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Transgenic Organisms: Ethical Issues

A transgenic organism is a type of genetically modified organism (GMO) that has genetic material from another species that provides a useful trait. For instance, a plant may be given genetic material that increases its resistance to frost. Another example would be an animal that has been modified with genes that give it the ability to secrete a human protein.

Bioethics addresses the impact of technology on individuals and societies. Bioethical issues include an individual's right to privacy, equality of access to care, and doctor-patient confidentiality. In the case of transgenic organisms, a major bioethical issue is freedom of choice. Yet broader issues also arise, such as the ethics of interfering with nature, and effects of transgenic organisms on the environment.

The changes that are possible with transgenesis transcend what traditional gardening or agriculture can accomplish, although these too interfere with nature. A transgenic tobacco plant emits the glow of a firefly, and a transgenic rabbit given DNA from a human, a sheep, and a salmon secretes a protein hormone that is used to treat bone disorders. If mixing DNA in ways that would not occur in nature is deemed wrong, then transgenesis is unethical. Said a representative of a group opposed to GMOs in New Zealand at a government hearing, "To interfere with another life-form is disrespectful and another form of cultural arrogance."

A more practical objection to transgenic technology is the risk of altering ecosystems. Consider genetically modified Atlantic salmon, currently under review at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The fish have a growth hormone gene taken from Chinook salmon and a DNA sequence that controls the gene's expression taken from ocean pout, a fish that produces the hormone year-round. Because Atlantic salmon normally produce growth hormone only during the summer, the transgenic animal grows at more than twice the natural rate. Such genetically modified salmon could escape the farms where they are intended to be raised and invade natural ecosystems, where they may outcompete native fish for space, food, and mates.

Until recently, the fear that a transgenic organism might escape and infiltrate a natural ecosystem was based on theoretical scenarios. For example, a 1999 report of transgenic corn pollen harming Monarch butterfly larvae in a laboratory simulation was not confirmed by larger, more realistic studies. But in 2001 transgenic corn was discovered growing on remote mountain-tops in Mexico, ironically in the area where most natural corn variants originated. The corn was not supposed to have been able to spread beyond the fields where it was grown. At about the same time, 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of transgenic cotton were found in India. A farmer had crossed transgenic cotton he had obtained from the United States with a local variant and planted crops, not realizing that he had used a genetically modified product.

At the present time, American consumers cannot tell whether a food contains a genetically modified product or not because the two-thirds of processed foods that include GMOs and are sold in the United States have not been labeled. This lack of labeling is consistent with existing regulatory practice. While the FDA tests foods to determine their effect on the human digestive system, their biochemical makeup, and their similarity to existing foods (using a guiding principle called substantial equivalence), foods are not judged solely by their origin. For example, the FDA denied marketing of a potato derived from traditional selective breeding Greenpeace activists hang a banner on Kellogg's "Cereal City," a company museum in Battlecreek, Michigan. Greenpeace asked Kellogg's to stop what Greenpeace perceived as Kellogg's double standard regarding genetically modified ingredients in March 2000. that produces a toxin, while allowing marketing of a transgenic potato that has a high starch level and therefore absorbs less cooking oil, and is nontoxic. The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture approved transgenic crops in 1994, and deregulated the technology two years later, as did the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ironically, as people in wealthier nations object to not having a choice in avoiding genetically modified foods, others complain that the technology is too expensive for farmers in developing nations to use.

Another ethical dimension to transgenic organisms is that the methods to create genetically modified seeds, and the seeds themselves, lie in the hands of a few multinational corporations. In the mid-1990s a company sold transgenic plants resistant to the company's herbicides, but that could not produce their own seed, forcing the farmer to buy new seed each year. An international outcry led to the abandonment of this practice, but the use of crops that are resistant to certain herbicides, with a single company owning both seed and herbicide, continues. Some see this as a conflict of interest.

Groups that oppose genetically modified foods sometimes behave unethically. In 1999 environmental activists destroyed an experimental forest of poplars near London. The trees were indeed transgenic, but the experiments were designed to see if the trees would require fewer chemical herbicides, an activity the environmentalists had themselves suggested. More alarming were several incidents in the United States in 2000, when people who object to genetically modified foods vandalized laboratories and destroyed fields of crops, some of which were not even transgenic.

So far, foods containing GMOs appear to be safe. They may be easier to cultivate and may permit the development of new variants. However, it will take more time to determine whether or not they have longer term health and ecological effects.

Ricki Lewis


Charles, Dan. Lords of the Harvest. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001.

Dalton, Rex. "Transgenic Corn Found Growing in Mexico." Nature 413 (September27, 2001): 337.

Yoon, C. K. "Altered Salmon Leading Way to Dinner Plates, but Rules Lag." New York Times (May 1, 2000): A1.

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Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 4