An Annotated, Incomplete and Incredibly Egocentric
Bibliography on the GMO Debate
Paul B. Thompson, Michigan State University
For Limited Distribution at the Clemson University Workshop on GMO’s and STS, Feb. 15, 16, 2006 1
General Overviews of the Debate
Although debating agricultural and food biotechnology must be, by anyone’s standards, a very obscure
topic, the available literature is huge. The bad news is that someone publishes a book or a webpage on the
subject about every other week, if not more frequently. The good news is that the literature is a mile wide
and an inch deep. This means that although it is virtually impossible for anyone to say that they have a
“definitive” grasp of the issues, it is possible for virtually anyone to get oriented to some subset of the
issues fairly quickly. First, I’m listing some sources that attempt or purport to give an overview of the
issues with at least something of an ethical/philosophical orientation. Many of the entries in the latter part
of the bibliography refer back to titles in this list.
Darryl R. J. Macer. Shaping Genes : Ethics, Law and Science of Using New Genetic Technology in
Medicine and Agriculture. Christchurch, NZ: Eubios Institute, 1990. Macer gets credit for having
the first book out that really purported to do an ethics treatment of genetic engineering in
J. R. S. Fincham and J. R. Ravetz. Genetic Engineering: Benefits and Risks. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1991. Conciseness is more a virtue here than comprehensiveness, but there is a
clear discussion of plant transformation which is not really all that out of date, and the “ethics”
chapter is by Jerry Ravetz, who is a sensational sociologist of science and with Silvio Funtowicz
came up with idea of “post-normal science”.
Bernard Rollin. The Frankenstein Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1995. Not exactly
comprehensive, since Rollin limits himself to animal biotechnology and is as interested in genetic
transformation of animals for medical research as he is agriculture. Yet this is an engaging read.
Rollin is much better at developing interesting, insightful and important philosophical analyses of
the issues than he is in engaging in extended debate with people who have contrasting views. His
conception of telos has arguably been of more importance in actually reforming animal use than
anything ever written by Peter Singer or Tom Regan, yet he seems to be slightly off the radar
screen of mainstream philosophy. This book is a key source for debates about the “naturalness” of
biotechnology. Rollin’s treatment of risk issues shows a lot of common sense but little grasp of the
Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughn. Improving Nature: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering.
Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1996. Very comprehensive for its day and still among the best
sources for quickly acquiring a degree of scientific literacy with respect to genetic engineering.
Reiss and Straughn are as interested in medicine as in agriculture, but their treatment of the
agricultural issues is reasonably good.
Paul B. Thompson. Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective. London: Chapman & Hall, 1997. I wrote
this book with the scientific audience in mind. It takes pains to introduce readers to pretty standard
philosophical terminology but presumes that readers pretty much know what ag. biotechnology is.
You can get the general drift of the book by reading Fred Gifford’s review of it in the Journal of
Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Ask Fred for a copy because he probably has more than
he knows what to do with.
N.B. This bibliography was originally put together for a class I taught in 2003, so it has occasional
references to “the class” that have not been edited out, and it is mostly two years out of date. It is also
biased toward things that grad students in philosophy would be most interested in.
Mae Wan Ho. Genetic Engineering—Dream or Nightmare? Bath, UK: Gateway Books, 1998.
(Republished in several editions). Not much chance for the dream hypothesis in this book. With
Vandana Shiva, Ho is one of the most effective advocates against genetic engineering. This
treatment is far more comprehensive than anything by Shiva. Some of the science sections in the
book become quite technical and can be somewhat misleading to a novice reader.
Michael W. Fox. Beyond Evolution: The Genetically Altered Future of Plants, Animals, the Earth—
Humans. New York: Lyons Press, 1999. One Michael Fox is a philosopher from the U.K., but the
one that wrote this book is a widely published veterinarian. Fox is absolutely first rate when it
comes to dogs, and he has written a number of books castigating industrial agriculture. I count him
as a friend and I find it convenient to cite his views on a number of topics, yet the philosophical
grounding of his ethics is often obscure. One suspects a religious orientation to the issues (which
is fine, but tell us what it is, Michael).
Alan McHughen. Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. McHughen is a gene jockey from Canada who has
worked on transgenic flax, as well as contributing to work on herbicide tolerant Canola. His views
are comparatively well balanced for someone with so much investment in the technology. When it
gets to the ethics and social issues, what you get are his opinions (which are worth considering
carefully) rather than analyses of the issues or comprehensive arguments addressing contradictory
points of view.
Gary Comstock. Vexing Nature? : On the Ethical Case against Agricultural Biotechnology. Boston:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000. Comstock wrote some of the most vehement and persuasive
articles against ag biotech from 1988 until about 1996, then he changed his mind. This book
collects the early papers, then spends about a hundred pages explaining why he changed his view.
It is an interesting and important document in the debate, but perhaps not the best introductory
treatment. I reviewed it for Agriculture and Human Values, if you really want to know what I
Brian Tokar, Ed. Redesigning Life? The Worldwide Challenge to Genetic Engineering. London: 2001, Zed
Books. This collection of articles by anti-GMO activists is, to my knowledge, the most
intellectually respectable anti-GM tract out there. While not confined exclusively to agricultural
and food issues, these issues do get the lion’s share of discussion in most of the selections. While
few pro-GM types would think of these articles as “fair,” they do in my judgment raise issues that
deserve debate, and express points of view in terms that allow one to see why the authors have
taken strongly antagonistic perspectives.
Gregory E. Pence. Designer Food: Mutant Harvest or Breadbasket of the World? Lanham, MD : Rowman
& Littlefield, 2002. Pence is a medical ethicist and a prolific author who decided to tackle
agriculture. Unfortunately, he seems to have done all his research by surfing the web, and the
result is a highly readable, but, in my view, pretty shallow treatment of the issues. Maybe I’m just
mad because he didn’t bother to cite my work (actually, he does, but not extensively enough to
stroke my ego).
Richard Sherlock and John Morrey, eds. Ethical Issues in Biotechnology. Lanham, MA: Rowman and
Allenheld, 2002. This is the first comprehensive ethics reader on biotechnology that includes food
and agriculture as well as a number of sections on medical topics. It is worth taking a look at it if
only to see how Sherlock and Morrey see ag and food fitting into the broader scope of bioethics.
David Castle and Michael Ruse, eds. Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology. Amherst, NY:
2002, Prometheus. Castle (who did 98% of the work here) does philosophy of biology and is
pretty unsympathetic to critics of ag biotech. That shows (but not glaringly) in his selection of
articles for this book. There was also apparently a quest for “Canadian content” that led to a few
odd choices. But this is a good collection and it brought several important pieces to my attention
for the first time.
Britt Bailey and Marc Lappé. Engineering the Farm: The Social and Ethical Aspects of Agricultural
Biotechnology. Washington, DC: 2002, Island Press. Bailey (who did 96% of the work here) has a
sticker that reads “GMOs kill Monarch butterflies” pasted on her laptop. That attitude shows in the
selection of authors that were recruited to contribute articles for this collection. But this is a
relatively thorough and qualitatively better collection of anti-ag biotech articles than anything else
with the possible exception of Tokar 2001.
Finn Bowring, Science, Seeds and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life. London: 2003,
Verso Press. Despite the title, only about 15% of this book deals with plant or agricultural
biotechnology, and a lot of it deals with human or medical biotechnology. Bowring’s book is a
good place to go if you want to see what someone who has been reading a lot of postmodern social
theory makes of the biotechnology debate. He doesn’t like biotechnology, in case you were
Dustin R. Mulvaney and Jennifer L. Wells. Biotechnology, The Life Science Industry and the Environment:
An Annotated Bibliography. Berkeley, CA: 2004, Institute of Environmental Sciences, University
of California. A forty or so page over view precedes a lengthy annotated bibliography. They
neglected all of my work, so how good could it be? Seriously, I include this mainly because it
provides an alternative to the admittedly haphazard and incomplete annotated bibliography you are
reading, but in fact I don’t think they did a very good job at all. They neglected almost all the
philosophers who have worked on this subject, despite prominently featuring “ethics” as one of
their themes. Their treatment tends to stress the biology (on which they are clearly more complete
than I am) and very high fallutin’ theoretical social theory (Donna Harraway, for example) that,
for all it’s value (I really do like Donna Harraway) is not of immediate relevance to the debate
over biotechnology and the environment.
Hugh Lacey, Values and Objectivity: The Current Controversy about Transgenic Crops. Lanham, MA:
2005, Lexington Books. Hugh Lacey is a very good analytically trained philosopher of science
who has offered a thorough discussion of the GM crops debate with a strong emphasis on the
philosophy of agricultural science. Succinctly, Lacey believes that a flawed conception of values
and objectivity in science perpetuates unwillingness to debate the values actually being served by
biotechnology. His critical focus stresses environmental and distributive justice issues associated
with industrial agriculture, broadly, which he sees as being weakly and ineffectively being
addressed by transgenic crops. This is a very good book, and very clearly argued. But it is also
argued in great detail, and it can get tiring. Read it with the coffee pot in arm’s reach.
General Websites There are literally thousands of sites on ag and food biotech. You might, for example,
want to look at what Greenpeace and Monsanto have to say. Here are two “informational” sites that I think
are a bit more worthwhile than many others.
Pew Initiative on Agricultural Biotechnology http://pewagbiotech.org/ This is a group led by former
government staffers and funded by the Pew Foundation. They have been trying to broker back room deals
on biotech policy and have put up this website as a source of public information. The do worthwhile public
information meetings and publish worthwhile white papers.
Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee http://www.cbac-cccb.ca/ The Canadians have did a good
job of putting together info on both medical and agricultural topics, though things are now getting
somewhat out of date. I did a paper for them which you can find by clicking “Publications” then
“Research” then scroll down to Oct. 2000 and look for “Food and Agricultural Biotechnology:
Incorporating Ethical Considerations” or try: http://cbac-cccb.ca/epic/internet/incbac--
ccb.nsf/vwapj/FoodAgric_Thompson.pdf/$FILE/FoodAgric_Thompson.pdf (Actually, I don’t
recommend looking at my CBAC paper. The Revised Chapter 1 is similar and more up to date.)
Is biotechnology “unnatural”?
For many authors, this has been the central, if not the only, philosophical question related to
genetically engineered agricultural crops or livestock. As will become clear throughout the semester, I do
not agree with this diagnosis. In fact, I have tended to regard it as a fairly uninteresting question, very much
to the detriment of the work that I have done on biotech. So I’m trying to do better and give a more serious
treatment to this question in this course.
I think we can break the literature on this question down into two broad categories. First, there are
authors who have dealt with the question of whether genetic engineering itself might be unnatural in some
sense. If one includes those who have been primarily focused on the prospects for human genetic
engineering, this is a huge literature and one with which I would not claim to have more than passing
familiarity. Second, there is a fairly extensive literature focused more narrowly on the genetic
transformation (and also cloning) of non-human animals. I am proposing that we concentrate on the
questions raised under the broad heading on September 15, while reserving questions that pertain more
specifically to animal biotechnology for September 22, and I am organizing my bibliographic comments
Part I: Genetic Engineering and Cloning as Unnatural
A quick entree to this question can be had by looking at the paired articles from Prince Charles
and Richard Dawkins that are excerpted in Ruse and Castle’s Genetically Modified Foods. The theme is
followed up (more or less) by the sections headed “Ethics” and “Religion” in the same volume. These are
worth a look, especially if you have bought the book.
The question of whether it is morally permissible to use genetic engineering or cloning on human
beings has been an important theme in contemporary bioethics and a major focus of research supported
under the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (ELSI) program of the Human Genome Project funded by the
National Institutes of Health. Opinion is fairly dramatically split between those who think that this might be
intrinsically wrong, and those who argue that the rightness or wrongness is a function of risks and benefits
(including social consequences such as inequities to those who would be excluded from access to such
technology). For those who would like a taste of this debate, the June, 1997 report Cloning Human Beings
from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission NBAC) is as good a place to start as any. The report is
widely available on the web, but here is one address that lists a number of NBAC publications:
http://www.georgetown.edu/research/nrcbl/nbac/pubs.html However, the NBAC was not regarded as
sufficiently neutral by the Bush administration, and as a result it has been replaced by the President’s
Council on Bioethics. You can see their take on cloning at http://www.bioethics.gov/ Leon Kass, the
chairman of Bush’s council, wrote a plea against cloning: Kass, Leon. 1997. “The Wisdom of
Repugnance,” The New Republic June 2, 1997: 17-26, that is well worth reading, and has now been
reprinted widely. Kass’s article provides an argument that can be applied broadly, not solely to human
beings, and the argument has indeed been adapted specifically to the case of genetically engineered food in
Mary Midgley, ‘Biotechnology and Monstrosity,” The Hastings Center Report 30 5 (2000): 7-15.
