Attack of the killer tomatoes?
•Allowed to ripen on the vine naturally, this ruby tomato comes to your table with more homegrown
taste. By drawing on the best traditions of crossbreeding, biotechnology has created a better-tasting
tomato, available year-round.
•Although it may be as pretty as a plastic fruit, this tomato has been produced by introducing modified
organisms into the plant's natural genetic material. It is the product of laboratory manipulations whose
consequences for consumer health and for the environment are unknown.
These two paragraphs describe the same tomato. They also lay out the conflict over–well, even in
naming the subject, we risk prejudicing the discussion. Are we talking about genetically modified or even
Frankenfoods (as in Frankenstein); or are we talking about a new Green Revolution? This is a
controversy where language not only defines but also is part of the problem.
Both sides would agree that we are talking about food whose genetic properties have been altered
through technology, often by splicing a desired gene from one species–the cold tolerance of a mackerel,
for example–into the genetic code of another species, such as a tomato.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, last year, 39.9
million hectares worldwide (about 98.6 million acres) were planted in these transgenic crops. The vast
majority of this acreage is given over to herbicide-tolerant soybeans and insect-resistant corn.
These facts are about the end of the agreement on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Then the
war of images takes over.
The Scientists Meet the Butterfly People
"On one hand, you have the proponents who are talking about the benefits of genetic engineering in
terms of science," says Martin Calkins, S.J., assistant professor of business ethics at Santa Clara
University. "On the other, you have people in butterfly costumes."
Calkins points out that many opponents are not really making an argument so much as calling on a
whole complex of culturally suggestive images. The butterfly costumes refer specifically to the monarch,
which a study published in Nature magazine reports may be harmed by pollen from modified corn. But
the costumes also "call up our previous abuses of other voiceless creatures–the snail darters, the
passenger pigeons, the Carolina parakeets," Calkins says.
In general, he argues, opponents have been good at drawing on language and image to create doubt
about genetic engineering. "When you use language that is negative and confrontational, when you call
the product a genetically modified organism instead of a genetically enhanced food, you’re conveying a
kind of creepiness to the whole process."
The truth is, many people have a touch of the heebie-jeebies at the notion of playing with the basic
building blocks of life–the genes. England’s Prince of Wales, for example, has argued that GMOs take
"mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone."
Even for the non-religious, transgenic crops can violate the maxim so memorably stated in the old
margarine commercials: "It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature." Many opponents believe that the genetic
code of every organism has evolved over millions of years and that tampering with it is an act of hubris.
It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature
Andrew Starbird, chair of the Food and Agribusiness Institute at SCU, counters, "We’ve been fooling
Mother Nature for thousands of years by selective breeding of plants and animals…. Bioengineering is
just a more refined process, which will probably result in more productive animals and plants at a lower
cost than traditional breeding methods."
Is genetic manipulation just an extension of age-old methods of husbandry, or is the transgenic aspect of
this crossbreeding a difference more in kind than degree? When adherents of opposing views on this
question butt heads, the result is a stalemate on the order of controversies over abortion and capital
punishment, Calkins believes.
"On the one hand, you have people who believe that the laws of nature cannot and should not be
violated, that the basic structure of the created order shouldn’t be tampered with. On the other hand,
you have those who hold that there are a whole number of competing goods, and that we must weigh
those goods in a pragmatic or utilitarian way."
The Catholic Church has come down somewhere in the middle: four square against tampering with the
human genome but ready to give a "prudent yes" to the engineering of plants and animals. As Elio
Sgreccia, vice president of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Catholic News
Service, "We are increasingly encouraged that the advantages of genetic engineering of plants and
animals are greater than the risks. The risks should be carefully followed through openness, analysis,
and controls, but without a sense of alarm."
Microwaves or DDT
What are the risks? Here, the war of the metaphors begins in earnest. In evaluating the risks, "you can
draw analogies to several other new technologies developed over the past 50 years," Starbird says.
