In the second of this two-part series, Council Member and Trustee, Ralph Early, employs a food ethics lens to delve into some of the ethical issues surrounding gene-editing. The first article in the series can be read here, and provides a background on the science and history behind gene-editing.
Gene-editing is a relatively new development in the field of life-sciences. It is both a science and a technology which enables the fundamental redesign of biological life-forms, from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals. Changes made to an organism’s genotype (its genetic constitution) can and usually do cause changes to the organism’s phenotype (its observable characteristics). 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. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (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. DEFRA also states that gene-editing is much faster to effect change and much more accurate.
The UK government’s position on gene-editing is however open to challenge: scientifically, ontologically and ethically. 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, germline redesign of species in coordination with the business strategies of life-sciences corporations. Finally, gene-editing itself raises numerous questions of a moral nature. Gene-editing is an area of scientific development which can inflame and polarise opinions, not just because it concerns the redesign of life at its most basic level. The science itself and humanity’s need for it demand close scrutiny. For instance, apart from concerns about the nature and consequences of the science, might the UK government’s support for gene-editing accelerate the transfer of UK and global food systems ownership and control to multinational agricultural corporations? Might food systems based on gene-editing as a technological panacea be considered by corporate leaders and policy-makers to outweigh the value of traditional food systems: those underpinning of ecological sustainability rooted in geographic regions and local conditions? Could this then risk the demise and loss of ancient knowledge, experience and wisdom in agriculture and food production accumulated over many generations?
The questions that gene-editing raises are many and diverse. They cannot all be considered here. It is the purpose of this article to outline for the benefit of discussion some of the moral issues that gene-editing occasions and to establish the necessity of an ethical lens as the means by which moral judgements about gene-editing ought to be made. There is not the intention here to enter into a detailed ethical analysis of gene-editing applied to specific cases. The science of gene-editing is not considered here, but is explained in the accompanying article of this series.
An approach to ethical evaluation
Irrespective of the particulars of gene-editing – and any other, different moral issue for that matter – the first duty of the ethicist when faced with the problem of understanding and assessing the moral issues that a particular science may present, is to decide how best to proceed. 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. Gene-editing as a scientific practice has no more or less moral standing than the science of television. As a technology, television is ethically neutral. Moral concerns are embedded in the ways in which it is used, particularly as a means of societal communication and influence. Likewise, moral concerns about gene-editing are embedded in the intentions for gene-editing, the ways in which it is used and the outcomes. The methods of gene-editing per se have no moral agency. 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). These categories of assessment coordinate with key ethical theories – deontological ethics, utilitarian ethics, virtue ethics – and provide a formal framework for ethical analysis. It should be noted however, that gene-editing is a complex activity involving different actors expressing different kinds of moral agency. For instance, the moral agency of scientists involved in gene-editing will differ from that of corporate-leaders keen to monetise the technology and politicians who regulate it, which means their different motivations must be taken into consideration in ethical evaluations.
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 faced with analysing, understanding and making moral judgements about an ethical issue, the risk exists that one may start with a conclusion and search for the evidence to justify it. As human beings, ethicists invariably hold personal and professional opinions. However, when undertaking an ethical analysis, one should ideally and certainly in the first instance adopt an ethically neutral position: effectively ‘sitting on the fence’. Indeed, would it be morally right to undertake an ethical analysis if one’s mind is already made up or if one’s prejudices formed for whatever reason inhibit impartial, even disinterested appraisal of the facts and evidence?
When the facts and evidence have been assembled, evaluated and a justifiable conclusion has been reached, then the ethicist may find themselves sitting on one side of the fence or the other. This said, ethical analysis does not always deliver results which sit squarely in the black or the white. Ethical judgements can embody a degree of uncertainty and hover somewhere in the grey. As new and additional information and evidence comes to light, ethical judgements may have to be revised. 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
Given that gene-editing has the power to divide opinions, it is then that an ethical lens can come into its own by providing the means by which to work dispassionately towards agreement and objective consensus. 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. With gene-editing a fundamental concern is not that the genie might be let out of the bottle, but that altered genes will inevitably be let out of the laboratory and into the environment, giving rise to unintended consequences of even calamitous and irreparable nature. It is for this reason among others that the ethical analysis of each and every proposal concerning the gene-editing of life should undergo an exhaustive ethical analysis. Critically, such analyses must be free of power inequalities and imbalances which could be brought to bear by the influence of vested interests.
