Mae-Wan Ho, “Perils Amid Promises of Genetically Modified Foods” (1999) in Larry May and others, Applied Ethics: A Multicultural Approach, Prentice Hall, 2011, 5th ed., pp. 248-257.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been presented to the public as a way to address food shortages for a growing world population. Mae-Wan Ho, however, presents a case against GMOs as a way to reduce world hunger.
She builds the case in favor of traditional agriculture around three major problems with GMOs: socio-economic impacts, hazards to human and animal health, and hazards to agricultural and natural biodiversity. She argues that the consequences of the use of genetically modified organisms as a food source render the practice non-sustainable. Her position may be described as a moderate communitarian view.
Her discussion of the socio-economic impacts points to a the practice of patenting GMOs in countries of the Northern hemisphere and growing the plants mainly in the Southern hemisphere. The result of this practice is a depletion of genetic resources from South to North, with profits going mainly to the wealthy in the Northern hemisphere. Farmers, who are also faced with crop failures due to the instability of GMOs, are driven into poverty and bankruptcy when they are forced to buy seeds from corporations and to sell their produce at low cost for export.
In detailing hazards to agricultural and natural biodiversity, Mae-Won Ho notes that GMOs create a monoculture by reducing biodiversity in food production. Biodiversity among food sources is critical for survival when droughts and disease occur. While biodiversity is essential to sustainable agriculture, GMOs threaten biodiversity in several ways. Seeds for GMOs, for example, replace local seed stocks that are diverse and adapted to local environments. Patents on seeds developed by major corporations place a financial burden on farmers, a burden that contributes to the displacement of many farmers. The GMOs are inherently unstable and result in many crop failures.
In describing hazards to human and animal health, Mae-Won Ho documents problems associated with allergies that arise with GMOs. Genes from nuts known to cause allergies are inserted into other crops. In the U.S., GMOs are not labeled; as a result, consumers are denied information needed to assess the potential for allergic reactions to GM foods and other health hazards.
Viruses are used to carry genes into organisms, and these viruses can spread diseases from one species to another. GMOs are engineered to resist specific herbicides, but genes from GMOs can also be spread to weeds, creating new super-weeds with resistance to herbicides. Unlike chemical pollution, the spread of viruses from GMOs has the potential to unleash cross-species epidemics of infectious plant and animal diseases that will be impossible to control or recall.
[Editor’s note: The first wave of eugenics in the early twentieth century saw a burst of enthusiasm that many social problems could be addressed by “breeding out” specific genes from the population. This enthusiasm was built on the false belief that a single gene controlled a specific characteristic, including behavioral characteristics. This belief was shown to be false through classical genetics.]
The present promotion of GMOs, Mae-Wan Ho points out, also builds on the belief that a single gene controls a single characteristic. She cites work in classical genetics that establishes most characteristics are controlled by many genes. In addition, gene interaction further complicates the issue of genetically modifying organisms.
The consumers of GMOs are subjects in experiments, since adequate research on health hazards has not been conducted. As subjects of experiments, the public at large is deprived of information on which to base informed consent to the experimentation.