"Bioengineered foods might be like microwaves, a product that people originally thought might give you
cancer but that is now widely accepted." Or, he continues, GMOs might be like DDT, a pesticide that was
touted as the key to higher production but that eventually resulted in harm to birds and fish.
So far, no medical harm to humans has been traced to ingesting GMOs. Of course, the fact that no harm
has been established is not the same as proving that GMOs pose no dangers.
One concern is the potential for allergic reactions. Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist for agricultural
biotechnology at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains that introducing proteins from one plant
into another–a peanut into a bean, for example–may also introduce that plant’s allergenicity. "Also," she
says, "the technology may be introducing new allergens that have never been in the food supply before
because some of the genes that are being added come from soil microorganisms that have never been
On a broader scale, there are potential risks to the environment. Crops are not self-contained
organisms; they spread their pollen on the wind or on the legs of insects to other plants. As a
consequence, a gene that has been spliced into one plant may inadvertently enter another.
Norman Ellstrand, professor of genetics at University of California, Riverside, did some of the seminal
studies on how crops mate with their wild relatives. Despite early skepticism, Ellstrand established
substantial levels of hybridization between domestic and wild varieties. Of the top 25 most important
crops in the world, 23, he says, will cross to some significant degree with their wild neighbors.
"What are the implications for transgenes?" he asks. "Well, if you put a gene into a sunflower that you
don‘t want in a wild relative–herbicide resistance, for example–you will be sure to get that trait in the
wild population. And the worst weed for a sunflower is a wild sunflower."
Aside from the danger of super-weeds, GMOs may pose dangers for other creatures in the ecosystem.
"Crops that are engineered to be pesticidal may harm insects other than those they were intended to
repel," says Rebecca Goldburg, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Finally, there is some concern about the rapaciousness of the companies that produce GMOs.
Opponents worry that big corporations may use biotechnology to push others out of the market and
thus make all farmers dependent on the large agricultural biotechnology companies. Monsanto is a
favorite villain, (and, in the battle of images, is variously dubbed "Monsatan" or "Mutanto.")
The picture is complicated by what one side calls "seed sterility" and the other calls the "Terminator
gene." This technology allows breeding of plants with seeds that will not reproduce. Companies can use
it to prevent farmers from holding over seeds to grow another crop the following year. Such sterility
may pose particular problems for poor farmers in the developing world, who rely on carrying seed over
from one year to another.
But, it may also help them, according to SCU Professor of Biology, William Eisinger. Eisinger worries that
unique strains of crops developed over many generations in remote areas may be corrupted or
displaced by genetically engineered varieties. While seed sterility may make some farmers dependent
on large corporations, it may also protect others by preventing their varieties from being adulterated
through hybridization. "Terminator technology is very much a double-edged sword," he allows.
Weighing Risks and Benefits
What Eisinger says of Terminator technology seems true of many genetic modifications. Given the
complexities, how can we evaluate whether the risks of GMOs are worth assuming? That’s a hard
question to answer in a vacuum. In each case of genetic engineering, the risk has to be weighed against
the potential benefits, according to Margaret McLean, director of biotechnology and health care ethics
at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
One of the most compelling cases, says McLean, is the genetic manipulation that has allowed scientists
to make rice produce useable beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A. In Asia, for example, where rice is a
staple, an estimated quarter million people go blind every year from Vitamin A deficiency.
"Here’s a population that doesn’t have access to most of the world’s goods, and for want of Vitamin A,
they go blind. If we’re talking about allocating resources fairly or privileging those who have borne
society’s burdens, then we should consider this use of genetic engineering," McLean argues.
But the risks from other bioengineering applications may not be balanced out by the benefits. "Are you
doing the manipulation to increase the profits for some large agribusiness? Is the intended result purely
cosmetic?" she asks. "Then you might evaluate the risks differently."