A similar but slightly toned down line of argument can be found in Ruth Chadwick, “Novel, Natural,
Nutritious: Towards a Philosophy of Food,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (2000): 193-208.
Perhaps the following article is among the most radical in articulating the view that genetically engineered
food is unnatural: Bockmühl, Jochen. 2001. “A Goethean View of Plants: Unconventional Approaches,” In
Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants in the Context of Genetic Engineering, D. Heaf and J. Wirz, Eds.
Llanystumdwy, UK: International Forum for Genetic Engineering, pp. 26-31. Other articles in this
collection are worth checking out for those who hope to find a basis for thinking biotechnology unnatural.
However, most of the action has been on the other side of the issue, that is, philosophers
attempting arguments that are intended to show how claims that biotechnology is unnatural are mistaken.
Perhaps the best of these, at least in terms of giving the other side its due, is MSU’s own Fred Gifford,
“Biotechnology,” In Life Science Ethics, Gary Comstock, Ed. Ames, IA: 2002, Iowa State University Press.
Comstock himself has done a seemingly exhaustive review of what people might mean when they say that
biotechnology is unnatural in Gary Comstock, Is it unnatural to genetically engineer plants? 647-651 Weed
Science 46 (1998) which is (I think) wholly reprinted in Chapter 5 of his book Vexing Nature? Similar
discussions can be found in Reiss and Straughn’s Improving Nature, or Pence’s Designer Foods and it is
difficult to think of a more entertaining treatment than that of Rollin’s The Frankenstein Syndrome. But
perhaps the seminal anti-unnatural article will turn out to be Mark Sagoff, 2001. “Genetic Engineering and
the Concept of the Natural,” Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly 21(2/3/):2-10. Sagoff draws heavily on
John Stuart Mill’s essay “Nature,” which is usually thought of as one of a trilogy on philosophy of religion
from the great utilitarian thinker. It can be found in Mill, Three Essays on Religion (New York: 1969,
Greenwood Press) as well as in other editions.
There are some other themes that are relevant, I think. One is the alleged “reductionism” of
biotechnology. This is a theme that began to appear in literature critical of biotechnology especially in a
collection entitled Biopolitics: A Feminist and Ecological Reader on Biotechnology, edited by Vandana
Shiva and Ingunn Moser, (Zed Books: 1995, London). See especially Shiva’s concluding essay “Beyond
Reductionism.” The reductionism theme has been continued especially forcefully in a new book by Finn
Bowring, Science, Seeds and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life London: 2003, Verso
Press. I reviewed the book for Nature/Biotechnology, and the review is available on line in the current issue:
http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/dynapage.taf?file=/nbt/journal/v21/n9/index.html (or just type Nature
Biotechnology into Google and navigate to it). Sheldon Krimsky has contributed important essays to this
critique. See his article in the Lappé and Bailey collection Engineering the Farm, but especially Sheldon
Krimsky, “Risk Assessment and Regulation of Bioengineered Food Products,” International Journal of
Biotechnology 2 (2002): 31-238. The main biological arguments seem to be drawn from Mae Wan Ho’s
Dream or Nightmare.
The “reductionism” argument is not the same as an “unnatural” argument, but raises some
philosophical issues that may be appropriate to think about in this section of the course. In addition to just
getting clear about the nature of the argument, we might want to think about whether it can be successfully
tied to feminist writings on science. Another, which opens up the topic even more, is the question of
whether the reductionism and unnaturalness arguments should simply be read as popularizations of a broad
political opposition. See, for example, Tokar, Brian. 2001. “Challenging Biotechnology,” In Redesigning
Life? The World Challenge to Genetic Engineering, B. Tokar, ed. London: Zed Books, pp. 1-16. Tokar
brings us full circle by telling us that opposition to food biotechnology and opposition to human genetic
engineering and cloning are really one and the same thing.
There is also the sociological question of whether any of this philosophical stuff has anything at
all to do with what people think when they say that biotechnology is unnatural. Here is a fairly unstructured
glob of cites on that: Paul Sparks, Roger Shepherd and Lynn Frewer, Gene Technology, Food Production
and Public Opinion: A U.K. Study Agr. & Human Values 11 (1994): 19-28; Lynn J. Frewer, Roger
Shepherd and Paul Sparks, Public Concerns in the United Kingdom about General and Specific Aspects of
Genetic Engineering: Risk, Benefit and Ethics Sci., Tech. & Human Values 22 (1997): 98-124.
Biotechnology in the Public Sphere, John Durant, Martin W. Bauer and George Gaskell, Eds, London: The
Science Museum, 1998; George Gaskell and Martin W. Bauer, eds, Biotechnology: The Years of
Controversy London: The Science Museum, 2001; George Gaskell and others, Biotechnology: The Making
of a Global Controversy Cambridge: Cambrdge U. Press, 2002, and Susanna Priest’s A Grain of Truth.
Rowman and Allenheld, 2001. I’m not sure any of this stuff proves anything, however.
Part II: Is it Unnatural to Engineer Animals
This is a more focused debate and I can actually give you some fairly definitive bits. First is
Rollin’s 1995 book. There was also a much earlier paper that contains the core of the argument: B. E.
Rollin, 1986. “The Frankenstein thing” in Genetic Engineering of Animals: An Agricultural Perspective, J.
W. Evans and A. Hollaender, New York: Plenum Press, pp 285-298. The paper was reprinted in Steven
Gendel, et. al, eds. Agricultural Bioethics : Implications Of Agricultural Biotechnology. Ames, IA: 1990,
Iowa State U. Press. There is an excellent collection of philosophical and other essays on this topic: A.
Holland and A. Johnson, eds. Animal Biotechnology and Ethics, London: 1998, Chapman and Hall. There
are also important essays included in Peter Wheale and Ruth McNally ed. The BioRevolution: Consucopia
or Pandora’s Box, London: Pluto Press, 1990, especially the essays by Michael Fox and Jeremy Rifkin. I
also tend to regard two early articles by Henk Verhoog as seminal: “Ethics and genetic engineering of
animals,” In Morality, Worldview and Law, A. W. Musschenga et al, eds. Assen/Maastricht: VanGorcum,
1992, pp. 267-278; and “The concept of intrinsic values and transgenic animals,” J. Agricultural and
Environmental Ethics 5(2): 147-160, (1992); also “Biotechnology and ethics,” in Controversial Science, T.
Brante, S. Fuller and W. Lynch, eds. New York: SUNY Press, 1993, pp. 83-106. You can read my take on
this literature in P. B. Thompson, “Ethics and the Genetic Engineering of Food Animals,” Journal of
Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 10(1997): 1-23, which is reprinted as a chapter in my 1997 book.
Risk Part I: Introduction to Risk Policy and Analysis.
Does anyone recognize the existence of something called “risk studies”? A fairly extensive body of
expertise and accompanying literature has arisen during the last 35 years on the analysis and management
of risk. As I see it, the field of risk studies, if there is such a thing, grew in response to a vague set of public
policy issues that are themselves only about a century old. Perhaps the first of these were associated with,
on the one hand, public health measures that were themselves proposed as a result of technological
innovations such as microscopes and accompanying scientific ideas such as the germ theory of disease, 2
and a perceived crisis in the purity of food leading to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which was the
first statute to create an administrative agency (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) dedicated to the
For a wonderfully readable history see Joseph A. Amato, Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
management of risk.3 For 60 or 70 years, the history of risk regulation is largely a history of the growth of
technical disciplines (toxicology, epidemiology) dedicated to the collection of data and the development of
statistical methods for understanding and responding to such problems. These coalesce in the 1970’s with
the nearly simultaneous emergence of threats associated with agricultural pesticides, 4 nuclear power,5 and
public policy crises over asbestos and toxic waste disposal. Eventually, people started to write general
treatises on risk and regulation, and the Society for Risk Analysis was formed in approximately 1980.
General Theory of Risk The first authors to get in on this action were William W. Lowrance, Of Acceptable
Risk: Science and the Determination of Safety. Los Altos: CA: Wm. Kaufman, 1976, and William D. Row,
An Anatomy of Risk. New York: Wiley, 1977. While both of these books are still worth reading, I tend to
recommend two others that approach the field by collecting seminal articles: Theodore S. Glickman and
Michael Gough, Eds. Readings in Risk. Washington, D.C: Resources for the Future, 1990; and Sheldon
Krimsky and Dominic Golding, Eds. Social Theories of Risk. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 1992. The first
is an anthology that represents what might be called the established wisdom of risk studies, a set of papers
that collectively articulate the main approaches to measuring and managing technologically induced risks,
on the one hand, and the main problems of both and methodological and a political sort that one encounters
in doing so. The latter is, in some respects, the report of the rump group. That is, theorists who think that
the established wisdom is wrong in some fundamental way (though there is a fair bit of overlap between
these two communities). Another highly readable example of established wisdom comes from the physicist
H. W. Lewis, Technological Risk. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990, while I suppose the ultimate rump view
comes from Ulrich Beck, Risk Society. London: Sage Publications, 1992 (a rather philosophical
sociological treatment, thought by some to be the next stage in the critical theory: tradition of German
This dichotomy between established wisdom and rump group has actually been replicated within
that paragon of established wisdom, The National Research Council (for publications go to
http://www.nap.edu/ ) which has published two almost contradictory “definitive” reports on the
measurement and management of risk. The first is frequently referred to as “the red book” and is called
Risk Assessment in the Federal Government http://books.nap.edu/openbook/0309033497/html/index.html
(1983) while the second is often referred to as “the orange book” and is called Understanding Risk:
Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society http://books.nap.edu/openbook/030905396X/html/index.html
(1996). You will also find lots of other useful and interesting stuff on the NRC publications webpage, and I
encourage you to browse, yet these two reports represent a kind of polar demarcation of where we are in
Philosophical Treatments. Although risk studies probably does not crack any “top ten” lists in terms of
philosophical topics and studies, philosophers are very much a part of this literature. I’m handing out a
chapter from a book edited by two philosophers: Deborah G. Mayo and Rachelle Hollander, eds.
Acceptable Evidence: Science and Values in Risk Management. New York: Oxford U. Press, 1991. The
chapter is Ronald Giere’s “Knowledge, Values and Technological Decisions: A Decision Theoretic
Approach,” pp 183-203. Although this paper has not been particularly influential, I like it because it is a
competent and concise statement of what I was calling the “established wisdom” in risk studies, and it takes
a decidedly philosophical bent. In this volume, the “rump view” is somewhat represented by Roger and
Jeane Kasperson, Sheila Jasanoff, and Paul Slovic (though Slovic is a deep “insider” in risk studies) none
of whom are philosophers. You get one philosopher’s interpretation of this divide in risk studies from
Mayo’s chapter “Sociological Versus Metascientific Views of Risk Assessment,” but Mayo is much more
sympathetic to the “established view” as a proper analytic and normative approach. To some degree
Hollander’s “Expert Claims and Social Decisions” has more sympathy with the rump group, but if you
The seminal and precipitating document is Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. New York: Doubleday and Page,
1906. See also the FDA Home Page: http://www.fda.gov
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962, is sometimes credited with starting the
environmental movement in the United States. A number of historical and political studies have been done
on pesticide regulation. See especially Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens and Society Princeton:
Princeton U. Press, 1981; John H. Perkins, Insects, Experts, And The Insecticide Crisis: The Quest For New
Pest Management Strategies, New York: Plenum Press, 1982.
Kristen S. Shrader-Frechette, Nuclear Power And Public Policy : The Social And Ethical Problems Of
Fission Technology. Boston and Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980.
want a real rumpish counterpart to Mayo, read Paul B. Thompson and Wesley E. Dean, “Competing
Conceptions of Risk,” Risk: Health, Safety and Environment 7(4): 361-384, (1996), which I will also give
Of philosophers who have made something of a career out of writing on risk, the biggest is
certainly Kristen Shrader-Frechette, who will be here to give talks on Sept. 26, 2003. The best of Kristen’s
risk books is Risk and Rationality. Berkeley, CA: U. California Press, 1991, though there are lots of papers
sprinkled throughout the literature. The number two guy is Douglas MacLean, who edited a collection
entitled Values at Risk. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986. The book has papers by a number of
big time philosopher-types such as Amartya Sen, Annete Baier, Allan Gibbard and Ian Hacking. It also has
two reasonably good papers representing the established wisdom and the rump view, respectively: “Cost-
Benefit Analysis Applied to Risks: Its Philosophy and Legitimacy,” by Herman Leonard and Richard
Zeckhauser, and “To Hell wth the Turkeys!” by Michael Thompson. 6 After MacLean, I suppose the next
guy to look at is Carl Cranor, whose book Regulating Toxic Substances New York: Oxford U. Press, 1993
looks at the difference between concepts of risk and causality in science and in the law. Cranor has an
excellent paper that might have been a good alternative to the one by Geire. It was published sometime in
the late 1990’s in Risk: Health Safety and Environment, but I’ve lost the citation in my moving frenzy. If
any takes the trouble to run this down, please share the information around.
