Genetically Modified Food: Ethical Issues


The use of recombinant DNA technology to transform agricultural plants and animals has been the subject of ethical controversy for the last quarter century. The argument favouring these technologies hinges on their role in lowering costs of farm production, as well as potential benefits to farmers. Arguments against cite a long litany of problems. Environmental and food safety risk debates touch upon both the nature and likelihood of potential hazards, and also the overall philosophy that should guide the assessment and management of these risks. In addition, critics of the technology have argued that risk assessments have neglected two categories of hazard entirely: impact on animals and socio‐economic impacts, especially on organic and smallholder farms. The latter issue makes the use of genetic engineering into a key episode in a more comprehensive debate over the future of agricultural production. In addition, ethical debates have taken up the extension of intellectual property rights to genes and their impact on the use, production and control of seeds. Labelling and consumer choice has also been debated. Finally, some authors have extended arguments over the possible unnatural character of genetic engineering from their more conventional medical setting to the domain of food.

Key Concepts:

  • Environmental and food safety hazards associated with genetically modified foods are not unique to the process of transformation that utilises recombinant DNA techniques.

  • Risk assessment and policy decision making for genetically modified foods has generally excluded socio‐economic impacts and effects on small farmers from consideration.

  • Concern over unequal distribution of power often lurks just beneath the surface of criticisms that have been levied against genetically engineered foods.

Keywords: agriculture; farming; risk; recombinant DNA; plants; patents


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Weasel L (2009) Food Fray: Inside the Controversy over Genetically Modified Food. New York: Amacom.

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Thompson, Paul B(Aug 2012) Genetically Modified Food: Ethical Issues. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024153]