One of the problems in evaluating risks and benefits, McLean says, is that "right now, risk is being
defined by those who are frightened, and that’s because of the previous deceptive practices of the
McLean is referring to the fact that GMOs have been on the market for almost a decade without U.S.
consumers being alerted to their presence. About 50 percent of soybeans grown in the United States
last year were genetically modified, and those soybeans became part of countless processed foods from
oils to cereals. And yet nothing in the label on these products has ever indicated the presence of genetic
modifications. McLean believes that this secretiveness has made consumers skeptical of reassurances
that genetic modifications are safe.
Slap a Label on It
To date, the Federal Food and Drug Administration has not required labeling that indicates a product
has been genetically altered unless it contains one of the eight most common food allergens. More
stringent labeling would be one way to increase trust in the process, McLean says. That way, at least
consumers could choose whether they wanted to expose themselves to the potential risks of eating
The European Union already requires labeling of any food with 1 percent or more genetically modified
ingredients. Indeed, a lot of the current wariness about GMOs began in Europe, where, according to
agribusiness consultant Michael Harwood (MBA ’92), consumers have no independent scientific bodies
like the FDA or Environmental Protection Agency to regulate food safety.
Harwood, who teaches Agricultural Biotechnology in Santa Clara’s MBA program, says Europeans have
had disastrous experiences with government regulation. In Britain, for example, mad cow disease was
pooh-poohed by government scientists for years before they had to admit the probability that this
devastating neurological disease was caused by British cattle-feeding practices. Although mad cow
disease is totally unrelated to GMOs, it did create a "shapeless sort of fear that really sensitized the
whole country to the possibility of something going wrong with the food supply," Harwood says. Similar
food debacles in Belgium and other countries have undermined European confidence in scientific
The Blind Men and the Elephant
Calkins thinks that those who want to see further development of GMOs are going to have to establish
trust with the other side, but he doesn’t see that happening by simply conducting more laboratory
experiments to prove the safety of genetic engineering. With biotech opponents appealing to imagery
and folklore, Calkins says, "businesses need to develop counter-images or offsetting cases about their
An example might the Green Revolution, the series of technological innovations in the 1960s and ’70s
that dramatically increased the yields of rice, corn, wheat and other grains, particularly in the developing
world. The agronomist Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in this area.
Ironically, Harwood says, the Green Revolution was achieved through a far more dangerous process
than genetic engineering. Seeds were subjected to chemical and radioactive processes in order to
induce random cell changes. "That’s far worse than the directed transfer of a single gene whose function
is fairly well-known from one organism to another," he argues.
Still, the risks of GMOs are not yet adequately understood, according to many experts. Ellstrand says, "I
often characterize biotechnology as an elephant, and we are all the blind men touching different parts.
Those with an ecological background may be hanging onto the tusks and saying, ‘This is scary,’ while
someone else may be feeling the trunk and saying, ‘Look at all the wonderful things it can do.’"
While Ellstrand describes himself as a centrist on the issue, he argues that "it’s important for scientists
creating new technologies to be mindful of the consequences."
That, McLean concurs, is where the ethical edge lies. Those who reject absolutist rhetoric–either genetic
modification equals playing God or genetic modification equals better living through science–can find
themselves in the realm of what philosophers call "consequentialism." By this theory, a morally correct
decision is made by a cost-benefit analysis of an action's consequences.
But in genetic engineering, as is so often the case in new technologies, the consequences cannot be fully
known in advance. As a result, McLean argues, the onus is on proponents to monitor new knowledge as
the technology evolves and to adjust or halt development if serious problems emerge.
"Genetically modified foods are neither sacrosanct nor demonic," she says. "It’s the context that
matters: For what reason are they being developed? In what way? At what risks?"
Miriam Schulman is the director of publications at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. This article is
reprinted from Santa Clara Magazine, the alumni publication of Santa Clara University.
This article appeared originally in the Summer 2000 issue of Santa Clara Magazine.
