Perceptions of Environmental Ethics
Environmental ethics is a field of philosophy arguing for the protection of the natural environment, resources, and sustainability. Environmental Ethics roots in three distinct schools of thought important to understanding controversies concerning issues such as genetically modified foods (GMF) and genetically modified organisms (GMO). The three basic philosophic schools include metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics with each school arguing their different perspectives concerning GMOs.
While many people view environmental issues normatively (right and wrong), most scholars view environmental issues from an applied ethics perspective. The reason for this viewpoint stems from the ambiguity pertaining to both normative and metaethics positions. Normative claims surrounding GMOs, for instance, face tremendous difficulty defining and proving. From the metaethics point of view, the question of what constitutes the value of the normative or applied ethics of environmental issues still requires some disambiguation in terms of what is valued or good or bad in terms of the environment. What constitutes good or bad for the environment is an anthropocentric concern which squarely places these concerns with GMOs and GMFs in applied ethics. Understanding environmental ethics as applied ethics requires some critical understanding of the two basic elements that define this stance which include controversy and morality (Bookchin, 2001).
What are GMOs?
The controversy surrounding GMOs and GMFs necessitates defining them since their creation causes their controversy. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism modified through manipulation of its genome or through other means to produce a particular physical trait. GMOs have a long history of use in the production of agriculture, livestock, and pet breeding. The breeding of animals and plants to produce stronger more desirable breeds dates into antiquity, but the practice of modifying organisms at the genetic level has only been in practice since the 1990s although cloning and similar practices existed decades prior.
While the concept of a GMO is broad in its inclusiveness of organisms, the definition of the GMO is simply an organism that has been altered at the molecular or genetic level (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). The modern view of GMOs is based on the view that the organism has undergone genetic alteration through the combining of genetic material from similar or dissimilar sources (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). For example, corn might be combined with specific elements of cactus which allow the corn to flourish in dry environments. When genetic material is combined in this manner it produces a new strain or breed the same as mating dogs of different pedigrees.
The modification of organisms in this manner requires intricate and complex biotechnological techniques. These techniques fall into three categories of modification which include: mutating, inserting, or deleting genes (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). Of these three techniques, insertion of genetic material from one species into the cell of another species (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). Through the insertion process, a new organism is created that in most cases will retain the desired attributes of both the host and foreign organism. Genetic modification through insertion is normally accomplished through the use of retroviruses and bacteria that are used to carry the foreign genetic material into the cell (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). Once the material is introduced into the cell it will be incorporated into the host cell’s DNA thereby creating a new organism (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). This process of altering DNA in this manner has been the point of ethical controversy.
GMOs & GMFs In Applied Ethics
To be considered an applied ethic the subject of the ethical considerations must be considered controversial. This understanding can be seen in the example of a robbery by gunpoint ending in murder. The murder of the person is not an applied ethic because murder is not controversial it is considered immoral universally (Bookchin, 2001). However, if the subject of gun control is raised in this same situation then the subject becomes an issue of applied ethics because gun control is controversial (Bookchin, 2001).
Because environmental issues are controversial in nature, they meet the criteria of being an applied ethic. This is a difficult area for many environmentalists to understand because they often do not see that environmental issues such as GMOs as being controversial in nature. The reality is that while there are many fact-based truths attached to environmental issues such as GMOs and GMFs, making the ethics itself is controversial.
To understand this controversy one must understand that there are different viewpoints concerning the nature of ethics due to anthropocentrism. For example, if using GMOs is wrong due to its impact of harming life namely humans than it is ethically anthropocentric (Warren, 2000). If one considers the use of GMOs, in terms of harming the environment, wrong, whether it has anything to do with humans or not then it is an ethic that is universal ethic (Warren, 2000). When one believes that something such as agriculture or plant life has inherent value or value for its own sake, then this alters the ethical viewpoint. However, this example still shows that the nature of environmental ethics is controversial and for now is considered an applied ethic because of this controversy.
When viewed from the standpoint of an applied ethic, GMOs and GMFs meet the criteria of being both controversial and morally relevant. The controversy surrounding genetically modified foods pertains to the impact on the environment and the danger to humans and other creatures. The first controversy is that the foods are harmful or unhealthy. This argument has been presented many times in the past but in reality, there is very little data to support the position that these foods are harmful. The World Health Organization has done extensive testing on GMOs and found that there is some slight risk with allergies and the larger risk is cross mixing GMO’s with traditional foods. This risk concerns mixing animal GMO products such as corn for feed with corn fit for human consumption. According to the WHO,
GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved (WHO, 2013).
The more recent argument against GMOs is the controversy that GMOs create foods that are resistant to viruses and to insects. This may be the area of greater concern as creating foods that are resistant to insects and viruses could potentially create stronger and more invasive forms of these creatures in the long term. This risk was noted by the WHO:
Current investigations focus on: the potentially detrimental effect on beneficial insects or a faster induction of resistant insects; the potential generation of new plant pathogens; the potential detrimental consequences for plant biodiversity and wildlife, (WHO, 2013).
Despite this issue, currently, GMOs seem to be doing more benefit than harm. GMFs have allowed food supplies to be increased in many developing countries as well as reduced the impacts of drought and starvation. For this, reason the controversy surrounding GMOs and GMFs may be somewhat exaggerated.
What makes the use of GMOs so controversial, despite evidence that they pose low risk, is the manner in which individuals perceive them. Many people view GMOs as being unnatural because they are organisms that have been altered at the DNA or molecular level. They are altered in this manner for some purposes such as crops that are altered to resist drought thus creating GMFs. If one looks at the use of crops in this manner as being wrong because of the inherent value of life or the environment, then the person will see all use of GMOs and their end products as being unethical. The problem with this argument is that it takes a normative view of the environment and this creates a slippery slope. For example, what are the limits of inherent value? If creating modified foods is wrong then is crossbreeding plants and animals wrong? The point of this argument is that it shows that it brings into play larger arguments that would create even larger issues. Currently, GMOs are creating benefits throughout the world, and if their use was halted people would starve.
Although GMOs and GMFs fall under applied ethics, this fact does not diminish the gravity of their importance. Both GMOs and GMFs should be monitored closely and their use should be regulated in order to discover if their use is having an impact on the environment. Currently, the FDA and the WHO both monitor and study GMOs and GMFs but this study should be more rigorous (WHO, 2013). This strategy would create a long term sustainable system of agriculture that is safe for humans and the environment.
Bookchin, M. (2001). What is Social Ecology? Environmental Ethics, 62–76.
Simon, E. J., Reece, J. B., & Dickey, J. L. (2010). Essential biology with physiology. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings.
Warren, M. A. (2000). Moral Status: Obligations to Persons and Other Living Things. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
WHO. (2013). 20 questions on genetically modified (gm) foods. . Retrieved from World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/biotech/20questions/en/
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Article Updated: 11/24/2021