Ethics and genetic modification
The potential benefits of biotechnology to society might be lost if consumers feel that it
is unacceptable or too risky. While some people feel that the key questions about biotechnology
are scientific or commercial, others recognize that ethical concerns will affect public attitudes
and the practical application of biotechnology. Ethical concerns must, therefore, be examined and
debated so that decisions are made after rational consideration rather than as the result of 'gut feeling'.
Recognition of the importance of ethical concerns has led to their being taken into account
in creating legislation to control the use of genetic modification.
What are ethics and morals?
Most people have some sense of 'morals'. They know what is right or wrong, but their views
can be highly individual and may be based on a great deal of reflection, or just a 'gut feeling'.
'Ethics' has a slightly different meaning, and is used to define the values or set of standards
by which a group or society decides what is acceptable or is not.
Committees that have public involvement have been formed to try to determine what ethical
values should apply to the use of biotechnology and genetic modification. In the UK, the
Polkinghorne Committee analysed what genetically modified foods would be acceptable to groups
with different moral or religious views.
Acceptability of genetic modification
Many people find the idea of genetically modifying microorganisms or plants acceptable if
there are clear benefits. Fewer people agree with genetic modification of animals, and even
fewer with the idea of genetic modification of humans, whatever the possible health benefits of doing so.
'Genetic modification is unnatural'
Some people consider the use of particular techniques to make genetic changes that would
otherwise not occur, or would be unlikely to happen, as 'tampering with Nature' or 'playing God'.
It is seen as 'unnatural' and wrong. However, humans have been interfering with natural processes
for thousands of years: selective breeding has produced crops and animals that would probably never
have evolved naturally. Furthermore, no medical treatment - whether it involves antibiotics,
pharmaceuticals or vaccines - is natural. Many consumer products are advertised as 'natural',
but natural is not necessarily good or desirable: cassava naturally contains high levels of
cyanide, and crop failures are a natural consequence of bad weather or pest attack.
Most aspects of modern Western lifestyle are unnatural: humanity has interfered with Nature
extensively to increase our comfort and security, and, to avoid the consequences of the natural
processes of starvation, disease and death.
Acceptability of genetic modification in foods
While it is technically possible to introduce copies of human genes into foods,
it is unlikely to be done; the use of copies of animal genes is more likely, but again will
depend on consumer acceptance. Interestingly, consumer acceptance may favour the use of genetic
modification techniques. For example, in the development of vegetarian cheese, genetic modification
techniques were used to make a copy of the active part of animal rennet. This was then
cloned into yeast cells. This process has made this food more acceptable to many vegetarians.