Jun 1, 2000
Each student will pick a topic and a position (pro or con).
Students should work reading their prompt and carrying out some additional internet research on
Students should devise a strong argument to support their stance. This argument should include
at least 3-5 concrete supporting ideas for their position.
The reading/topic options are as follows:
1. Testing asymptomatic minors or adults for an incurable genetic disorder (example Huntington’s Disease)
2. Implanting embryos that are positive for genetic atypias based on the wishes of parents
(Parents with achondroplasia selecting embryos that are positive for anchondroplasia).
3. Using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to produce a “savior sibling”.
4. Forcing a mother to maintain certain behaviors associated with fetal health (for example a
pregnant woman with PKU to comply with a strict diet in order to avoid birth defects).
5. Use of genetically modified foods in the general food supply.
**Please write at least 3 paragraphs, stating your position on the topic clearly with 3-5
supporting ideas. It’s due by 3/27 Friday.
The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Testing for Huntington's Disease
Topics: Huntington's disease, Prenatal diagnosis, Genetic testing / Pages: 11 (3504 words) / Published:
February 23, 2008
The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Testing for Huntington's Disease
Huntington's Disease (HD) is an autosomal dominant, progressive, neurodegenerative disorder (Walker,
2007 and Harmon, 2007). The gene that causes the disease is located on the fourth chromosome and
causes an abnormal number of repeats in the patient's genetic code (Harmon, 2007). Huntington's
Disease can have devastating effects on patients' quality of life. The first symptoms of HD generally start
between the ages of 30 and 45 and patients are typically asymptomatic prior to this time (Terrenoire,
1992 and Walker, 2007). However, the disease progresses with subtle changes in motor control,
personality, and cognition. Patients eventually develop distinct un-coordination, loss of voluntary
muscle contraction, and cognitive deficits, leaving them unable to walk, talk, move, or think
independently (Walker, 2007 and Harmon, 2007). In general, more abnormal genetic repeats on the
patient's chromosome correlate to an earlier onset and faster progression of HD symptoms (Harmon,
There is no cure at this time for HD; rather, care for its symptoms is purely supportive. However, a
predictive genetic test is available to determine if patients carry the abnormal genetic repeats (Walker,
2007). To date, only approximately five percent of patients who are potentially at risk for HD choose to
pursue this test (Harmon, 2007).
With the advent of genetic testing and predictive screening exams, scientific technology has made it
possible for patients to peer into their futures. These advances place physicians and researchers in a
tough position. Disclosure of this genetic information places patients at risk for discrimination and loss
of healthcare benefits. However, this information may also help patients plan future relationships and
goals. Each child of a patient with HD has a 50% chance of inheriting the abnormal gene and thus
developing HD (Terrenoire, 1992). Patients who do not know the results of their genetic screening
exams risk living a life of fear and "what ifs?", but could take comfort in allowing nature to take its
course. Thus, a dilemma arises. Is it ethical to perform predictive genetic testing for HD, an ultimately
Genetic testing programs for HD emerged during the 1980s as patients, national organizations, and the
medical community debated their benefits (Terrenoire, 1992). Scientific trials and publications in the
United States, Canada, and Great Britain at this time touted the usefulness of predictive testing for HD,
while also admitting the results could do more harm than good (Terrenoire, 1992). At the same time,
health care professionals in France argued that predictive screening of HD should not be performed until
a cure or effective preventive therapy were available (Terrenoire, 1992).
A number of ethical dilemmas arose after the predictive genetic test for HD became available in 1986.
The issue of who should participate in this testing and the family issues that could ensue were some of
the first ethical issues to develop (Terrenoire, 1992 and Ethical issues of genetic diagnosis, 2007). While
other predictive genetic tests allow patients to seek life-saving treatment before symptoms develop, no
such alternative is available for patients with HD (Ethical issues of genetic diagnosis, 2007). Even with
the results of the t ...
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