Anthropocentric and Ecocentric Approaches towards Genetically Modified Organisms.

Autor: Sabina Drąg, Małgorzata Wolska

INTRODUCTION

Recent achievements in genetic engineering have become very popular and are now widely used in laboratories, medicine, agriculture and feed industry. Applications of Genetically Modified Organisms can be very profitable, however, many threats for the environment and for human beings can be also pointed. In this paper we would like to present the areas of GMOs presence. We will also focus on the main arguments for and against GMOs, with the division into two categories: human-centred anthropocentrism and nature-oriented ecocentrism.

GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS – GENERAL INFORMATION

Genetically Modified Organisms are microorganisms, plants or animals, excluding humans, whose genetic code has been altered, subtracted, or added (either from the same species or a different species) in order to give it characteristics that they do not have naturally. GMOs have become a part of public debate in recent years. Its applications can be very beneficial, however, they also raise many controversies.

Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer, the founding fathers of genetic engineering, created the first modified organism in 1973 by inserting insulin gene into the E. coli bacteria. Since then, the transgenesis has been developing very fast and nowadays a vast amount of crops, farms and food products consist of GMOs.

TRANSGENIC PLANTS AND CROPS

The first transgenic plants appeared on world markets less than 20 years ago. The main purpose for modifying them is better resistance to herbicide, pest, diseases and adverse environmental conditions. Thanks to the modifications, plants can grow in places where the cultivation has not previously been possible. They are more resistant to draught, frost or soil salinity. Another aim is to improve or to give new qualities of the organisms. Thus GM plants look and taste better, stay fresh longer, have reduced amount of allergenic substances and higher content of microelements. The first transgenic product introduced to the American market in 1994 was called Flavr Savr tomato. It was longer lasting and resistant to damage caused during transport. The other examples can be grapes without seeds, bananas and lettuce as vaccines, sweet potatoes and cucumbers with the special gene responsible for producing sweet protein. Among the GM crop cultivations the most popular are soya, maize, cotton and colza. The first one is mainly used as a swine fodder, because of its high protein content; it is also an important ingredient of some groceries such as soya cutlets or oils (Kawa 2004a).

According to the International Service for the Acquisition for Agri-biotech Applications, from 1996 to 2009 the global area of GM crops increased approximately 80-fold (2009). The biggest producer of transgenic organisms are developed countries, mainly United States, where soya, maize, cotton, colza, cucurbit and papaya are grown. However, the contribution of the developing countries is also increasing. As the summary report of ISAAA states: “14 million farmers, in 25 countries, planted 134 million hectares in 2009, a sustained increase of 7% or 9 million hectares over 2008” (2009). Considerable area of transgenic crops are also in Argentina, Canada, Brazil, India and China. In Europe the only genetically modified crop at the moment is maize. In 2004 European Union accepted 17 varieties
of maize on EU terrain, called Bt MON 810 and invented by Monsanto company. Still, each country is allowed to prohibit the use of GM grains despite the decision from above. Poland can be an interesting example here: In 2005 Polish government requested for a two-year inhibition of Bt maize cultivation (Kawa 2004b). However, the request was not renewed, which has lead to a rapid growth of using GM maize grains, and thus to a very similar result to the European leaders of GM crops. In 2008 the number of hectares devoted to cultivation
of Bt maize in Poland was three thousand, nine times more than a year earlier (Bielecki 2009).

Some European countries such as Austria, Italy or Greece are completely or at least partly free from transgenic crops. Also in Denmark “cultivation of GM crops approved for commercial cultivation have only taken place on a small area” (Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries 2008). However, Danish farmers have already been trained to cultivate them, so this situation can change in the nearest future.

TRANSGENIC ANIMALS

Animals are genetically modified mainly for biomedical research, for instance to produce or test various medicines. Another purpose is to accelerate the growth of farm animals. The first transgenic animal was a mouse created in the early 1980s, into which researchers have injected gene causing the susceptibility to cancer. Nowadays the most common modifications are still made on laboratory animals like mice or rats – researchers usually test them by silencing certain genes. Sometimes genes are also added to organisms, for instance modified pigs or fish have a growth hormone gene injected into their genome.  Animals such as cows, goats and sheep can be treated as bioreactors, because their milk contains genetically modified proteins used as medications. Moreover, a special kind of cats has been invented for allergic people – their fur does not cause the allergy. The other interesting application of GMOs are fluorescent, shining fish (Kawa 2004c).

Modifications of animals are not so popular as one might think, though. They are much more expensive and difficult than the ones with the plants. Besides modified animals often get sick or become infertile.