I’ve written a fair amount of stuff myself. Please ask and I will be happy to provide any of the
1. P. B. Thompson, “The Ethics of Truth-Telling and the Problem of Risk,” Science and Engineering
Ethics 5(4): 489-511. This is my best paper on risk, but not the best overview and introduction
to the field of risk studies (which is why I’m handing out Thompson and Dean instead of this one).
2. P.B. Thompson, “Risk Subjectivism and Risk Objectivism: When Are Risks Real?” Risk: Issues in
Health and Safety, 1(1): 3-19, (1990). This was an attempt to take a dichotomy between “real” and
“perceived” risk (which was pretty robust in the literature up to the point that this was published), take
it seriously and have a little fun with it by examining some possible policy and legal implications.
Maybe I took it a little too seriously.
3. P.B. Thompson, “Reply to Valverde,” Risk: Issues in Health and Safety, 1(3): 49-57, (1992). Here I
explain what I really meant to say in the above paper, after this guy Valverde does a horrible
misreading of my original point.
4. P. B. Thompson, “Risk and Responsibilities in Modern Agriculture,” in Issues in Agricultural
Bioethics, T. B. Mepham, G. A. Tucker, and J. Wiseman, eds. (Nottingham: 1995, Nottingham
University Press) pp. 31-45. The arguments in this paper were a developmental stage toward the view
that I finally nailed in (1) above. The treatment here is more combative, and in method of presentation,
at least, more philosophical.
5. P.B. Thompson, “Risk: Ethical Issues and Values,” in Agricultural Biotechnology, Food Safety and
Nutritional Quality for the Consumer, J. F. MacDonald, ed. National Agricultural Biotechnology
Council (NABC) Report 2, (Ithaca, NY: 1991, NABC) pp. 204-217. Here you will find arguments
about the conceptualization of risk drawn from philosophy of language that I have never bothered to
publish in a more respectable place. Pretty stupid of me.
6. P.B. Thompson, “Collective Action and the Analysis of Risk,” Public Affairs Quarterly 1(2):23-42
(1987). One point that continues be overlooked in risk studies is that agency matters. The literature
bounces around this by talking about “voluntariness” and “control” but the point is that if someone
does something that precipitates a risky situation, the standards are wholly different than when
something “just happens.” Part of the reason that the point gets obscured is that the agents in question
Thompson is an advocate of “cultural theory” which is the hot new thing in political science policy
studies, I’m told. The seminal work in cultural theory was Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and
Culture. Berkeley, CA: U. California Press, 1981. The cultural theory approach to risk gets a philosophical
treatment in a paper by Mark Sagoff entitled “Is Big Beautiful?” which I believe to have been published in
J. Applied Philosophy, late 80’s early 90’s. Shrader-Frechette accuses Douglas of being a raving relativist
in Risk and Rationality, but I think she is not really much of a relativist, as anthropologists go. This is a
fascinating literature well worth getting into for its own merits and quite relevant to the biotech debate. See
also Michael Thompson and Michiel Schwarz, Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology and
Social Choice. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
for technological risk are corporate (or collective) groups, not individuals. No individual introduced Bt
corn to the world, but Monsanto did. That’s the philosophical point of this paper (the agency stuff, not
Monsanto), which had 7 of 8 reviewers for Ethics urging publication, two strongly, yet as you see, it
was not published in Ethics (not to discourage those of you early in your careers—there is life after
7. P.B. Thompson, “Agricultural Biotechnology and the Rhetoric of Risk: Some Conceptual Issues,” The
Environmental Professional, 9:316-326 (1987). My first go at ag biotech, and also the first place I did
a reasonably successful treatment of the issues addressed in (1) above. But probably not something you
want to read unless you are a) interested in the history of the ag biotech debate, or b) writing my
8. P. B. Thompson, “Biotechnology, Risk and Political Values: Philosophical Rhetoric and the Structure
of Political Debate,” in Biotechnology: Assessing Social Impacts and Policy Implications, D. J.
Webber, ed. (New York: 1990, Greenwood Press), pp. 3-16. This is a philosophically more rich and
mature version of the argument in the above paper, and one of the few papers from my misspent youth
that does not make me cringe. But its probably of less historical interest than (7). The Webber book,
however, has lots of other interesting stuff and is sadly overlooked by all the newcomers to the study
of biotechnology as a political issue.
9. P.B. Thompson and W.J. Parkinson, “Situation Specific Indicators for Distinguishing Between High-
Consequence/ Low-Probability Risk and Low-Consequence/High-Probability Risk,” in Low-
Probability/High-Consequence Risk Analysis, R. Waller and V. Covello, eds. (New York: 1984,
Plenum Press) pp. 551-567. This may be the stupidest paper I ever wrote. The point is that if you have
a high consequence-low probability risk, it’s quantitatively the same as a low consequence-high
probability risk (both involve multiplying a big number by a small number), yet the two are
qualitatively different. Duh! But it’s full of wonderful technical mojo that still gets an occasional nod
from people doing risk studies.
Theoretical Background Obviously the “general theory of risk” does not come out of nowhere, but where
does it come from? One answer is that it comes from the slow emergence of probability theory in
mathematics and statistics. A good philosophical history has been written by Ian Hacking, The Emergence
of Probability. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1975, see also The Taming of Chance. Cambridge: 1990,
Cambridge U. Press. Another possibility is that it just comes out of utilitarianism. On the one hand, I think
one case for this could be made simply by reading the first 25 or 30 pages of Jeremy Bentham’s Principles
of Morals and Legislation London: T. Payne, 1989. On the other, it is certainly true that one finds very
little in Mill, Sidgwick or subsequent developments of the theory to suggest that giving an account of
decision making under conditions of risk or uncertainty was very central to utilitarian ethical theory. In fact,
virtually no one who writes about decision making under uncertain or indeterminate circumstances
associates the word “risk” with this problem before the twentieth century. It is interesting to note that the
works of early theorists of, for example, gambling (such as Daniel Bernoulli) always used the word
“chance” (more correctly, the used the Latin word “sors), but when these works were translated into
English in the first half of the twentieth century, the word ‘risk’ was used to translate a word that more
traditionally would have been translated as ‘chance’. Why? Well by the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a
fairly established community of economists beginning to develop a theory of risk-taking, and they found
Bernoulli’s work quite helpful.
But is there anything to be made of this linguistic point? I think possibly there is. It looks as if
prior to the twentieth century the word ‘risk” was primarily associated with activities that involved personal
courage, such as military endeavors or adventures. Sometime around 1900 political economists starting
using the word risk in work that was taking up the question of why investors deserved profits, and the word
‘risk’ started to creep into the literature. 7 The quantitative, decision theoretic literature and the normative
philosophical question come together in a book that is usually cited as the granddaddy of 20 th century
economic work on risk, Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921.
Thinking on the problem is substantially altered by the seminal book in modern game theory, John von
Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), though interestingly,
There is an interesting discussion of this question in an essay by the philosopher James Hayden Tufts in a
book entitled America’s Social Morality: Dilemmas of the Changing Mores. New York: H. Holt, 1933. I’m
not sure what to make of this point, but there might be an interesting paper to be written here.
they do not frame their inquiry as involving risk in any central way. That comes with a seminal paper that
must be read by anyone thinking about the philosophical issues here, Milton Friedman and Leonard J.
Savage, “The Utility Analysis of Choices Involving Risk,” The Journal of Political Economy, 56 (1948):
279-304. After that, the deluge. Most economics departments now offer a least a half a dozen course
specifically on risk, though they are not necessarily thinking about the same problems that led to risk
Problem Oriented Studies. In some respects, the best way to get a handle on risk issues is to ignore the
theoretical literature and to look at studies of specific issues in environmental, food safety and product risk.
Some of these have been mentioned previously, but here are four especially useful studies. 1. John D.
Graham, Laura C. Green, and Marc J. Roberts. In Search Of Safety: Chemicals And Cancer Risk.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1988. This book is well written and an important study that reviews
several U.S. case studies in regulation of chemicals. Graham founded the Harvard Center for Riak Analysis
http://www.hcra.harvard.edu/ which has lots of case studies on its website. He is now the White House
science advisor. 2. Lawrence Haworth, Conrad Brunk, and Brenda Lee. Values in Risk Assessment: A Case
Study of the Alachlor Controversy. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier U. Press, 1991, is very influential
outside the U.S. and strangely un-read within our borders. Haworth and Brunk are philosophers, and Brunk
might have been added to my list above were it not for the fact that I’m not much aware of what he has
published in the professional literature. 3. Douglas Powell and William Leiss. Mad Cows And Mother's
Milk: The Perils Of Poor Risk Communication. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997. This
book has a series of case study chapters, including one on genetically engineered food, and is especially
recommended for its treatment of issues relating to risk perception, political participation and trust. Leiss is
a fairly well known political philosopher. Powell runs a website at the University of Guelphy called the
Food Safety Network http://www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/ and is not well liked by opponents of GM foods. 4.
CassR. Sunstein, Risk and Reason: Safety, Law and the Environment. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press,
2002. This recent book is to be recommended for its integration of work on the perception and
communication of risk. It borders on being part of the “general theory” literature, for Sunstein (a well
published law professor at the University of Chicago), argues aggressively for a “cost benefit” approach to
risk issues throughout. Although I find Sunstein a bit more technocratic on these issues than I would be, I
still recommend this book highly as an important treatment of normative issues in administrative law.
Sociological Approaches: So far, the summary has taken a “philosophical” approach in two senses. One is
that I have been biased toward philosophers, but also I have approached the question in terms of
understanding what risk is, or, alternatively, what people mean when they describe a situation as risky or
think that a decision involves risk, and what they should do to make rational decisions in such situations. In
fact, the vast majority of work on risk makes rather different assumptions. There is a very large empirical
literature on using scientific methods to quantify risk, and an equally large social science literature on how
people behave in response to risky situations, allegations or imputations of risk and hazard, and how they
“perceive” (which really means conceptualize and interpret) certain situations characterized or categorized
in terms of risk (e.g. Which involves greater risk: skiing or driving your car to work?). Some of the old
readers mentioned above still (as far as I know) provide the best entrée into this literature. One is Readings
in Risk, Glickman and Gough, eds, Washington, D.C.: 1990, Resources for the Future. The second is Social
Theories of Risk Krimsky and Golding, eds. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992, and the third is edited by two
philosophers, Deborah Mayo and Rachelle Hollander, Acceptable Evidence : Science And Values In Risk
Management New York: Oxford U. Press, 1991. When I am in a contentious mood, I insist that this stuff
has more to do with general theory of human behavior than risk per se. This makes me a member of a rump
group squared, I guess. But there is no doubt that this literature has grown by leaps and bounds. Tom Deitz,
who is a member of our nano group, has contributed to a pretty good overview of it in the paper that I can’t
find right now. Bug me about this later.
Risk Part II: Issues Specific to the GMO Debate
I. Environmental Risks from Transgenic Crops
I contributed to the National Research Council Report entitled Environmental Effects of
Transgenic Plants, so it is not surprising that I find it to be a good source on the debate. The NRC website
is http://www.nrc.edu while the text of the report is available at the website of the National Academies
Press http://www.nap.edu I also recommend two of my own papers, “The Environmental Ethics Case for
Crop Biotechnology: Putting Science Back into Environmental Practice,” in Moral and Political Reasoning
in Environmental Practice. A. Light and A. de-Shalit, Eds. Cambridge, MA: 2003, The MIT Press, pp. 187-
217 and “Value Judgments and Risk Comparisons: The Case of Genetically Engineered Crops,” Plant
Physiology 132(2003): 10-16. The latter paper has citations to the key NRC reports, while the former paper
has citations to a lot of the other relevant literature.
