Bioethics Blogs

Why are we still discussing GM like this?

Even if many of the public at large are ambivalent, public discourse around GM is still highly polarised and the discussion is still seen to be ‘about GM’ – a narrative which seemingly hasn’t changed for 20 years.

On 19 November I had the privilege, on behalf of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, of giving evidence to the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee on ‘GM and the Precautionary Principle’.

The Nuffield Council has published three reports relevant to this topic: GM Crops – The Ethical and Social Issues (1999), The use of GM crops in developing countries (2003) and Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good (2012).

In our earlier reports we concluded that genetic modification of plants does not differ to such an extent from conventional breeding that it is in itself morally objectionable, and that there is a moral duty to explore its use, not least to address challenging problems in developing countries.

The more recent report on emerging biotechnologies placed GM in a wider context, which is the way we believe it should be viewed now.

The specific focus on GM – whatever collection of techniques that now covers – is unhelpful since it singles out one particular set of approaches which might be useful among other technologies and non-technological solutions to pressing problems of food security and adaptation to climate change. It also fails to reflect the increasingly continuous spectrum of what are currently classified as GM and non-GM techniques for regulatory purposes.

All plant breeding alters genomes, exacerbated by the selective pressure applied by humans in any such process, GM or non-GM, and it is the nature and impact of those alterations on which the focus should be, however derived.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.