about a lot of stuff with GMOs, but all our crops ceasing to reproduce is not an issue.
***Some people claim that the herding instinct is actually a modified version of the hunting instinct, in which case the mutation is actually the part where they don’t kill certain prey.

****Technically On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It’s a remarkably readable and fully-developed book – and it covers lots of the subtle details of evolution, that I would have guessed were sorted out fairly recently.

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