Within anthologies see especially: Parts 8 and 10 from Ruse and Castle (except for the Miller and
Conko article), and the articles by Krimsky, Bailey and Raffensparger in the Bailey and Lappé. Culver’s
article from the Ruse and Castle is about fish, but this might be an occasion to take a look at it. The Tokar
anthology is chock full of articles alleging environmental risks associated with genetically engineered
plants and animals.
II Food Safety and Labeling
The Castle and Ruse and Bailey and Lappé anthologies are a good place to start on this topic. See
Parts 4 and 6 from Castle and Ruse, as well as papers by Comstock and by Feit. See also my paper, Barling
and Lappé from Bailey and Lappé. There are also a number of sources cited in connection with the
discussion of this issue in the bibliography for the new Chapter 1 of my book. Note especially the work of
Robert Streiffer. Here is one more:
Tatiana Klompenhouwer and Henk van den Belt, “Regulating Functional Foods in the European Union:
Informed Choice versus Consumer Protection,” J. Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16
III The Precautionary Principle
The two anthologies offer us Raffensperger and Barrett’s defense of the precautionary principle
from Bailey and Lappé, as well as Miller and Conko’s attack on it in Castle and Ruse. (Although Goklany’s
article claims to apply the precautionary principle, I do not think it actually has much to do with it). There
is a brief discussion of the precautionary principle in Environmental Effects of Transgenic Plants. The
definitive collection on of articles always cited in connection with the precautionary principle is Carolyn
Raffensperger and Joel Tickner, eds. Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the
Precautionary Principle. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999. Two more recent ones are:
1. Henk van den Belt, “Debating the Precautionary Principle: "Guilty until Proven Innocent" or
"Innocent until Proven Guilty"? Plant Physiology 132 (2003) 1122-1126.
2. Cranor, Carl F. “How Should Society Approach the Real and Potential Risks Posed by New
Technologies? Plant Physiology 133(2003): 3-9. http://www.plantphysiol.org
The manuscript of Chapter 1 that has been distributed offers a more detailed discussion of the
precautionary principle debate, and a more complete listing of sources relevant to it.
Beyond “Nature,” Beyond Risk
What follows are extremely succinct starting points for very complicated debates. A slightly less succinct
overview on social justice issues (but not intellectual property) can be found in my manuscript for the
revised edition of Chapter 1 of my book, which also references quite a few additional sources relating to
science policy, agrarian transition and distributive justice.
Intellectual Property: Philosophical Foundations
On what grounds do we consider ideas, techniques or information to be ownable, exchangeable items of
property, things that people may control by excluding others and exploit by profiting from their use? Here
it is important to begin with a distinction between the idea of private property and the various legal
instruments that have been developed to define and protect property rights of all kinds. One broad
philosophical tradition holds that property rights are justified in light of their capacity to further other ends,
such as reducing social conflict or furthering economic growth. Here tests for the validity of specific legal
instruments (such as patents, copyrights, trade secrets or the registered plant varieties that were protected
under the Plant Variety Protection Act) involve the degree to which a given instrument succeeds in
furthering the desired ends. Deeper social disputes concern what those ends are. The alternative tradition
holds that certain kinds of things are fit to be items of property by their very nature, while others are not.
Here, the deep questions cannot be avoided: are human beings ever fit to be items of property? How about
their genes? How about other genes? How about items that have very high exclusion costs, such as
sunshine or air? Once the deep questions are answered, specific instruments are evaluated in terms of their
consistency with the standards that emerge from those answers.
This section could go on at much greater length than the risk section. The classic statement of the
instrumental view of property comes from G.W.F. Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right, although
contemporary treatments in law and economics tend to favor a more utilitarian interpretation. The extensive
writings of Richard Epstein would be the leading contemporary theorist. The older more metaphysical
tradition derives from natural law philosophers such as Hugo Grotius, but the 25 or so pages in “On
Property,” from John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government are undeniably the most influential. Locke
actually mixes classic metaphysical with instrumental criteria in this chapter. A nice source specifically tied
to intellectual property rights can be found in Adam C. Moore, Intellectual Property: Moral, Legal and
International Dilemmas. Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997. The book is available as an e-book
through the MSU Library. The entire first section on theoretical foundations is useful, but especially the
first two chapters by Ned Hettinger (the instrumentalist) and Lynne Sharp Paine (the metaphysician).
Intellectual Property: Effects on Farmers and Agricultural Research
Is it legitimate to claim ownership of plant and animal genes? Has the move toward patents and away from
registered plant varieties negatively or positively affected agricultural research? In particular is this an
abandonment of the traditional land grant philosophy? Do farmers have a natural right to the genetic
resources of the crops that they grow? How are we to understand technical strategies for controlling
intellectual property (i.e. Genetic Use Restriction Technology or GURT) in light of our traditions in
property rights? Instrumentalists tend to answer these questions by how patents, GURTs or traditional plant
For source material on these questions some of the anthologies from the beginning of the
bibliography offer rich veins, Lori Andrews in the Bailey and Lappé and the first two papers in Part 5 of
Ruse and Castle, in particular. Tokar’s anthology has a section entitled “Patents, Corporate Power and the
Theft of Knowledge and Resources.” David Magnus wrote a philosophical paper on this topic which is
included in the book he edited with Arthur Caplan and Glenn McGee entitled Who Owns Life? Amherst,
NY: 2002, Prometheus Books. Other papers in this collection deal with medical issues. Don Vietor, my
colleague from Texas A&M worked up a case study on the agricultural research questions: D. M. Vietor, J.
M. Chandler, P. B. Thompson, and M. L. Kitchersid. “Should Public Funds Support Biotechnology
Development? A Case About Herbicide Resistant Cotton,” Journal of Natural Resources and Life Science
Education. 24(1995): 173-178. Peter Philips from U. Saskatchewan has a C.D. that has a number of source
materials relating to the Percy Schmeiser lawsuits for patent infringements. I must confess that I have not
worked through these materials carefully, but here is Peter’s web page if you want to follow up on this
thread: http://www.genomeprairie.ca/gels/team/phillips.htm Schmeiser has his own webpage, too:
http://www.percyschmeiser.com/ Here are some names of other legal and economic scholars to type into
Google scholar in order to see what they have been up to: Brian Wright, UC Berkeley; Rebecca Eisenberg,
U. Michigan; Dan Burke, U. Minnesota; John Barton, Stanford.
Social Justice: Part I Science Policy & Public Participation
One of the main themes emerging from the controversy over GMO’s is that the broader public (or perhaps I
should say ‘publics’) have little opportunity to express their views on the directions that science takes our
society. What should we think about this? On the one hand, both public science funding and other public
policies that encourage scientific innovation in the private sector are generally rationalized in terms of their
widespread public benefit and contribution to the public good. Is there no place for non-scientists (or non-
venture capitalists) to have a role in deciding what vision of public benefit and the public good will steer
scientific research? On the other hand, no one really wants to put these kinds of issues up to a vote. So there
are debates about the appropriate role of the public and forums for public involvement, on the one hand,
and on the need for scientists themselves to become more broadly informed about these issues and public
proclivities, on the other.
Again, anthologies provide a good starting point, especially the Ruse and Castle volume, Part 7.
There is also an article by some New York Times reporters (Eichenwald et. al.) in Part I, of Ruse and
Castle is that focuses on the idea that the industry in general and Monsanto in particular caused the reaction
to biotechnology by being so high-handed in their willingness to involve broader publics. That is also the
the theme of NPR science reporter Dan Charles’ excellent book, Lords of the Harvest (Cambridge, MA:
2001, Perseus Press). Barling’s paper from Bailey and Lappé is also relevant to this discussion. See also
Martin Bauer and George Gaskell. Biotechnology: the Making of a Global Controversy. Cambridge:
Cambridge U. Press.
Social Justice: Part II Agrarian Transition and Agricultural Development
My manuscript for revised Chapter 1 of my book discusses this issue in some detail, so I will just note that
according to one point of view, justice and technical change have special characteristics in agriculture and
rural areas that are quite unlike the way that issues of industrialization and social justice play out in factory
settings and urban workplaces. I’m not sure what would be a good “short” thing to suggest here yet, but
Jack Kloppenburg, Jr. First the seed : the political economy of plant biotechnology, 1492-2000. Cambridge:
Cambridge U. Press, 1988, would be a very good start, as would Lawrence Busch, William Lacy, Jeffery
Burkhardt and Laura Lacy. Plants, Power and Profits. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Social Justice: Part III Does the Developing World Need Biotech?
From the anthologies, look at the entire “golden rice” section from Ruse and Castle, plus Part 9. Peter
Rosset’s article from the Bailey and Lappé. Vandana Shiva’s many works are relevant. See also Norman
Borlaug’s paper “Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Anti-Science
Zealotry,” Plant Physiology 123 (2000): 487-490. At the risk of being even more egocentric (is it possible)
Rather than going on at length here, I am also attaching yet another unpublished manuscript entitled “Ethics,
Hunger and GM Crops” that discusses this problem and reviews some of the literature on it in a fairly
extensive bibliographic afterward that only partially duplicates sources that are discussed in the revised
Appendix: Ethics, Hunger and the Case for GM Crops
Do wealthy people and their governments have an ethical obligation to moderate qualms or
concerns they might have about new agricultural or food technology in virtue of its potential for alleviating
hunger and malnutrition? There have already been a surprising number of specific policy issues in which
contradictory answers to this apparently arcane question have been at the core of disagreement. So-called
GM (or genetically modified) foods have been developed through recombinant DNA techniques for
introducing new traits into plants, microbes and animals. Several applications (notably herbicide resistance
genes and genes for the bacillus thuringiensus (bt) toxin) of this technology have been incorporated into
food and fiber crops that are grown by farmers in the United States, Argentina and a number of other food
exporting nations. Yet the technology sparked a firestorm of controversy in the late 1990’s.
Biotechnology’s potential to address food shortages and nutritional deficiencies became a frequent talking
point among its advocates, especially in debates over proposed shipments of GM maize for use as food aid
and over the prospects for addressing Vitamin-A deficiencies with a genetically modified variety popularly
known as “Golden Rice.”
Although GM crops represent a recent and important instance in which concerns about new
technology are countered with an argument stressing the technology’s potential for alleviating a morally
compelling need, this pattern of moral argument is far from unique. Within agriculture, similar arguments
were used in debates over Green Revolution projects that introduced chemical fertilizers and pesticides in
the developing world. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug has been a particularly vocal and prominent
defender of both Green Revolution and GM crops. Borlaug has not hesitated to suggest that those who
voice these concerns act immorally because the needs of the hungry override the concerns of the wealthy.
Beyond issues of food and hunger, advocates of stem cell research cite its potential to be used in therapies
for devastating diseases as a counter to those who have qualms. Indeed, this general pattern of argument
may be so common as to constitute a problem of general interest in the ethics of technology: Does the
potential for morally compelling benefits to the needy override less compelling concerns expressed by
people who do not share this need? I will not, however, address the question in its most general form, nor
do I suggest that an analysis focused on hunger and biotechnology will necessarily be generalizable to other
issues in technological ethics.
In keeping with a focus on hunger, I will briefly review some of the main arguments that are used
to characterize the moral significance of hunger and malnutrition as global problems. While sages,
moralists and philosophers have long pondered the virtue of extending aid to the needy, the needy in
question were generally presumed to be members of one’s local community. The ethics of world hunger is
thus a philosophical problem of comparatively recent origin. I will also make a selective review of some
arguments behind qualms that have been expressed about GM food. I will then connect the two lines of
argument in which the claims of hunger are pitted against those of the queasy, concluding with a brief
discussion of practical implications for ongoing debates.
The Ethics of World Hunger
Although global hunger has, in some sense, been a topic of philosophical reflection at least since
Thomas Malthus’ Essay on a Principle of Population in 1798, it is really a topic of the last forty years.
Philosophers began to write on the basis for global obligations to ensure that the world’s hungry are fed in
response to a rising general awareness of hunger that had multiple sources and themes. One theme was
certainly the Green Revolution itself, which in the early years was presented to the public as a
technological fix for hunger. Another was the political debate over foreign aid, and especially in connection
with United States Public Law 480, which established the program for concessionary sales of U.S. grain to
countries experiencing food deficits. Private charitable appeals served as a third source of public
awareness about the hunger of distant peoples. Children in the 1950’s and 1960’s were encouraged to
“Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” and organizations dedicated to specifically to hunger relief began to solicit
funds. All of these sources suggested at least implicitly that addressing distant hunger was a morally good
thing to do, though they did not examine the ethical basis for this suggestion.
