Biotechnology – Harvard University

Posted: October 10, 2015 at 8:47 pm

Biotechnology, or the genetic modification of living materials, has ignited heated debates over trade policy. Innovations in the manipulation of microbes, plants, and animals raises serious ethical questions related to the commoditization and exchange of living organisms. In the arena of trade policy, these ethical questions pose a unique economic dilemma: to what extent should trade policy reflect moral and ethical judgments about the fruits of biotechnology?

Debate on Genetically Modified Foods

The principal cause of the debate surrounding products of biotechnology is the uncertainty of the long-term health and environmental effects of genetically modified living materials. Though many scientists believe GM foods to be safe, a small but influential group of researchers maintain that uncertainty about their effects on human health justifies extreme precaution, including the possible use of trade restrictions. Some supporters of GM foods agree that rigorous testing and research should continue but that in the meantime the benefits of heartier or enriched crops are too great to ignore and are essential in eliminating world hunger and malnutrition. Advocates of sustainable development are also wary of the long-term effects that GM crops could exert on the environment.

Agricultural concerns center on issues of 'genetic pollution' or the genetic flow from GM crops to unmodified plants in the wild. Transfer of genes from GM to wild plants could create health problems in humans, anti-biotic resistance in plants and associated insects, long-term damage to ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and lack of consumer choice.

Defenders of biotechnology often argue that genetic manipulation holds the key to eliminating hunger and suffering across the world. One commonly cited example is 'Golden rice' which scientists have engineered to produce extra Vitamin A. The rice has been hailed as a godsend for malnourished people in the developing world because Vitamin A helps prevent blindness. Critics take two different stances on these wonder-foods. Some refer to recent studies and statements by doctors that Golden rice is not a sufficient source of vitamin A. Specifically, people with diarrheal diseases are incapable of absorbing vitamin A from the rice, thus people in developing countries who commonly suffer from diarrheal disease and vitamin A deficiency remain afflicted by both. Other critics reply that 'Franken foods' are the wrong answer to the problems of hunger and malnutrition, which they claim are the outcomes of distributional problems. Instead of posing a viable long-term solution, GM foods distract from and exacerbate the real issues involved.

Patenting Life

Biotechnology issues related to intellectual property rights are concerned with the moral and ethical implication of patenting living organisms. These concerns are linked to fears that biotechnology will transfer resources from the public sphere to private ownership via the enforcement of intellectual property rights. Firms that have invested in the development of genetically modified varieties want to protect their proprietary knowledge, but many farmer groups have protested that enforcing intellectual property rights will disrupt their access to seed. Farmers accustomed to harvesting and replanting their seeds are not willing to pay for GM seeds year after year. These debates draw attention to the controversial TRIPs Article 27.3(b), which exempts certain life forms from patentability but requires countries to establish some form of protection for plant varieties.

GM Food and Hunger

Producers of GM crops argue that biotechnology could be the world's cure for hunger. They cite the technology's ability to produce high yields, resist natural disasters such as drought and certain viruses, and be enriched with vital nutrients that starving people are likely to lack.

However, aid agencies and anti-GM countries argue that in regards to eliminating world hunger, alternatives to GM crop production have not been sufficiently researched. In fact, they note that many countries where hunger is a major problem do produce adequate amounts of food to feed their population. Hunger, they argue, is not only a function of agricultural yield; it is also a function of mismanaged government and a series of other factors, which technology cannot resolve.

At present there is no international law dealing with aid shipments of GM crops to needy countries. However, debates over a country's right to refuse GM food aid during a famine are bringing this issue to the forefront of biotechnology concerns.

Multiple Forums for Debate

There are a number of forums attempting to guide the international debate on biodiversity. At the WTO level, the March 8, 2004 TRIPS Council meeting saw the nations of Brazil, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Venezuela called for greater urgency in resolving possible conflicts between the TRIPS agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). [1] The Convention was established with the three main goals of conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources. [2] The CBD is concerned with preservation while the TRIPS agreement examines the intersection of business and biodiversity and so there would naturally be conflicts between the different missions of the two arenas. The U.S. and Japan have called for discussions to take place in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) forum instead which is mandated to increase intellectual property protection. Meanwhile, free trade agreements continue to change the intersection of trade law and biotechnology. For instance the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement encourages plant patentability, a step beyond that of the TRIPS agreement, reflecting the U.S. desire for intellectual property protection to encourage innovation. It also and forbids reversion to weaker patent laws once stronger laws have been enacted. [3]

Current Events

Since 1998, the EU has placed a moratorium on the import of genetically modified living materials, citing insufficient proof that these organisms do not cause long-term negative effects to public health. The ban has frustrated the US, the largest producer of genetically modified crops, and it has long been threatening to file a formal complaint with the WTO over the EU ban, citing the ban as unjustified and discriminatory. In July 2003, however, the EU lifted the five-year ban on the condition that all products containing at least 0.9% genetically altered ingredients be explicitly labeled as such. Despite this move, which would finally allow US farmers of genetically altered crops access to European markets, the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and numerous other countries filed a formal complaint with the WTO in May 2003. They argued that the EU's moratorium on the approval of new GM foods violated WTO rules, and cost their farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues each year. [4] These countries have also expressed dissatisfaction with the EU's new stipulation that all GM foods be labeled, but the EU has called the complaint unnecessary in light of their new policy toward GM foods. In March 2004 a WTO panel was appointed to rule on the US-Argentina-Canada complaint against the EU de facto moratorium on the approval of new GMOs. [5] (See also the GTN SPS/TBT page.)

The issue of biotechnology's ability to battle hunger has also manifested itself in the complicated cases of 6 African nations, who have banned GMO food aid. [6] Zambia rejected GM food aid while it was hard hit by a famine in 2003 for health and environmental reasons. [7] Zambia voiced concern that GM seed might contaminate their local crop, thus jeopardizing their ability to continue shipping organically grown crops to the EU. The fear that millions in Zambia might starve proved false and the nation ended up producing a 120,000 ton surplus. [8] US food aid which most likely contain GM crops had to be rerouted by the UN World Food Program which distributes the aid. The US has said that it is impossible in practice to keep separate GM foods from non-GM foods. [9]


Biotechnology and its products have created some amazing possibility as well as raised fears among many of their potential negative consequences. There is also the moral dimension of playing with living beings. Nevertheless, the technology and its products are here to stay. GM foods highlight both the potential and the problems with this technology. Foods like "golden rice" may one day ensure that malnutrition is never a concern. However, the fears and uncertainty of its impact on health and the environment have raised important ethical issues as in the case of Zambia turning down GM food aid while in the midst of a famine.

Last updated April 2004.

[1] BRIDGES Monthly Review. Year 8, Number 3, March 2004. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6],2763,1182378,00.html [7] Southern Africa; Controversy rages over 'GM' food aid. AllAfrica Africa News. February 12, 2003. [8],2763,1182378,00.html [9],6119,2-11-1447_1509711,00.html

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