EEB 180: Genetic Engineering in Developing Countries
The ethics of GM food aid to southern Africa
- Genetic engineering presents a range of ethical dilemmas.
- Basic ethical principles can be used to help in the decision-making process.
- In 2002, Zambia controversially rejected GM food aid from the US on the basis that scientific findings on its risks were "inconclusive."
- What do the four basic ethical principles have to say about this dilemma?
US food aid to southern Africa:
- In 2002, famine threatened many lives in southern Africa.
- A large quantity of food aid was offered by the US; however it was likely to contain GM corn kernels.
- Angola, Lesotho and Swaziland accepted the food aid.
- Zimbabwe and Mozambique resisted the GM food supplies.
- They were concerned that they had not yet formulated a GM biosecurity policy.
- Mozambique expressed additional concern about GM seeds being transported across its territory and contaminating crops.
- Zambia then joined the countries opposing GM food.
- Most countries accepted the corn after it had been milled so that GM seeds could not be planted (these countries included Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi).
- Zambia was not satisfied by this.
Zambia's rejection of food aid:
- Zambia rejected the milled GM corn on the basis that the health risks of GM foods "are inconclusive."
- This was based on the findings of a delegation of Zambian scientists and economists on a fact-finding tour of labs in Europe, the US and South Africa.
- Their report inspired the Zambian president to label GM crops as "poison" and to say that he "would rather die" than eat "poison."
- The US Food and Drug Administration said that GM corn had been consumed worldwide for 6 years without side-effects.
- Supporters have pointed out that there is enough GE-free food in the world - the problems are politics and distribution.
- Zambia eventually accepted GM food aid after 2 more years of famine.
- Despite this, the Zambian Minister for Agriculture insisted that the ban remains.
- Many (but not all) ethical principles can be derived from four basic principles.
- These four principles are fundamental for a range of cultures.
- Each person should be given self-rule.
- Respect and protect the rights of individuals.
- A basic level of health is necessary for peope to make decisions.
- Therefore the "right to health" is derived from the principle of "autonomy."
- Obtain informed consent from all relevant parties for an action.
- Acknowledge that some parties may choose differently.
- If we want others to recognize our autonomy, then we need to recognize theirs too (social contract).
- But autonomy is dependent on the availability of resources.
- Therefore the principle of "justice" requires an equitable distribution of resources (distributive justice).
- We should minimize variation in social factors so that the least fortunate also have autonomy (Rawlsian justice).
- Working towards "global equality" is a consequence of "Rawlsian justice."
- Individuals should receive compensation in return for contributions (compensatory justice).
- The procedure of distribution and compensation should be impartial (procedural injustice).
- Do good - improve the welfare of people.
- Understand the benefits of a technology - who benefits and how.
- Use technology to make life better.
- Do no harm.
- Understand the risks of a technology - who could be harmed and how.
- Minimize these risks.
- Communicate risks in an open manner.
- Be cautious about using technology before the risks are understood.
- The "precautionary principle" therefore follows from the principle of "non-malificence."
- The principles of "beneficence" and "non-maleficence" together.
- National level:
- Sovereign countries must be able to make their own decisions.
- Consent must be obtained from sovereign nations before carrying out an action.
- Sovereign nations must have access to sufficient information on GM foods in order to assess their risks and benefits.
- Developing nations should not be coerced into changing their policies on GM foods during times of need when there is also sufficient GM-free food available.
- Individual level:
- The population must also be able to make decisions.
- Lack of food leads to malnutrition and a reduction in the ability of people to make choices.
- The "right to adequate food" is essential to their autonomy.
- There is a responsibility for the international community to provide "adequate food" for the population (Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
- National level:
- If we want other sovereign countries to recognize our autonomy, then we need to recognize theirs too (social contract between nations).
- Therefore, countries must accept that other countries are entitled to have different policies on GM foods.
- Zambia did not have a legal framework for dealing with GMOs prior to the offering of GM food aid.
- Zambia should be given the opportunity to examine evidence and develop a legal framework for dealing with GM food and crops.
- Impartial procedures should be developed in this legal framework prior to the first introduction of GM foods or crops.
- This is necessary for fair distribution and compensation of GM foods and crops (procedural justice).
- Individual level:
- Acceptance of GM food aid by one country and refusal by another creates inequaltiy of access to resources for individuals in different countries.
- On a regional scale, the existence of sovereign states therefore opposes the principles of distributive and Rawlian justice.
- At the time of the famine, thousands of lives were threatened by starvation.
- The GM food aid could have saved lives and greatly improved the welfare of many people.
- Zambia is a drought-stricken country.
- GM crops, if planted, could increase the food output of the nation.
- This could reduce starvation and save lives.
- This could also increase the economic gains of the national agricultural industry.
- GM-free food aid would also reduce starvation and save lives.
- There is enough GM-free food in the world - the problem is distribution.
- Since GM crops are patented by foreign multinational corporations, much of the profit from growing GM crops would end up in foreign countries.
- Human health concerns:
- At the time of the famine, GM foods appeared safe since they had been consumed worldwide for six years without side-effects.
- However, unknown long-term effects are still possible.
- Therefore, it is true that the health risks of GM foods are "inconclusive;" however the weight of this claim is weak.
- Environmental concerns:
- Even if corn has been milled, it is possible that imperfections in the milling process could contaminate the food with fertile GM seeds.
- GM seeds could contaminate local agricultural fields, leading to unknown environmental effects.
- At the time of the famine, no serious environmental effects of the GM crops concerned had been observed, suggesting that this is also a weak claim.
- Contamination may be irreversible.
- This would lead to the introduction fo GM crops into Zambia prior to the existence of a legal framework for dealing with them.
- The market value of Zambia's GM-free agricultural crops could be reduced
- In making a decision, how do you weigh the different principles against eachother?
- How risky is "too risky?"
- Is principalism the most suitable form of decision-making?
- At what level should the principle of "autonomy" be based - individual, family, village, state, country, region, global?
- These four basic principles do not account for ethical issues that are intrinsic to genetic engineering - e.g. the "integrity of nature."
- Bohannon, J., 2002 Zambia rejects GM corn on scientists' advice. Science 298: 1153-1154.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2001 Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment. FAO, Rome.
- Macer, D., 2003 Ethical, legal and social issues of genetically modified disease vectors in public health. WHO, Geneva.