The most enduring philosophical account of the morality of world hunger has been Peter Singer’s
1972 article “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” in which he argued that even moderately well off people
have a moral duty to limit their consumption of “luxuries and frills,” so that they may devote their
discretionary income to “those in dire need,” or more specifically famine relief. The key moral premise in
Singer’s argument held that “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without
thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do so.” Singer himself believed
that the key moral premise not only could be deduced from virtually any moral theory, but also stood as a
widely accepted moral intuition based on common sense. Singer’s article has had two main types of
response. First, some are impressed by the way that Singer’s argument calls for radical self-sacrifices that
reduce people to lifestyles that, though hardly ascetic by historical standards, are far, far less consumptive
than those lived by all but even relatively poor people in developed industrial economies. As such, there are
a number of attempts to moderate the argument, bringing it more in line with common sense moral
intuitions. It is notable that even these attempts typically acknowledge that people have ethical obligations
to bring aid, even if these obligations are not as radical as Singer’s argument would suggest.
A more widespread (and not mutually exclusive) reaction has been to interpret the radical and
surprising nature of Singer’s prescription as a consequence of historical changes that have in fact made
ordinary common sense moral intuitions obsolete, or at least inapplicable to the problems of world hunger.
Although diverse in their particulars, arguments developing this interpretation take global famine and
malnutrition to be a consequence of factors such as the end of the colonial era and wealthy nations’
subsequent exploitation of weaker and poorer peoples through inequitable trade, despoliation of the global
environmental commons and alliances of convenience with repressive and corrupt political regimes. What
is more, the ease of international trade, travel and communication can be seen as bringing once strange and
distant peoples into the circle of one’s moral community. While their theoretical lines of argument differ
substantially, a number of philosophical authors see the moral imperatives of hunger as duties arising from
the need to remedy inequities and injustices associated with globalization. Such duties did not exist in a
world where moral and political relationships were understood as coinciding with national borders, hence
there is a genuine need to reconstruct the terms of common sense morality. Because it is not possible to
understand our world as one in which the significance of out daily activities does not extend beyond local
communities or national states, it is incumbent upon citizens from wealthy nations to think of themselves as
morally obligated to redress global famine and malnourishment.
Philosophers have never been especially clear on the particular way in which these obligations are
to be discharged. Many follow Singer’s lead in focusing on personal gifts of money to various relief
organizations, though others single out government-to-government aid programs. I believe that we do no
injustice to other authors on world hunger when we construe the recommendation favoring a personal
contribution for famine relief as an example or archetype for a more general prescription to support a wide
variety of activities intended to promote poverty alleviation and economic development among people less
fortunate than the middle classes of the industrialized West. We may also assume that the prescription is
limited to activities that are effective in achieving this aim. Philosophers are understandably wary about
treading too far into empirical matters that distinguish effective and ineffective forms of assistance, yet
evidence about what works is clearly relevant to the conversion of general norms into prescriptions for
action. Supporting agricultural research intended to increase or stabilize crop yields is seldom mentioned as
a way to meet one’s obligations to ameliorate the extreme needs of hungry people. Yet if we set aside the
very real worries about whether any given research project is effective in meeting those needs for the sake
of further argument, it is quite reasonable to presume that philosophical arguments for linking world hunger
to moral obligation provide support for agricultural and policy research that contributes to this end.
This reasoning leads us to a key moral hypothesis. If agricultural biotechnology and the
development of GM crops does have the potential to contribute to a lessening of hunger and deprivation
over the long run, then people have a moral obligation to support the use of these techniques, at least in so
far as they are deployed in pursuit of that end. Furthermore, this obligation overrides less compelling
ethical concerns that may exist concerning GM crops. I will call this the Borlaug hypothesis. The empirical
dimension of the Borlaug hypothesis can certainly be questioned, and it is significant that a large part of the
public debate over “Golden Rice” has concerned its effectiveness as a strategy for addressing Vitamin A
deficiencies in the diet of poor people. However, the ethical or philosophical elements of this hypothesis
are largely secure given the background of thinking that has just been summarized. Although there many
philosophical ways to articulate the exact nature of our personal and political obligations to address issues
in world hunger, the voices of people thinking and writing about this issue are virtually unanimous in
calling for greater attention to the needs of the hungry. These divergent philosophical rationales converge
on a practical imperative to take actions that relieve world hunger, even when these actions require some
sacrifice on the part of richer nations. This practical imperative may be plausibly interpreted as supporting
agricultural research, including biotechnology, that will help meet the needs of the hungry, now and in the
future, just as the Borlaug hypothesis suggests.
The Borlaug hypothesis must be understood as subject to a number of unspecified but generally
non-controversial ethical constraints. Agricultural or food research that involved risky experimentation on
human subjects without their consent would not be justified. In a similar spirit, plans for deploying new
agricultural technologies must conform to widely shared ethical standards, such as those articulated in the
International Declaration of Human Rights. These qualifications indicate that there is at least one way in
which the Borlaug hypothesis might be challenged on philosophical grounds, even granting that GM
technology has the potential to increase or nutritionally enhance food supplies available to poor people:
One may question whether agricultural biotechnology is the most appropriate response to hunger and
malnutrition. “Most appropriate” can be understood as a requirement intended to encourage those hunger
relief strategies that are compatible with a broad array of development goals, including the growth of
participatory democracy or addressing the neediest people first. I will accept this interpretation without
further argument, and submit that anyone who interprets the Borlaug hypothesis to justify the suspension of
these widely accepted moral constraints on development practice must surely produce an argument to
indicate why. “Most appropriate” might also be interpreted as advocating only the most optimal use of
scarce resources. The latter interpretation plunges the argument into empirical matters again, for it suggests
that one must assess each strategy available for addressing hunger and compare the likely impact of each in
order to determine the optimal way to pursue this end. While some critics might wish to challenge the
Borlaug hypothesis on just such grounds, I will not pursue that line of argument in the present context.
The Case against Agricultural Biotechnology
Arguments against the use of recombinant DNA to introduce genetic novelty into food crops are
also quite diverse and complex. Empirical research suggests that products of agricultural biotechnology
have been most successfully resisted in countries where there is reduced confidence in government
regulation of food safety and environmental impact. This does not, however, prove that concerns about
government regulation or risks from agricultural biotechnology form the intellectual grounds on which
opponents of biotechnology base their arguments, and in fact a number of analyses suggest that the core
issues giving rise to concern about GMOs are ethical in nature. Any summary analysis of these concerns is
likely to be controversial in its own right, but most arguments can be classified into one of five main groups.
The first group of arguments includes disagreements over the appropriate philosophical parameters for
addressing technologically induced risks. Second is a concern that agricultural biotechnology is
incompatible with social justice. Third, there are arguments to the effect that biotechnology is unnatural.
Fourth, there are arguments that stress the importance of personal autonomy with respect to food choice.
Finally, there are aretaic objections that focus on the moral character of the people and groups supporting
biotechnology. I will review each category with as much brevity as possible.
The main rhetorical vehicle in debate over risk has been the precautionary principle, or
alternatively, the precautionary approach. Stated succinctly, the precautionary principle holds that uncertain
risks should be given great, perhaps dominant, weight in environmental and food safety decision-making.
Uncertain risks are defined in contrast to known risks, which are in turn understood as risks for which both
hazard and exposure can be estimated with a high degree of confidence. Here, an anecdote may convey
what paragraphs of analytical discussion would not. At a 1999 symposium on GMOs an officer of France’s
food safety agency was challenged to explain why they were applying the precautionary principle to GMOs
but not to unpasteurized cheese. The answer was, “We know that’s dangerous.” Because risks from
unpasteurized cheese are known, the precautionary principle does not apply. In contrast, risks may be
classified as uncertain when exposure mechanisms for inducing hazards are not understood, because
empirical data on the frequency of hazards is lacking or because analysts may have overlooked a novel
hazard that they had no basis to expect, the so-called “unknown unknown.” Critics of the precautionary
principle have pointed out that some elements of precaution have long been incorporated into conventional
approaches to risk analysis and are, in fact, reflected in regulatory decisions that have approved the release
of GMOs. Other elements, such as the concern for unknown unknowns, are ubiquitous and provide no basis
for viewing risks associated with GMOs as less certain than risks from conventional foods.
More sophisticated philosophical defenses of the precautionary approach in decision-making
concerning GM crops are cognizant of these difficulties. One approach is to interpret reference to the
precautionary principle as a call for steady and evolutionary development of more sophisticated scientific
tools for assessing risks, and for regulators to apply burdens of proof that take evidence for risk very
seriously, even when that evidence is not wholly convincing. Whether current regulatory practice for foods
reflects such a burden of proof is controversial. An alternative philosophical interpretation of the
precautionary approach calls for a broadening of the terms in which new technologies are evaluated. Here,
the focus actually has less to do with uncertain risks and more to do with the inclusion of considerations
that arise in connection with the four remaining categories of ethical concern. It is to these categories that
we now turn.
Arguments stressing social justice build upon three prior critiques of agricultural research. The
Green Revolution was criticized for tending to benefit relatively better off farmers at the expense of poorer
ones, even if beneficiaries are still poor by Western standards. The “technological treadmill” identified by
agricultural economist Willard Cochrane suggests that yield enhancing agricultural technologies generally
produce temporary benefits for early adopters at the expense of late adopters, who can eventually lose their
farms entirely fueling the trend toward fewer and larger farms. These two arguments suggest that the
benefits of agricultural research are inconsistent with the goals of distributive justice, though both
arguments neglect the benefits that increased yields have for consumers when there adjustments in the price
of food. The third critique accuses developed world agricultural researchers of “biopiracy,” when they
collect germplasm developed by poor farmers and use it to develop certified or patented crop varieties.
All three arguments were extended to agricultural biotechnology in part simply because it was, in
the 1980’s, the latest thing in agricultural research. The biopiracy argument was particularly pertinent in
virtue of the way that recombinant DNA techniques for isolating, identifying and transferring genes
introduced new ways in which intellectual property rights (IPRs) could be claimed on genetic resources.
Prior to the advent of this technology, IPRs could be applied to crop varieties, and the most common form
of legal protection under U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act recognized farmers’ rights to save seed for
future use. With biotechnology came patents on specific genes, multiplying the ways in which IPRs could
be claimed and potentially limiting farmers’ rights to save seed and interbreed purchased seed with local
varieties. While all these arguments from social justice make important moral points about the design and
implementation of agricultural research that is intended to help the poor, what they establish are conditions
that agricultural biotechnology would need to meet in order to attain legitimacy, rather than unilateral
arguments against any use of biotechnology whatsoever.
A third class of arguments concern whether GM crops are unnatural. It is clear that some people
feel that they are, and Prince Charles well known statement about genetically engineered food crops
provides an excellent example of one way to arrive at this judgment. Another type of argument stresses the
simple repugnance that many feel in response to genetically engineered foods. These arguments are
definitely the minority view among academically trained philosophers, however, who point out that our
ideas of what is and what is not natural undergo a remarkable amount of change over time. Critics of the
view that biotechnology is “unnatural” argue that it is difficult to maintain any clear conception of
“naturalness” that can be both supported by scientific conceptions of nature and yield clean ethical
principles for thinking one way about GM crops while thinking differently about the products of traditional
plant breeding. I have recently argued that there is a different way to conceptualize the “unnatural” critique
of agricultural biotechnology and that philosophers’ tendency to set aside these arguments reflects a way of
thinking conditioned by problems in medical, rather than agricultural, ethics. But because I do not believe
that my own analysis provides the basis for a strong argument against biotechnology, I will not pursue
those arguments here. I have also argued (and here I think many philosophers would agree) that even if
concerns about the naturalness of GM crops do not provide convincing arguments for social policies that
would ban or discriminate against them, such concerns do indeed provide individuals all the reason they
need to avoid them as matters of personal practice. Put another way, one should not be required to produce
a risk assessment to justify one’s personal preference for acting on religious or aesthetic values, personal
beliefs about what is or is not natural, or even idiosyncratic views on what constitutes wholesome food.
Even if we do not agree with these personal judgments, we should respect an individual’s right to make
dietary choices that conform to his or her personal vision of what is natural. This point leads to the fourth
class of arguments.
