The use of genetically modified crops in increasing food production has triggered a raging debate, as many people have fears that modification of the genetic makeup of crops has serious consequences on human health and the environment. Environmentalists argue that, genetically modified crops could pollute the gene pool of crops while public health experts assert that genetically modified crops could have serious health impacts due to gene intoxication. Moreover, ethicists and legal experts state that the legalization of genetically modified food would give biotechnology companies the capacity to monopolize food production and make exorbitant profits while leaving the farmers to suffer. According to Gaskell and Bauer (2012), the biotechnology industry employs patents, which are legal instruments, to gain control of food production. Hence, the use of patents has legal and ethical implications in food production, as framers would no longer produce crops without obtaining legal permission from respective biotechnology companies that have patents. Therefore, this essay examines ethical and legal issues surrounding genetically modified crops in Australia.
Ethical and Legal issues
The emergence of genetically modified crops in Australia has elicited ethical and legal issues because biotechnology companies, environmentalists, farmers, and public health experts have never come into an agreement concerning the relevance of genetically modified crops in food production. Proponents of genetically modified crops argue that biotechnology provides the only avenue of enhancing food production to meet the demands of the ever-increasing human population across the world (Kershen, 2001). Through biotechnology, farmers can increase productivity of crops and consequently increase food security and reduce prices of food. Given that climatic changes due to global warming have reduced food production, genetically modified crops provide a means of increasing food production. Studies have shown that the use of pesticide and herbicide-resistant crops has not only increased crop production, but also led to reduction in cost of production (Carter, Moschini, & Sheldon, 2011). Therefore, farmers should adopt biotechnology in their farming practices to increase crop yields and at the same time reduce cost of production.
In contrast, opponents of genetically modified crops state that pesticide and herbicide-resistant crops do not eliminate pests and weeds from the farms. According to the antagonists, pesticide and herbicide-resistant crops would cause development of weeds and pests, which are more resistant and difficult to control (Kreipe, 2010). To control such pests and weeds, farmers must use strong herbicides and pesticides, which are not only expensive, but also harmful to the environment. In the end, genetically modified crops would not only increase productivity but also increase cost of production thus negating the essence of biotechnology in food production. According to Ferry and Gatehouse (2009), the development of pesticide-resistant pests and pollution of the environment due to the use of more strong pesticides are the concerns associated with genetically modified crops. Hence, opponents of genetically modified crops believe that biotechnology does not provide long-term strategy for controlling weeds and pests as well as increasing food production.
Health experts hold that genetically modified crops have foreseeable harmful effects on human health because manipulation of genes changes the constituents of crop yields. For instance, the introduction of bacterial or viral genes into crops can lead to the emergence of new diseases that are difficult to control. Given that genetically modified crops are new in farming, enough data is not available to guarantee the safety of these crops. Proponents of genetically modified crops use scanty evidence that has not stood the test of time to pass the credibility test and guarantee human safety. Miller and Spoolman (2011) argue that critics have concerns that currently there is little information concerning the long-term health impacts of genetically modified crops. Hence, proponents of genetically modified crops operate on the assumption that there are no harmful effects until when such effects occur.
On the other hand, the proponents of genetically modified crops dispute the allegation that there is no credible scientific evidence, which can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that genetically modified organisms are harmful to human health. Acosta and Chaparro (2008) state, “The process used in producing GM food crops and current sound-science-based methods used in assessing their safety make them no riskier for public health than conventionally-bred crop varieties” (p.6). Therefore, it implies that genetically modified crops are safe as natural crops. As the risk posed to human health might emanate from poor processes of modifying crops genetically, proponents argue that competent scientists and regulated biotechnology industries can produce crops that are safe for human consumption. Given the environmental and health risks posed by genetically modified food, Uyeda (2009) states, “The use of gene technology and dealings with GMOs are strictly regulated in Australia to protect against risks to human health and the environment” (p.634). Thus, the presence of strict regulations ensures that biotechnology companies do not use their technology in generating unsafe crops that would threaten the lives of humans and pollute the environment.
Moreover, opponents of genetically modified crops maintain that the presence of strict regulations does not guarantee environmental and health safety since biotechnology companies are focusing on their profits rather than safety issues of the crops. According to Rimmer (2008), biotechnology industries patent their inventions and commercialize them, because these patents form part of intellectual property. Patenting of biotechnology inventions gives biotechnology industries the power to monopolize production of certain crops. Commercialization of genetically modified crops affects farmers since biotechnology companies have the right to license and regulate production of patented crops. Even though governments may make regulations that ensure the safety of genetically modified crops, legal issues regarding patents give much power to biotechnology companies to commercialize and monopolize crops, which would otherwise be inalienable rights to farmers (Anderson & Jackson, 2005). Therefore, the adoption of genetically modified crops would trigger ethical and legal issues regarding safety and ownership of the crops.
