Extracts from an article on the Food Ethics Council website by Ralph Early, Member and Trustee of the Food Ethics Council.
GENE editing is both a science and a technology which enables the fundamental redesign of biological life-forms, from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals.
Significantly, changes to the structure and function of an organism’s genome undertaken by means of gene-editing can be heritable. This means that changes can be passed on to successive generations with possible evolutionary consequences.
The United Kingdom’s Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 permits the use of gene editing as a ‘modern biotechnology’ to alter the genomes of plants and animals used in agriculture and food production.
Defra asserts that gene-editing is no different from traditional selective breeding, a practice which has been undertaken by farmers for millennia in relation to farmed plants and animals.
The UK government’s position on gene editing is however open to challenge. Gene editing raises questions of a scientific nature concerning, for example, possible unintended ecological consequences arising from the release of gene-edited organisms into the natural environment. There are also ontological implications concerning, for example, germ-line redesign of species in coordination with the business strategies of life-sciences corporations. Finally, gene editing itself raises numerous questions of a moral nature.
An approach to ethical evaluation
Firstly, we should recognise that as a science – and associated technology – gene editing like other fields in science and technology is neither morally good or bad in and of itself.
It is those who practice, commercialise, militarise and regulate gene editing that possess moral agency and infuse the science and its application with moral value sets. Consequently, it is their conduct in relation to gene editing that demands evaluation by means of an ethical lens.
When assessing the outcomes or consequences of gene editing, we can make judgements about the moral behaviours of those involved in terms of: (1) the moral nature of the ACT itself, e.g. gene editing to achieve a specific outcome; (2) the outcomes or CONSEQUENCES of the act, e.g. the results of gene editing judged as morally beneficial or harmful; (3) the CHARACTER of the moral agent(s) undertaking the act; (4) the MOTIVE of the moral agent(s).
Sitting on the fence
Gene editing presents possibilities which may be beneficial and, indeed, desirable. It also presents possibilities which may be harmful and even catastrophic.
When undertaking an ethical analysis, one should ideally and certainly in the first instance adopt an ethically neutral position: effectively ‘sitting on the fence’.
The philosopher Karl Popper maintained that science is provisional and scientific theories may change as new discoveries are made. Ethical analysis applied to some moral problems can be no different, although here we must raise a red flag with respect to gene editing. As with genetic engineering, also known as genetic modification (GM), gene editing presents the possibility that altered genes once released into the environment may cause undesirable, even catastrophic effects. Clearly, when genes are “out there” they cannot be recovered and unintended consequences may not easily be undone, if at all.
Gene editing and some ethical issues
Sciences such as gene editing which change the genomes, characteristics and heritability of living organisms and which may also trigger undesirable environmental and ecological impacts, ought always to be subject to ethical scrutiny.
Advocates of gene editing claim many upsides for application of the science and assert that it offers great promise not just in relation to agriculture and food production, but in many other fields as well.
Moral caution demands, however, that while thorough scientific and ethical attention be given to claimed upsides, even greater attention should be given to possible downsides. To draw from Donald Rumsfeld, it is the unknown unknowns of gene-editing that should most concern us.
To illustrate, proponents of gene editing assert that the technology is necessary to feed a growing world population. But is this true? Around 30% of the world’s food supply is derived from industrial agriculture which is where gene editing will doubtless be most used, while some 70% is provided by small-scale and traditional farmers.
Indeed, small-scale and peasant farmers play an essential role in biodiverse, sustainable food production, creating both product and genetic diversity and combatting climate change without the need of technologies such as gene editing.
Distinct contrasts exist between traditional agricultural systems evolved to function ecologically and sympathetically within specific environments, and the promises of gene editing as a universal solution for global food production.
Questions will doubtless arise about the justification for gene editing and the intentions of corporate entities most likely to exploit the science in the pursuit of profit, particularly if corporate activities appear to threaten the continued existence of traditional, small-scale and biodiverse agriculture.
Gene edited organisms will invariably be patented, thereby protecting intellectual property rights (IPR) and giving IPR owners – often agri-food corporations – what is effectively monopolistic control over the products of gene editing. This will likely exacerbate already morally troubling power inequalities in agriculture existing between multinational corporations and small-scale, independent and traditional farmers.
Might gene editing even threaten to eliminate irreplaceable agricultural biodiversity and methods in sustainable and agroecological food production?
Developing gene edited herbicide tolerant crops which allow the use of a single herbicide instead of a range of products is advanced by some as a morally justifiable act. Herbicide tolerant crops are not new. First created some 30 years ago using transgenic GM, they are today exploited extensively on many continents.
However, the use of patented glyphosate tolerant crops in the USA has manifested an unintended consequence. (Yet, it is one that was predicted by environmentalists.) The monarch butterfly, iconic in North America, is now endangered because of the elimination of its principal food source, the milkweed, by the widespread use of GM crops. Also, it is reported that the UK and many other European countries are suffering a catastrophic decline in wild bird populations directly as a result of herbicide and insecticide use in industrial agriculture.
The moral act of gene editing and its consequences predominantly measured in economic terms may look good on paper, but nature has a strange way of taking its own, unpredictable course.
Ecocide is a not unrealistic consequence in many contexts in the development and long-term use of synthetic pesticides. Gene editing would appear to offer a moral good in the form of new pesticide-free possibilities in pest control. If, however, the elimination of agriculturally problematic plants and insect species is too efficient, might the loss of key components of nature’s biological food chains threaten the existence of other species by depriving them of evolutionarily designated food sources?
Food products fashioned by means of gene editing will also be eaten. The cardinal moral obligation in food provision is that food is safe to eat. The polarisation of opinion regarding the safety of gene edited food inhibits consensus. It would seem logical therefore that when gene edited foods enter the food marketplace, citizens ought to be given the right to choose for themselves, supported of course by adequate information and food labelling.
The UK’s government has however stated that gene edited foods will not be labelled as they are considered to be “fundamentally natural”. Setting aside proposition that the term “fundamentally natural” is deserving of semantic and ontological examination, from an ethical standpoint it would seem that the UK government intends to deny citizens the right to choose for themselves.
The story of gene editing is in the early stages of its writing. The development of CRISPR/Cas9 and its use in gene editing has provided the first chapter. How other chapters are fashioned will depend upon the uses to which gene editing is put and the relationships between good and harm that the science brings.
As the race to exploit gene editing accelerates – as it will – we must hope that ethicists are involved in all deliberations about proposed acts, the assessment of possible, probable and unlikely consequences, and the balance between what is morally right and morally wrong as judged partly by the character and motives of involved moral agents.