Arguments in the fourth class of ethical concerns note that individual consumers may have a
number of personal values that are incompatible with eating foods from GMO’s. Mainstreaming GM crops
into commodity production and processing could have the effect of making it impossible for people to act
on the basis of such values when consuming food. The ethical significance of this possibility is to
compromise individuals’ ability to lead lives that conform to freely chosen religious, political and personal
values. The fact that foods enter one’s body and are traditional carriers of cultural and religious tradition
suggests that such compromise is a significant challenge to personal autonomy. The policy implications
point toward discussions of labeling, costs of segregating GMOs from non-GMOs, and the distribution of
costs from doing so. Ethical debate concerns the legitimacy and weight that should be given to such dietary
concerns. Some commentators see the personal autonomy issues associated with labeling and consumer
consent as a surrogate for a more systematic divide in which the “pro-biotech” viewpoint tends to reduce all
ethical issues to a cost-benefit calculus, treating all issues as resolvable in terms of the impact on total
social utility. This way of thinking implies that greater social utility offsets compromise of personal
autonomy, suggesting that greater net social benefit justifies activities that violate individual rights. Here,
the issue comes to a head in manner that reproduces the two century long philosophical debate between
utilitarian and neo-Kantian moral theory. From the neo-Kantian or rights perspective, the utilitarians exhibit
a lack of concern for personal autonomy that manifests itself as willingness to treat individuals and their
rights as “means” that can be sacrificed to pursue socially justifiable “ends.”
While neo-Kantians and utilitarians debate over the foundations of morality, other philosophers
might argue that even though sometimes we do indeed find it necessary to sacrifice individuals and their
rights for more compelling social ends, the problem with the utilitarians lies in the way that they seem
wholly untroubled by this kind of sacrifice. Optimizing arguments make it so easy to override individual
rights that we begin to question the moral character of people who rely on them too readily (or exclusively).
Shouldn’t one at least regard the sacrifice of autonomy or rights as tragic and regrettable? This kind of
argument spills over into the final category, aretaic objections to GMOs. The word ‘aretaic’ is from the
Greek arete, meaning excellence or virtue. The thrust of these concerns is to suggest either that the use of
rDNA technologies is contrary to virtue, or that those who have developed and promoted GMOs have
engaged in behavior that is contrary to virtue. In the latter case, lack of virtue is sometimes associated with
the “reductionism” of those who develop and promote biotechnology. “Reductionism” may refer to
philosophies of science that interpret life processes as wholly reducible to physics and chemistry, to
worldviews or practices that seem to regard life, nature and even other people as lacking any spiritual
dimension or sanctity, or to the belief that the subjectivity of values makes discussion of them a waste of
time. Evidence for poor character might also be seen in unrelenting pursuit of personal gain at the expense
of others’ rights or ideals of the public good, or in a tendency to misrepresent opponents and to treat their
objections simply as obstacles to be set aside through whatever means. Neglect of social justice and
consumer autonomy might well be interpreted as a sign of weak moral character.
For many critics who advance aretaic criticisms, the weak moral character of the “pro-biotech” camp
provides a reason to be especially cautious in one’s dealings with them. If those who develop and promote
GMOs are not to be trusted because they have poor moral character, then it is rational to be wary of these
products, to see them as risky. A mutually reinforcing feedback loop begins to develop, where lack of
attention to key ethical issues is seen as evidence of poor moral character, and poor moral character is seen
as evidence for risk. This evidence does not derive from facts about GMOs or their fate in the environment
or the human body, but from facts about the danger that we associate with people who fail to treat others
with respect, or who displace serious moral issues with strategic or manipulative argumentation. As this
loop becomes established, the precautionary principle can now be applied to the “uncertain risks”
associated with GMOs in virtue of their shady associations. Such risks do not become better known by
producing a conventional risk assessment. They can only be addressed when advocates for the technology
desist from conduct that is seen as contrary to moral excellence and re-establish a basis for trust through
honest and respectful dealings. This feedback loop allows a form of translation to cut across these five
argument forms, so that moral concerns may be interpreted as risks, and the failure to address risks is
interpreted as a moral problem. I have long argued that this feedback loop lies at the heart of much public
resistance to GMOs, and that it explains the unpredictability, self-righteousness and explosiveness of
opponents’ behavior. I also believe that although I do not find myself to be sorely tempted by the
translations that generate this feedback, it is perfectly rational for someone having less “insider” access to
the agricultural sciences than I have to react this way.
Connecting the Dots
Given a strong presumptive argument favoring agricultural biotechnology on the grounds that it
can play a role in addressing world hunger, do the arguments against it provide any basis for overturning
that presumption? This question can be put other ways. Are these ethical concerns about agricultural
biotechnology overridden or countered by biotechnology’s capacity to address problems of world hunger?
Do people who advance these concerns have a morally based reason to stifle their qualms and accept
agricultural biotechnology because of its potential to address world hunger? Does a positive evaluation of
agricultural biotechnology’s potential to address hunger entail a rejection of the arguments against it?
While each way of framing the question suggests a different set of nuances, the substantive issues raised by
all of them can be addressed by working systematically through each of the five main anti-GM arguments
and examining how biotechnology’s potential to address global hunger and malnutrition provides a
response to them.
Biotechnology’s potential to relieve world hunger provides a very strong response to the most
typical interpretations of the precautionary principle. Gary Comstock has produced a very persuasive
demonstration of the way that broad interpretations of the precautionary principle produce self-
contradictory policy prescriptions in the domain of agriculture and food. Even barring these problems, the
compelling needs of the world’s hungry people must certainly override the views of those who see
uncertain risk and little personal benefit to biotechnology. If one accepts the empirical assumptions of the
Borlaug hypothesis (that is, that biotechnology is an important weapon against hunger), it is difficult to see
how speculative concerns arising from uncertainty could outweigh its ethical force. If, on the other hand,
the point of noting uncertainties is to question whether biotechnology actually does have any capacity to
help the needy, then the argument drifts into matters on which moral philosophers are wise to remain silent
(at least for a few more paragraphs).
One might think that arguments from social justice would provide the most potent source of
opposition to the Borlaug hypothesis. On the contrary, however, arguments from social justice stipulate a
series of norms to which any socially just form of agricultural technology must conform. As such, these
arguments spell out in more detail some of the constraints that have been previously characterized as
“widely accepted,” and apply them more specifically to situations relevant to agricultural technology. As
previously noted, these arguments do not provide a basis for unilateral opposition to GM crops or foods,
but do so only to the extent that these technologies are implemented in an autocratic manner that sacrifices
the interests of many people that development assistance policies are intended to help. As such, concerns
arising from social justice are not only compatible with the Borlaug hypothesis, but represent precisely the
conditions under which any ethical acceptable interpretation of the Borlaug hypothesis would have to be
implemented. Thus, social justice does not so much represent an ethical or philosophical challenge to
agricultural biotechnology as it does a set of criteria that biotechnology must meet in fact. Whether any
given project attempting to use biotechnology to aid the poor does in fact meet these tests is an important,
indeed vital, question, yet there is little to dispute philosophically on this point.
Objections raising questions about biotechnology’s naturalness or about its consistency with
personal autonomy can also be dispensed with fairly quickly, if not altogether cleanly. Clearly, someone
who feels that GM crops are unnatural, irreligious or repugnant may oppose their use to aid the poor. Yet if
one is inclined to regard these concerns as relevant largely to the extent that they represent legitimate
personal values that deserve protection, the key issue will be whether people holding these values are given
adequate opportunity to act upon them. This question points toward two distinct ethical problem sets. One
concerns relatively wealthy people who purchase food in industrial food systems. Does their insistence on
labels, segregation of GM and non-GM grain and the like impose an ethically unacceptable burden on the
poor? This is, of course, a more specific form of the general question that is the central topic of the paper.
At this juncture in the analysis, it is fair to say that if the repercussions of insisting on one’s values include
the starvation and malnourishment of others, the answer must certainly be “Yes.” Although it is important
for liberal societies to give their citizens wide latitude for adopting and living out life values, and although
life values relating to food may be a particularly significant subset of those life values that are protected by
liberty of conscience, the evil being endured by the hungry is greater still. Protecting the religious and
personal liberties of one group does not justify action or policy that causes others to starve. Of course,
simply asserting that policies protecting liberty of conscience cause such dire harms does not make it so.
Following this line of questioning to the bitter end would require some hard debate about the nature of
international commodity markets and their capacity to deliver non-GM crops to those that want them
without unduly harming the poor.
The second problem set concerns poor people who are being helped through the development of these GM
crops. Have they been given adequate opportunity to apply their own values in deciding whether to adopt
or eat GM crops? While it is immanently plausible to believe that concerns about “naturalness” or
“repugnance” mean little to a hungry person, to simply assume that this is the case fails to treat the
recipients of aid with the respect they deserve. As such, there is a genuine need to introduce GM crops
intended to benefit the hungry in a manner that both elicits relevant values and that gives the intended
beneficiaries an opportunity to accept or reject the largess of the international agricultural research system.
This is not a simple task, to be sure, for it must be done in a manner that does not in itself cause suspicion
about the safety of biotechnology or the intentions of donors.
It is reasonable to suspect that there are unresolved ethical issues lurking here. Technically trained experts
in biotechnology often express the view that their products will be eagerly adopted by intended
beneficiaries, while there is strong evidence to the contrary in the form of local resistance to biotechnology.
However, even this initial description of the task implies that the argument has shifted strongly in the
direction of procedural norms that developers of GM crops must follow, much as with respect to arguments
referring to social justice. As such, the problems arising in connection with intended beneficiaries’ views
on the naturalness of biotechnology, as well as with respect to the autonomy with which they are able to
express and act on their own values, do not contradict the Borlaug hypothesis. Instead they represent side
constraints that apply to all applications of agricultural research that are intended to feed the hungry,
including those involving biotechnology.
To summarize thus far, I have defended the Borlaug hypothesis against those who express ethical concerns
expressed in connection with the precautionary principle and in connection with the right of relative
wealthy people to make food choices that conform to their cultural values, including views on whether GM
crops are “natural.” However, I have noted that in both cases my defense depends upon resolving empirical
questions in a manner that favors the optimistic assumptions of the Borlaug hypothesis. I have argued that
concerns for social justice and for the autonomy of intended beneficiaries of GM crops are better
interpreted as “side constraints” that do not overturn or override the Borlaug hypothesis’s commitment to
biotechnology, but instead limit the set of ethically acceptable strategies for implementing any agricultural
research program, including those involving biotechnology. What, then, are we to say about the last group
of ethical concerns? Does the Borlaug hypothesis provide a reason to overlook or sublimate concerns about
the moral character of those who advocate GM crops?
Virtue Ethics and the Probability of Success
Anyone who is inclined to think about the ethics of world hunger in outcome-oriented terms is
likely to answer this question in the affirmative. That is, if getting the hungry fed is what matters at the end
of the day, then it is difficult to see why weak moral character in the people doing the feeding should
contravene an otherwise successful effort. This kind of reasoning is especially relevant to a number of
questions involving charitable assistance or aid. Suppose someone advocates the giving of aid not because
of any feeling of moral responsibility or desire to help the needy, but because they want to be admired by
others in their circle of friends, or because they want a tax deduction, or because they work for a company
that will benefit economically from the aid program. These are all cases where the person advocating
assistance acts from less than virtuous motives, yet in none of these cases would the defective moral
character of the advocate provide a powerful argument against the aid program that is advocated. What
matters here is whether the aid program can be justified on its own merits, and if the moral case for
extending aid has already been made (as is the case with the Borlaug hypothesis) this justification turns
upon the probability that the desired outcome will actually occur.
Any estimate of this probability must be based upon the available evidence and will involve a
number of wholly empirical questions, but some of the important questions are not wholly empirical
concerns, and these are questions concerning which evidence to consider and to whom that evidence is
available. People such as Borlaug himself have a lifetime of experience in developing new crops to address
hunger, and will base their estimate of the probability of success on that experience. In addition, there are
technical studies on the effectiveness of past agricultural research in addressing hunger, and these studies
can be extrapolated to the case of GM crops. This extrapolation is not itself a technical exercise, however,
and requires both a firm understanding of the theory and data on which these studies rely and an ability to
determine whether limitations in the studies do or do not make them a good basis for estimating the
probability that GM crops will have similar success. In either case, then, there are elements of personal
judgment that cannot be eliminated from the probability assessment. Furthermore, people who are in a
position to exercise this kind of personal judgment are almost certain to be personally involved in
agricultural research or development assistance at some level. For short, I will call such people “insiders.”