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. Indeed, as Hurlbut (2018) highlights, although the New Biology (biological sciences converging with engineering, computing and information science) was originally predicated on the concept of containment, the “revolution-risk asymmetry” of the science favours the scientific and commercial benefits of gene-editing over a caution-based approach concerning understanding and assessment of risk. To draw from Donald Rumsfeld, it is the unknown unknowns of gene-editing that should most concern us.
Many claims are made about the benefits of gene-editing: too many to describe here. The table at the bottom of this essay illustrates some possibilities regarding agriculture and food. For each, the act of gene-editing and the consequences may appear at first sight to be entirely justified by the expected benefits. This is where ethical analysis comes into its own. An ethical lens can bring focus to both desired benefits and possible harms.
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 (Tudge, 2021). 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. With the corporatisation and growth of industrial agriculture world-wide, we have seen a significant loss of agricultural biodiversity during the last half century. Could gene-editing worsen the picture? Corporate agriculture does not increase food biodiversity. That is well understood. If corporate agriculture’s interest in gene-editing is rooted specifically in notions of shareholder value enhanced by new market opportunities, novel sources of profitability and increased food system control, could industrial agriculture encroach even more on traditional farming and the agricultural biodiversity it has created and protected for generations? Might gene-editing even threaten to eliminate irreplaceable agricultural biodiversity and methods in sustainable and agroecological food production? Such questions may at the outset seem contentious. It is however the role of the ethicist to cause discomfort by speaking truth to power and to ask the questions that others prefer not to. We should note however, that by asking awkward questions the true value of sciences and technologies will more readily be revealed.
Developing gene-edited herbicide tolerant crops which allow the use of a single herbicide instead of a range of products, thereby reducing the quantities of biocide released into the environment, is advanced by some as a morally justifiable act with morally defensible outcomes. 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, which also require applications of proprietary herbicides, 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. It is estimated that in the last four decades, the bird population in Europe has been reduced by some 550 million. The super-efficient control of weeds and invertebrates in industrial agriculture eliminates avian food sources, causing trophic cascade in the biological food chain with millions of birds simply starving to death.
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. While the genetic alteration of crops and farmed animals offers potentials that appear at face value to be advantageous, the realm of unintended consequences demands particular ethical attention.
The use of gene-editing is proposed as a “genetic pest management tool” whereby subject insects, plants and other organisms are genetically altered to breed with their wild versions to pass on genes for infertility, thereby reducing or eliminating insect pests and weed populations. Similar proposals have been made to genetically alter mice for release onto islands with invasive mice populations (Le Page 2022). Altered mice will then pass on genes for infertility in what is termed a “gene drive”. The concept of gene drives raises many ethical concerns and, as Braverman (2018) says, the power of genetics to now alter entire species is “under-regulated and under-theorised” with regulation as self-regulation coming from scientists themselves. The United Nations has agreed to limit gene drives but has rejected a moratorium and numerous environmental advocacy NGOs are active in campaigning for a ban. The aim of altering mice as a species and then using a gene drive is to achieve eradication of an invasive species. As with herbicide tolerant crops, such possibilities appear to eliminate the need for toxic chemical control, which proponents of gene-editing claim as an environmental moral good. However, could the search for market opportunity for the science justify a short step to using gene-editing and gene drives to eliminate once and for all, every insect pest and weed species?
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 – a story that we are now seeing in the case of European bird life (Rigal, et al, 2023)? Such questions sit squarely within the realm of unintended consequences and ought to be considered by means of an ethical lens. Nevertheless, as threatening as the prospect of gene drives may seem for ecosystem stability, Cobb (2022) explains that genetic variation may indeed compromise CRISPR/Cas9-based gene drives, making the control of problematic species more difficult than envisaged.