Given ethical and legal issues surrounding genetically modified crops, it is reasonable to state that these crops pose a significant risk to human health. Genetic modification entails the addition or removal of certain genes so that crops can have certain genetic properties that increase yields, confer resistance, and/or produce certain proteins. Scientifically, change in genetic composition of a crop means that the crop would produce different substances according to the translation of genes. Moreover, the use of viruses and bacteria as carriers of genes of interest poses a significant risk to human health. A bacterium or a virus may turn into virulent strain and cause diseases among humans. Hocking (2009) insists that, manipulation of crop genes using viruses and bacteria could generate virulent organisms that threaten the existence of humanity. Even though current experiments have not encountered harmful effects of genetically modified crops, it is difficult to conclude that these crops are harmless. Additionally, lack of enough information regarding the long-term impacts implies that scientists are yet to determine and assess the long-term consequences of genetically modified crops.
Genetically modified crops also have a negative impact on the environment because they have unique genetic properties, which might make them overgrow and become resistant to herbicides. The emergence of crops that are resistant to herbicides would be difficult to control. Romeis, Shelton, and Kennedy (2008) lament that, to control such plants, farmers would use strong insecticides, which are not only destructive to the environment, but also expensive. As herbicide-resistant crops are difficult to eliminate, they complicate farming practices of weed control, and consequently affect the environment (Duke, 1995). Hence, if genetically modified crops can increase the use of herbicides in order to control them, it means that biotechnology does not serve its purpose of reducing the use of herbicides. Moreover, biotechnology helps in generation of pesticide-resistant crops. Pesticide-resistant crops eventually result in pests that are resistant to conventional pesticides. The emergence of pesticide-resistant pests implies that new and stronger pesticides are necessary to control such pests. Thus, genetically modified crops complicate how farmers should control weeds and pests.
As aforementioned, genetically modified crops are inventions of biotechnology companies and thus these companies patent and commercialize the crops. Patenting of genetically modified crops bestows legal powers to biotechnology companies to commercialize and monopolize crops. Before biotechnology companies came into existence, farmers enjoyed the freedom and rights of growing any kind of crop (Kreipe, 2010). However, patenting of genetically modified crops denies farmers the freedom and rights of growing the crops, since biotechnology companies have usurped the powers to do so. Biotechnology promotes monopolization of crops, which violates the rights of farmers and consumers to access food (Budinger & Budinger, 2006). Hence, genetically modified crops do not benefit farmers but biotechnology companies, which monopolize and commercialize these crops.
Genetically modified foods can cause loss of gene diversity. Given that crops have diverse genetic compositions, nature has bestowed them with the ability to maintain diversity. However, genetically modified crops can produce pollen grains that have extensive compatibility with different crops, hence modifying their genetic composition. Eventually, cross-pollination of plants may lead to loss of genetic diversity among different plants. Cain (2003) notes, “One delayed effect of genetic uniformity in a species is that it becomes potentially more vulnerable to diseases that can cause catastrophic effects in the absence of genetic diversity within population” (p.65). Thus, crops that belong to the same genus risk being of the same species due to cross-pollination that occurs between natural crops and genetically modified ones.
One of the theoretical perspectives of ethics, which helped in determining ethical position, is consequentialism. Consequentialism perspective of ethics demands that consequences or omissions of action are determinants of morality (French, 2009). Hence, according to consequentialism, actions and omissions have no moral attributes, but their consequences are the determinants of whether a given action or omission is wrong or right. In the case of genetically modified crops, though the actions of modifying plants have no ethical implications, the consequences have serious ethical and legal implications. For instance, genetically modified crops could increase crop yields as an immediate benefit but long-term impacts would lead to harmful effects on human health and environment. Loss of genetic diversity is another consequence of genetically modified crops. Hence, consequences of genetically modified crops show that biotechnology is not an appropriate means of enhancing food production.
Utilitarianism is the second theoretical perspective of ethics that informed reasoned position of genetically modified crops. According to Sherlock and Morrey (2002), based on utilitarianism, moral decision depends on how many people benefit or suffer harm from a given action. Hence, an action that gives benefits to many people while causing harm to a few is morally right. In the case of genetically modified crops, it is evident that these crops cause more harm to the population while few people benefit from the same. In the first instance, biotechnology companies obtain enormous benefits by commercializing and monopolizing their inventions while farmers and the general population bear the consequences of genetically modified crops. Continued research in biotechnology would go to the extent where farmers can exclusively depend on biotechnology companies to get seeds or seedlings for farming. In the second instance, farmers produce high yields due to biotechnology and make massive profits while posing a health risk to population of consumers. Therefore, based on utilitarian theory, biotechnology benefits a few people while causing harm to the entire population.
The principal objective of using genetically modified crops in agriculture is to improve yields, confer resistance to pests and diseases, and/or add a certain flavor to food. In spite of these benefits, genetically modified crops have elicited several ethical and legal issues. Among other issues surrounding genetically modified crops are pollution to the environment, loss of biodiversity, monopolization of crops, harmful effects to health, and commercialization of crops. Examination of these ethical and legal issues has shown that genetically modified crops would benefit the population in the short term, but cause unfavorable outcomes in the long term. Consequentialism and utilitarianism are the best ethical theories that informed my reasoned position that genetically modified crops do not help improve crop production, protect the environment, and promote the health of the human population.
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