What kind of evidence is available to “outsiders,” to people for whom the above-mentioned types
of evidence are distinctly unavailable? Basically, their evidence that GM crops will help the hungry takes
the form of insider testimony. How would a rational individual evaluate this kind of evidence? The
question that rational people will ask themselves is, “Should I believe what the insiders say?” Here, the
moral character of the insiders is relevant. Lacking any independent knowledge of whether agricultural
research, especially research involving GM crops, will or will not help the hungry, a rational person will
take the motives, interests and any other evidence bearing on the character of the insiders into account
when making an assessment of whether they are to be believed. The Borlaug hypothesis differs from many
ordinary cases in which we are inclined to ignore the motives or character of those who advocate for aid
because unless we are ourselves insiders, the primary judgment we are making concerns whether or not to
believe what the insiders say.
Of course, many readers of this paper are insiders, as I am myself. For these readers, I must ask
for a special effort to put oneself in the position of someone who knows nothing about agricultural science
or the individuals and organizations that pursue it. For someone like this, the evidence that GM crops will
help address hunger consists wholly in terms of direct insider testimony (for example, the articles and
interviews in which Borlaug or others advocate biotechnology) and journalists’ accounts that are
themselves based on insider testimony. If the outsider who evaluates these reports believes that the insiders
are knowledgeable, forthright and reasonably well intentioned, they are likely to believe what the insiders
say. Furthermore, the person we are imagining is likely to be much more capable of assessing evidence on
whether the insiders are forthright and well intentioned than on whether they are knowledgeable. Seeing
that insiders possess Ph.D.’s and professorships may be the only evidence an outsider has about the state of
their knowledge, but an outsider can bring a wealth of information to bear on whether they are forthright
and well intentioned. Some of the key issues are fairly obvious. Are insiders disinterested advocates, or do
they stand to gain either financially or in prestige if biotechnology is pursued? How are insiders linked to
the biotechnology industry? Finding out that insiders’ work is often funded by industry, that their
universities are seeking patents for which some them, at least, will reap financial rewards or that private
firms have a contractual right to commercialize public sector research might provide a reason to question
the motives of insiders. Yet none of these things would prove that insiders were less than forthright or ill
In fact, some less obvious issues may be more decisive. Have insiders paid careful attention to
matters that have been described above as side-constraints? Have they been attentive to social justice? Have
they taken pains to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of their research are truly participating in a fully
informed and fully empowered way? Are they attentive to ethical, legal and cultural concerns when they
advocate for biotechnology? Given the fact that there are conflicting points of view being expressed with
regard to these issues, an outsider might consider whether the insiders are dealing with this controversy in a
thorough and respectful manner. That is, do the advocates of GM crops show evidence of having listened to
the arguments of their detractors? Do they make responses that are on point and that either rebut their
opponents’ claims or explain why they are not relevant? Alternatively, do they show little evidence of
having taken their opponents seriously? Do they either ignore the arguments altogether or do they
caricature and distort arguments in a manner that misses the point, making the concern seem silly? In short,
are insiders committed to a serious discussion and resolution of contested issues, or do they deal with them
as strategic obstacles to be overcome by whatever means necessary? Of course, these questions lie at the
heart of aretaic concerns. Hence we cannot conclude that the Borlaug hypothesis overrides aretaic concerns,
but rather that questions about the virtue of insiders are critical to assessing the probability that
biotechnology will actually help the poor, at least in so far as that assessment is based upon evidence that is
accessible to the general public at large.
The Ethical Bottom Line
As a matter of philosophy, I have argued that despite the initial plausibility and limited validity of
the claim that duties to aid the hungry through agricultural research override the concerns of
biotechnology’s detractors, an ethically defensible interpretation demands that some of the detractors’
concerns act as side-constraints on the way agricultural research can be implemented, while others,
specifically aretaic concerns, actually provide evidence that biotechnology will not help the poor. The
nature of this evidence is positional, however. Those inside the agricultural research/development
assistance establishment have access to other evidence suggesting just the opposite. But the Borlaug
hypothesis is not directed to insiders. The intended audience is not other agricultural researchers, but rather
thoughtful people who might be persuaded to moderate their qualms about biotechnology in light of its
capacity to feed the poor. But if the issue is to be decided on the basis of publicly available information, the
virtue of insiders itself becomes a relevant datum. Because I consider myself to be an insider, I find my self
in the ironic position of concluding that although I personally believe that biotechnology can be very useful
in meeting the needs of the hungry irrespective of the researchers’ virtue, it would be irrational for an
outsider (that is for a member of the general public) to neglect virtue in assessing the ethical case for and
against GM crops.
What can we say about the virtue of ag biotech insiders? That is, is this just a case where the
public is making a tragic mistake? Or alternatively, have research insiders actually failed to perform many
of the duties that would make a fair-minded outsider see them as forthright and well intentioned? As with
most cases where one attempts to assess the virtue of a group, the record is mixed. On one hand, there are
many agricultural scientists who are thoughtful, who have been attentive to issues and who have done
useful service to the public’s understanding of the debate. Ethical issues are discussed in many ag science
courses, scientists have participated in public forums and there are a number of publications by
biotechnology insiders that at least attempt to weigh the pros and cons in a deliberative fashion. On the
other hand, we insiders know that there are many researchers who are either dismissive or too busy to pay
much attention to the debate. There are also a few who seem to act on truly disreputable motives.
My personal, anecdotal assessment is that the truly virtuous are roughly offset by the truly
disreputable, leaving the field to the dismissive and busy. This tips the balance toward a less than favorable
assessment of insiders’ virtue when they are viewed as a group. Even among those who take up the pen and
write in favor of biotechnology, very few display any evidence of having actually read any of their
opponents’ views. Citations to opponents’ views are even rarer and patient attempts to restate and fairly
represent opponents’ positions before launching into the pro-biotech agenda are the rarest of all. As such, I
conclude that if there is blame to be distributed for the hostility that even benevolent applications of
agricultural biotechnology now face, a large share of that blame must be shouldered by the agricultural
research community itself. An outside observer of this debate who voices skepticism about GM crops
cannot be held morally responsible for the unfulfilled promise of biotechnology as a response to world
hunger. This does not exclude the possibility that some critics might have spread deliberate falsehoods or
engaged in behavior that was strategically calculated to bias the public against biotechnology in much the
way that industry public relations campaigns have been calculated to bias the public in its favor. Such
critics could be found morally culpable. But those critics who have expressed honest concerns and have
been disappointed when research insiders do not respond in a deliberative and forthright manner cannot be
This conclusion is not an anti-biotechnology conclusion. Recombinant techniques for developing
new crops should be deployed in the fight against hunger, and ordinary citizens not only should support this
deployment, but should seek ways to ensure that the industrial world’s taste for non-GM crops does not
preclude the use of biotechnology to help the hungry. Given the current state of the debate, however, it is
quite rational for someone who lacks extensive personal, face-to-face contact with the plant scientists,
molecular geneticists, entomologists and other agricultural scientists who actually develop these crops to be
very skeptical of these recommendations. Thus these insiders should be more active in the public
deliberation on biotechnology, and more respectful of opponents’ point of view. This is not to say that they
must agree, but they ought, at a minimum, to be capable of restating the positions of their opponents in a
manner that they accept as an accurate characterization of the key points. Telling the doubtful to pipe down
because we are busy helping the poor is not a respectful response. Insiders should then be willing to state
clearly why they do not accept an argument, and they should be willing to listen carefully to any further
reply that opponents care to make, replying themselves once again, if necessary. That is what virtue in the
realm of public discourse demands.
I cannot say whether more virtuous future conduct on the part of agricultural research insiders will
be effective in restoring the public’s confidence. There is a real possibility that the wells have been
poisoned and that only time can repair the damage. The toll of world hunger makes this observation tragic,
and I can only hope that I am wrong. It is possible that an aggressive public relations campaign might turn
the tide on public opinion, but from an ethics perspective this kind of response looks very much like the
dismissive and manipulative kind of behavior that has been the root of the problem all along. At a
minimum, however, it would appear that agricultural research institutions have a responsibility to entrust
the defense of their activities to people who are less busy and dismissive than the majority of their scientific
staff, and more substantive and ethically sophisticated than the public relations officials to whom it often
falls by default.
In conclusion, the Borlaug hypothesis fails. Given the mixed record of agricultural insiders’
willingness to engage thoughtful and serious criticisms with equally thoughtful responses, and to show that
key side constraints are in fact being observed, one should not moderate one’s qualms about biotechnology
simply because Norman Borlaug, Paul Thompson or any other single individual in the agricultural research
establishment says that it will help address world hunger. In other contexts, I will continue to assert that
GM crops are valid tools for addressing world hunger, but I will not assert that this is a sufficient reason to
stifle one’s doubts, to silence one’s questions or to end one’s political opposition to them.
In the interests of enhancing the readability of this essay, extensive scholarly citations are omitted
from the running text. This concluding section provides a brief synoptic discussion of the published
literature supporting the text above. Throughout the paper I use terminology such as terminology such as
“GM,” “GMO” and “agricultural biotechnology,” to refer broadly to plants, animals or microbes that have
been transformed using recombinant DNA. These terms are clearly imprecise and could be construed as
misleading. In one sense, all agricultural plants and animals are “genetically modified.” In other contexts
finer grained distinctions (such as whether transgenes were derived from the same or a different species, or
whether the term “biotechnology” should include adult-cell mammalian clones) would be relevant. In the
present context, the discussion primarily concerns agricultural food crops, and the terminology used here
has been widely (if in some cases grudgingly) accepted.
The controversy itself is discussed from a social science perspective in Biotechnology: The Making of a
Global Controversy, (Cambrdge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002) edited by M. W. Bauer and G.
Gaskell, and from an agricultural science perspective in Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global
Controversy Over GM Crops, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000) by Per Pinstrup-
Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler. Michael Ruse and David Castle have edited a collection of essays entitled
Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 2002) that collects
a useful sample of the pro and con positions discussed above. This anthology includes a number of
representative papers on the debate over Golden Rice, including Ingo Potrykus’s “Golden Rice and the
Greenpeace Dilemma,” which I take to be a model of what insiders should do. Richard Sherlock and John
Morrey are the editors of a more comprehensive collection entitled Ethical Issues in Biotechnology.
Lanham, MA: Rowman and Allenheld, 2002) that also includes papers on topics in medical ethics.
Borlaug’s views have been aired on at least one television broadcast (Bill Moyers’ NOW, October, 2002)
and published in a number of outlets, including an editorial in the Feb. 6, 2000 Wall Street Journal (We
Need Biotech to Feed the World) and a longer 2001 article published as “Ending World Hunger. The
Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,” in Plant Physiology 124: 487-490, and
also in the Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 89 (2001).
Singer’s paper was published in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(1972): 229-248. Ethicist Joseph
Fletcher collaborated with ecologist Garrett Hardin on an argument intended to show why it would be
ethically justifiable to stifle the impulse to feed the hungry in a world of unchecked population growth.
Their work can be found in George R. Lucas and Thomas W. Ogletree, Eds. Lifeboat Ethics: The Moral
Dilemmas of World Hunger (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). The Singer-Fletcher-Hardin debate was
carried over into a definitive collection of philosophical viewpoints on the ethics of hunger edited by
William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette, World Hunger and Moral Obligation (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1977). Other essays were added to the debate in Food Policy: The Responsibility of the U.S.
in the Life and Death Choices (New York: Free Press, 1977) edited by Peter Brown and Henry Shue,
including an important discussion on hunger as a problem of global injustice by Thomas Nagel and
Singer’s reply to some of the problems that had been noted in the original “famine relief argument”.
Articles questioning the extreme nature of the moral obligations seemingly entailed by Singer’s analysis
have continued to appear, (see Richard W. Miller, “Beneficence, Duty and Distance,” Philosophy and
Public Affairs 32 (2004): 357-383).
Subsequent philosophical work on the global nature of hunger as an ethical problem has appeared
in book length studies by Henry Shue, Basic Rights (Princeton, NJ:, Princeton University Press, 1990);
Onora O’Neill, Faces of Hunger, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986); Peter Unger, Living High and Letting
Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1996) and Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and
Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, (Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2002).
My own contribution to this literature focused on possible political conflicts between a government’s duties
to serve the interests of its citizens and cosmopolitan duties to give aid, see Paul B. Thompson, The Ethics
of Aid and Trade, Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1992). This volume includes more detailed discussion
of the various philosophical positions on hunger, including the differences between consequentialist
viewpoints, such as those of Singer or Unger, and neo-Kantian views such as those of Shue, who expresses
the morality of hunger in terms of rights, or O’Neill, who utilizes a logic of duties following from the
characteristics of agency. Pogge represents a new generation of philosophers (in which I include myself)
who have been impressed by the work Amartya Sen, and who tend to address hunger as one component in
a larger complex of economic and political issues. Although the philosophical differences of approach
represented by these authors are should not be minimized, it is likely that all would support a broad
mandate for agricultural research, and that all would also see the considerations discussed in this paper as at
least relevant to the application of that mandate to agricultural biotechnology.
