Food Biotechnology's Challenge to Cultural Integrity and Individual Consent

By Thompson, Paul B. | The Hastings Center Report, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Food Biotechnology's Challenge to Cultural Integrity and Individual Consent


Thompson, Paul B., The Hastings Center Report


Speculation about cloning human beings or transforming them through germ line therapy or molecular eugenics programs has given rise to many ethical critiques of biotechnology. When these critiques take up issues of informed consent or raise questions about the moral limits of human ingenuity they connect to a well-established bioethics literature addressing problems such as physician-patient confidentiality, euthanasia, or new reproductive technology. In this literature, the moral problems arise primarily when individuals (whether physicians or patients) must make tortuous choices, and policy issues concern when and whether it is appropriate for institutions such as hospitals or governments to regulate individual choice. An entirely different group of biotechnologies raise issues in public health and individual consent as well, though in a manner that requires a new analysis of the conditions for consent, publicity, and the acceptability of risk. University of Wisconsin sociologist Frederick Buttel has stated that medical biotechnology accounts for about 90 percent of the products from genetic engineering, while food biotechnology accounts for 90 percent of the controversy. Though genetically engineered foods seldom involve the life and death issues that make debate over biomedical technology so compelling, they pose challenges to our conventional thinking on risk, consent, and their role in public health policymaking.

Transgenic crops are being tested in many countries and have entered food supplies in the U.S. and China with little comment, but the introduction of genetically engineered corn and soybeans into European markets caused a firestorm of controversy in 1996. At present, European oilseed buyers are seeking supplies from regions where transgenic crops are not grown, but it is unclear that this practice will be permitted under World Trade Organization phytosanitary and environmental regulations. However, European resistance to transgenic crops is not strictly a cultural or regional phenomenon. Surveys reveal that many adults associate ethical issues with genetic engineering applied to food, and that adults who identify themselves as religious are significantly more likely to express the view that genetically engineered food raises ethical issues.[1]

Though few people have given explicit thought to the ethical principles that govern food choice, consumer sovereignty provides a reasonable interpretation of the implicit ethics in traditional norms for buying, selling, and consuming food. This principle presumes that food consumers give informed consent to the purchase or consumption of food in normal market transactions, and that food suppliers have discharged the bulk of their ethical responsibilities merely by providing information. Ingredient labels inform consumers of the constituents in processed foods, permitting consumers to choose or avoid foods based on health, aesthetic, religious, or even purely idiosyncratic considerations.[2]

In the past, challenges to informed consent in the food system centered on the marketing of unsafe food or on misleading health and nutritional claims. Food safety regulations preserve consumer sovereignty by protecting consumers from risks that would be difficult or impossible to detect without special training. Recent legislation in the United States places restrictions on the health and nutritional claims that food companies can make for foods. However, biotechnology challenges informed consent in a new way because it has the capacity to introduce new constituents into whole foods such as ordinary fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats. Since current policy includes no provision for informing consumers of these new constituents, consumers who find food biotechnology ethically, aesthetically, or religiously questionable have no capacity to avoid recombinantly transformed foods.

Genetically Engineered Food: An Overview

Plants and food animals are being genetically engineered to introduce disease resistance, to improve nutritional quality, to provide resistance to agricultural chemicals (allowing farmers to poison weeds without harming crops), to introduce natural pesticidal properties, and to reduce fats in meat. …

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