The implications of gene-editing are not confined to agricultural food production and outcomes affecting the natural world. Food products fashioned by means of gene-editing will be eaten. Indeed, we can be sure that a diverse range of gene-edited foodstuffs will eventually be brought to the marketplace: from manufactured products containing gene-edited ingredients to fruits and vegetables with enhanced nutritional qualities, and those which refuse to age and decay thereby reducing food waste. Certainly, the possibilities that gene-editing offers for the reinvention of food may be limited as much by the range of human imagination as by other factors.
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. In this they are then denied the right to autonomy in matters of personal food choice which then opens a moral can of worms, not least being that the UK government appears to act from authoritarian ethics which requires obedience to the most powerful. If this is indeed an authoritarian act on the part of government, might it signal the beginning of a moral slippery slope regarding elimination food standards and food choice as a societal moral good, given the UK government’s enthusiasm for Brexit-related deregulation? An ethical lens should necessarily be used to shed light on this as a fundamental moral issue.
More can be written about the ethical issues that gene-editing raises and the role that ethical analysis ought to play in evaluating its use. This article has sought to provide a brief overview. At first sight, gene-editing, as with other sciences applied as technologies in agriculture and food, appears to offer many advantageous possibilities for humankind. However, apart from the human benefits claimed for gene-editing, we should not overlook possible harms to other species and the fragile ecosystems upon which we also rely for survival. Possibilities understood as benefits for humankind will naturally attract the greatest attention, but as detailed above, method in ethical analysis ought to bring focus to the nature of moral acts themselves, their consequences and the character and motives of moral agents. The ‘acts’ of gene-editing will commonly be assessed, particularly in scientific, commercial and policy-making spheres, in terms of those which promise the most desired and commercially profitable outcomes. Desired outcomes do not necessarily correlate with acceptable ‘consequences’ when all possibilities and eventualities are taken into account.
Governments and corporate entities will inevitably seek to exploit gene-editing as a new and promising technology in many ways. Effectively, they will command acts which have consequences, and both can therefore be evaluated from an ethical perspective. It should be recognised however, that perceptions and understanding of the nature of moral acts and their consequences may be coloured by those with the power to define and control the ways in which gene-editing is governed, understood and practiced. It is not inconceivable that the character and motives of the scientists, corporate leaders and regulators as principal moral agents involved in the practice and oversight of gene-editing will achieve overriding authority in matters of governance and application. Might then the desire for scientific achievement and profitability embodied by the acts of gene-editing outweigh concerns about undesirable outcomes and unintended consequences? Should we then also be deeply concerned by the UK government’s apparent desire to prioritise the Innovation Principle over the Precautionary Principle when regulating gene-editing, with the possibility that the principle of “polluter pays” will be abandoned, so removing from the equation responsibility and accountability if things go wrong?
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. In making judgement about gene-editing, ethicists should always strive to assess facts and evidence independently of personal beliefs, opinions and preconceptions. The ethicist should necessarily begin by sitting on the fence and let the facts and evidence scrutinised by rational, clear-thinking lead to rational and morally justifiable conclusions. In this way the ethicist can make an invaluable contribution to the wisdom and understanding that gene-editing demands.
Table 1: Gene-editing and agriculture
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Cobb, M. 2022. The Genetic Age: Our Perilous Quest to Edit Life. London: Profile Books.
Guiomar, N., Godinho, S. and Rivera, M. et al. 2021. Assessing food availability: A novel approach to quantitative estimation of the contribution of small farms in regional food systems in Europe. Global Food Security, 30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2021.100555. (Accessed: 30 June 2022).
Hurlbut, B.J. 2018. Laws of Containment: Control without Limits in the New Biology. Chapter 4. In, Braverman, I. (Ed.) Gene Editing, Law and the Environment: Life Beyond the Human. Abingdon: Routledge.
Le Page, M. 2022. Gene drive could wipe out mice. New Scientist, 19 November, pp 20.
Rigal, S. et al. 2023 Farmland practices are driving bird population decline across Europe. PNAS, 120, 121. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2216573120 (Accessed: 29 May 2023).
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