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Biotechnology: Ethical Issues - Agriculture

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In agriculture, GM crops have been in the food supply in the United States for several years. Foods containing GM ingredients are not usually labeled to indicate their origin. This is because regulatory agencies determine food safety based on its similarity to existing foods, its chemical composition, and effects on the digestive systems of test animals, not on whether the plant variant arose from traditional agriculture or transgenic technology. If a food is found to include a chemical that could cause an allergy or is a toxin, it is not marketed. As of early 2002, there have been no reports of harm coming from the consumption of GM foods.

Still, individuals who object to genetic modification would like the opportunity to select plant foods that were not produced in this manner. Labeling would solve this problem, and perhaps with continued consumer pressure it may come to pass. Some argue that at times, those who object to GM foods have acted in unethical ways. In several instances, protesters destroyed what they erroneously thought were fields of GM plants. Companies have behaved in ethically questionable ways in the GM food debate too. Before consumer outrage put an end to it, certain agrichemical companies sold GM crops that did not produce viable seed, forcing farmers to purchase new seed each year.

Another concern arising in agricultural biotechnology is the unintended spread of transgenes to other organisms. When a crop is grown in the field, its DNA, including the transgene, can theoretically be spread to other organisms in several ways. Certain types of plant viruses can transfer DNA from the host chromosome to a wild relative as well. Bacteria take up genes from the environment in the process known as transformation, and pass genes among different types of plants through conjugation. It is not yet known whether any of these latter processes have occurred with GM plant DNA, and detection may be difficult. It is likely to be a question not of whether but of when, however, given the large acreages devoted to GM plants.

Again the question arises of whether the consequences of such gene transfers are qualitatively different from the same process occurring on crop plants modified through traditional breeding. Opponents of GM crops say yes, since the potential exists to transfer genes from sources that would otherwise never be found in the agricultural environment. For instance, jellyfish genes are used in some agricultural research. In addition, the potential for harm from "escaped genes" may be greater precisely because the gene is so useful agriculturally. The gene for a natural insecticide may help grow safer corn, for example, but it could also allow a wild plant to escape its natural controls and become a serious forest weed. While such scenarios are hypothetical for the moment, opponents say that so little is known about the intricacies of ecology that caution is the only safe policy.

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