In addition to the papers by Norman Borlaug cited above, the Borlaug hypothesis can be found in
articles such as Anthony Trewavas’s,. “Much Food, Many Problems,” Nature 17(1999):231-232 and
Florence Wambugu’s “Why Africa Needs Agricultural Biotech,” Both of these papers are in the Ruse and
Castle volume. Philosopher Gregory Pence makes a longer but still very broad case for the Borlaug
hypothesis in his book Designer Genes: Mutant Harvest or Breadbasket of the World? Lanham, MD :
Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Each of these works is notable for the paucity of references to or discussion
of published books and articles by critics of biotechnology. Gary Comstock has developed a
philosophically sophisticated version of the argument implied by the Borlaug hypothesis in his book Vexing
Nature: On the Ethical Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers,
2000, and more concise version of his argument can be found in Gary Comstock, “Ethics and Genetically
Modified Foods,” http://scope.educ.washington.edu/gmfood/commentary/show.php?author=Comstock
which is also included in the Ruse and Castle volume.
Arguments against agricultural biotechnology were discussed at some length in my book Food
Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective (London: Chapman and Hall, 1997) and more succinctly in a white
paper for the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Commission: Food and Agricultural Biotechnology:
Incorporating Ethical Considerations. Ottowa: 2000, (available online at http://cbac-cccb.ca). Empirical
support for the contention that ethical arguments reside at the core of even risk-based concerns about GM
crops can be found in: Paul Sparks, Roger Shepherd and Lynn Frewer, “Gene Technology, Food
Production and Public Opinion: A U.K. Study” Agr. & Human Values 11 (1994): 19-28; Lynn J. Frewer,
Roger Shepherd and Paul Sparks, “Public Concerns in the United Kingdom about General and Specific
Aspects of Genetic Engineering: Risk, Benefit and Ethics,” Sci., Tech. & Human Values 22 (1997): 98-124.
Biotechnology in the Public Sphere, John Durant, Martin W. Bauer and George Gaskell, Eds, London: The
Science Museum, 1998; George Gaskell and Martin W. Bauer, eds, Biotechnology: The Years of
Controversy London: The Science Museum, 2001; and Susanna Priest’s A Grain of Truth, Lanham, MD:
Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
Perhaps the best overall resource on the conceptual basis for the precautionary principle is Joel Ticknor and
Carolyn Raffensperger, eds. Protecting Public Health and the Environment: Implementing the
Precautionary Principle, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999), although this volume does not discuss GM
crops. The Ruse and Castle volume includes a paper by Florence Dagicour entitled “Protecting the
Environment: from Nucleons to Nucleotides,” but other papers in the volume by Indur Goklany and by
Henry Miller and Gregory Conko are critical of the precautionary approach is it is generally understood by
its advocates. Another useful critical paper is Henk Van den Belt’s “Debating the Precautionary Principle:
"Guilty until Proven Innocent" or "Innocent until Proven Guilty"? Plant Physiology 132 (2003): 1122-1126.
Among the philosophically sophisticated publications advocating its use with respect to biotechnology, see
Carl F. Cranor, “How Should Society Approach the Real and Potential Risks Posed by New
Technologies?” Plant Physiology 133(2003): 3-9 and Michiel Korthals, “Ethics of Differences in Risk
Perception and Views on Food Safety,” Food Protection Trends 24, #7 (2004): 30-35.
With respect to issues in social justice and the broader critique of agricultural research, I would refer
readers to my 1997 book, mentioned above. Any brief survey of recent literature on social justice issues
must also note the extensive writings of Vandana Shiva. The report from the U.K.’s Nuffield Council on
Bioethics http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/ discusses social justice in detail, and the 2003 follow-up report
The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries is especially relevant. The Nuffield
Council studies are support the analysis in the paper in claiming that social justice issues are constraints on
the implementation of GM crops, rather than arguments against them. More targeted, specific and recent
studies include: David Magnus, “Intellectual Property and Agricultural Biotechnology: Bioprospecting or
Biopiracy?” in Who Owns Life? D. Magnus and G. McGee, eds. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002)
pp. 265-276, and Maarten J. Chrispeels, “Biotechnology and the Poor,” Plant Physiology 124(2000): 3-6.
The Ruse and Castle volume addresses this topic both through the Golden Rice papers and through one by
Robert Tripp, “Twixt Cup and Lip: Biotechnology and Resource Poor Farmers.” Cochrane summarizes his
treatment of the treadmill argument in The Development of American Agriculture: A Historical Analysis
(Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1979).
Prince Charles’ radio address is reprinted in Ruse and Castle, and an editorial “My 10 Fears for GM Food”
appeared in the June 1, 1999 edition of The Daily Mail. Philosophical statements to the effect that
biotechnology might be “unnatural” owe a debt to literature in medical ethics. Leon Kass, the chairman of
President George W. Bush’s advisory group on bioethics wrote a plea against cloning entitled “The
Wisdom of Repugnance,” The New Republic June 2, 1997: 17-26. Kass’s article provides an argument that
can be applied broadly, not solely to human beings, and the argument has indeed been adapted specifically
to the case of genetically engineered food in Mary Midgley, ‘Biotechnology and Monstrosity,” The
Hastings Center Report 30 5 (2000): 7-15. A similar but slightly toned down line of argument can be found
in Ruth Chadwick, “Novel, Natural, Nutritious: Towards a Philosophy of Food,” Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society (2000): 193-208. Perhaps the following article is among the most radical in articulating
the view that genetically engineered food is unnatural: Jochen. Bockmühl, 2001. “A Goethean View of
Plants: Unconventional Approaches,” In Intrinsic Value and Integrity of Plants in the Context of Genetic
Engineering, D. Heaf and J. Wirz, Eds. Llanystumdwy, UK: International Forum for Genetic Engineering,
pp. 26-31. Other articles in this collection are worth checking out for those who hope to find a basis for
thinking biotechnology unnatural.
The Pence and Comstock volumes already noted can be counted as critical treatments of the “GM crops are
unnatural” argument, and Comstock’s views can also be found in “Is it unnatural to genetically engineer
plants?” Weed Science 46 (1998): 647-651, as well as the Comstock contribution to Ruse and Castle.
Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughn provide a very thorough discussion in Improving Nature: The Science
and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1996.Arguments that biotechnology
might be unnatural are also ridiculed and rebutted by Bernard Rollin in The Frankenstein Syndrome.
Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1995. One of the most widely reprinted articles is Mark Sagoff’s,
“Biotechnology and the Natural,” Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly 21(2001): 1-5,
http://www.puaf.umd.edu/IPPP/reports/Spring-Summer%20Vol21%202001/vol21.html My article
discusses Sagoff’s, which is reprinted in the same volume: “Unnatural Farming and the Debate over
Genetic Manipulation,” in Genetic Prospects: Essays on Biotechnology, Ethics and Public Policy. V. V.
Gehring, Ed. Lanham, MD: 2003, Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 27-40.
Philosophical discussions of autonomy and the rights of consumers can be found in Debra Jackson,
“Labeling Products of Biotechnology: Towards Communication and Consent,” Journal of Agricultural and
Environmental Ethics 12(2000): 319-330; Paul B. Thompson, “Why Food Biotechnology Needs an Opt
Out,” in Engineering the Farm: Ethical and Social Aspects of Agricultural Biotechnology. B. Bailey and M.
Lappé, Eds. Washington, DC: 2002, Island Press, pp. 27-44; and Robert Streiffer and Alan Rubel,
“Democratic Principles and Mandatory Labeling of Genetically Engineered Food,” Public Affairs
Quarterly 18(2004): 205-222. Although I am unaware of philosophers who take a classically utilitarian
view of the food choice issue, the utilitarian viewpoint on labeling and choice is frequently taken by people
who do not even seem to be aware that they are doing so. See, for example, Donna U. Vogt, 1999. Food
Biotechnology in the United States: Science Regulation, and Issues. Washington, D. C., Congressional
Research Service, Order Code RL30198.
Bernard Williams was the philosopher who encouraged us to rethink utilitarians’ willingness to sacrifice
autonomy and rights as a problem with their moral character. See his contributions to J. C. C. Smart and B.
Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1973). Aretaic objections to
food biotechnology are evident in Brewster Kneen’s “A Naturalist Looks at Agricultural Biotechnology,”
in Engineering the Farm: Ethical and Social Aspects of Agricultural Biotechnology. B. Bailey and M.
Lappé, Eds. Washington, DC: 2002, Island Press, pp. 45-60, and such arguments are nicely analyzed by
Ronald Sandler, “An Aretaic Objection to Agricultural Biotechnology,” Journal of Agricultural and
Environmental Ethics 17(2004): 301-317, which includes further citations to aretaic arguments. The
“reductionism” theme has been an important element of Shiva’s critique, especially in a relatively early
collection that she edited with Ingunn Moser entitled Biopolitics: A Feminist and Ecological Reader on
Biotechnology, (Zed Books: 1995, London). See especially Shiva’s concluding essay “Beyond
Reductionism.” The reductionism theme has been continued especially forcefully in a book by Finn
Bowring, Science, Seeds and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and the Appropriation of Life, London: 2003, Verso
Press. Articles in the Ruse and Castle collection also discuss key points relevant to moral character and role
of ethics in the debate over biotechnology. See especially the contributions of David Magnus and Arthur
Caplan, “Food for Thought: The Primacy of the Moral in the GMO Debate,” Ambuj Sagar, Arthur
Daemmrich and Mona Ashiya, “The Tragedy of the Commoners: Biotechnology and its Publics,” and Marc
Saner, “Real and Metaphorical Moral Limits in the Biotech Debate.”
I discussed the “feedback loop” that I mention here in the final chapter of Food Biotechnology in Ethical
Perspective. One can see it in action in an article by Sheldon Krimsky, “Risk Assessment and Regulation of
Bioengineered Food Products,” International Journal of Biotechnology 2 (2002): 31-238. More broadly,
the idea that risk and trust are closely correlated is now fairly well established in risk studies. See Douglas
Powell and William Leiss, Mad Cows And Mother's Milk : The Perils Of Poor Risk Communication.
Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997, for its treatment of issues relating to risk perception,
political participation and trust. The book has a chapter on GM food that was published with a note
indicating that the text was felt to be unduly accepting of the pro-GM point of view by the graduate
research assistants who assisted Powell and Leiss. The point on “poisoning the wells,” that emerges in the
final section is drawn from a paper with that title by Annette Baier in Values at Risk, D. MacLean, ed.
(Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allenheld, 1986), pp. 49-74.
The philosophical views that form the basis of my approach in the concluding sections of the
paper are grounded in a modification of Jürgen Habermas’s discourse ethics, which has been exposited
primarily in his two books, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge, MA: The MIT
Press, 1990) and Justifications and Applications (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993). I have given
non-technical discussions of the approach intended for agricultural scientists in two papers: "From a
Philosopher's Perspective, How Should Animal Scientists Meet the Challenge of Contentious Issues?"
Journal of Animal Science 77(1999): 372-377, and “Toward a Discourse Ethics for Animal
Biotechnology,” Biotechnology International F.Fox and T.H.Connor, eds. (San Francisco: 1997, Universal
Medical Press), pp. 35-39. A philosophically oriented discussion can be found in “Pragmatism, Discourse
Ethics and Occasional Philosophy,” Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture, J. Keulartz, M.
Korthals, M. Schermer and T. Swierstra, eds. (Dordrecht, NL: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), pp.
For those interested in further elaboration of my own views on the various questions in the debate over
agricultural biotechnology, the following recent papers may be helpful: P. B. Thompson, “The
Environmental Ethics Case for Crop Biotechnology: Putting Science Back into Environmental Practice,” in
Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice. A. Light and A. de-Shalit, Eds. Cambridge, MA:
2003, The MIT Press, pp. 187-217; “Cultural Integrity, Globalization, and Technical Change: Further
Thoughts on GMO’s in the Food Supply,” in Technology and Cultural Value on the Edge of the Third
Millennium P.D. Herscock, M. Stepaniants and R. Ames, Eds. Honolulu: 2003, University of Hawaii Press,
pp. 222-235; and “Value Judgments and Risk Comparisons: The Case of Genetically Engineered Crops,”
Plant Physiology 132(2003): 10-16.