ANTHROPOCENTRIC AND ECOCENTRIC APPROACH

Anthropocentrists are human-centred and believe in human supremacy. They claim that culture, developed manual skills and thinking ability are those features which make people different from other species. They have simultaneously strong feeling of community, which is derived from the organized society and make them responsible for other human beings. Their main aim is to maintain a good quality of live or improve it by new discoveries. Therefore one of the most important values in anthropocentric perspective is development, especially within science, which pushes mankind forward and enriches him with new solutions. For this purpose people use, inter alia, the natural resources, very often regardless of the consequences. Anthropologists claim that relations between people and nature are historically conditioned; simultaneously, they defend people’s right to exploit the environment. Their argumentation is based on utilitarian policy, according to which nature is treated as an important resource of livelihood which people need in order to survive and to develop. Hence, people should preserve the environment for their own good. This attitude is called Shallow Ecology.

On the contrary, ecocentrists claim that nature comes first and it exists for its own sake, not for the benefit of people. American ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold claimed that people should be rather members of land-community, consisted of land, plants and animals, than behave as its conquerors. According to him, land ethic obliges every human being to have a “respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (1949). Also the main assumption of Deep Ecology movement, created by  Arne Naess
and George Sessions, is that humans are an integral part of the environment.

Ecocentrists are perceived as radical idealists who emphasize aesthetical and ethical arguments in the nature vs. culture debate. They  blame mainly Western world, capitalism and development for the damages done to the environment.  Their perspective is more extensive than anthropocentric one and it puts emphasis not only on human welfare but also on non-human nature. Although the ideal situation would be if all species were equal, it is sometimes hard to find a perfect balance. According to the anthropocentrist Niels Einarsson, some ecocentrists try to humanize nature in order to protect it (1993).

As it has been already stated above, anthropocentric and ecocentric approach differ in the way of understanding relations between human beings and nature. However, distinctions can be also found within these two approaches, thus sometimes certain representatives of both groups can defend the same point, but with using different arguments. In the case of Genetically Modified Organisms one can distinguish enthusiastic and sceptic attitude among anthropocetrics as well as ecocentrics. We would like to use the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) division which provides us in main groups of problems within genetic engineering.

Ecocentric perspective – arguments for GMOs

The followers of GMOs point many advantages of using them. For instance, transgenic plants are more resistant to pests, thus farmers can reduce or stop using pesticides and insecticides to protect them, and simultaneously their cultivations can become more environment-friendly. Modified plants have also higher tolerance of harsh conditions such as draught or frost. . Improved productivity from GMOs might mean that in the future farmers will be able to get bigger crops from smaller area and that the marginal land previously used to cultivation would remain free from human interference. Moreover, less food is wasted during transportation and later, after delivery to the shops and gastronomic points, because of its longer shelf life, as well as higher resistance to diseases and damages (FAO 2003).

Ecocentric perspective – arguments against GMOs

In spite of many advantages of genetic engineering, critical opinions have also become more and more numerous. First of all, transgenic plants resistant to herbicides do not contribute to reducing the use of chemicals, but on the contrary: herbicides can be used in the increased amount, because they do not harm the cultivated species. Some concerns of GMOs skeptics are also related to the danger of crossing GM plants resistant to herbicides with the other plants, which can lead to the creation of a super weed, impossible to destroy.

The threat of polluting traditional cultivations with the genetically modified ones is considered to be highly probable. This problem refers also to animals, which can transfer mutated genes while reproduction process or by building them into the food chain. Genes that are once inserted into ecosystem, cannot be removed. They can end up in unexpected places, which may have many negative consequences. For instance, some species can become extinct, which is a threat for biodiversity. They can also become infertile. In the case of plants infertility is related to a terminator technology, used by seed companies such as Monsanto to prevent farmers from saving seeds for the next year and to encourage them to buy new ones. Besides, because of mutations “sleeper” genes of organisms can be accidentally switched on in inappropriate situations. Every organism contains genes that are activated under certain conditions – for example, because of severe weather. New genes inserted into the organism can disturb the normal process of activating “sleeper” genes and simultaneously silence the active ones. Although it is not yet scientifically confirmed whether genes inserted to a certain organism will destabilize it or remain stable over next generations, a possibility that gene manipulations can have harmful effect on organisms should be taken into consideration (FAO 2003).

Anthropocentric perspective

Health and medicine

Advantages

Genetic engineering creates the possibility of gaining medicines and vaccines which are important in treatment of diseases especially those connected with DNA mutations like for example Parkinson or Alzheimer. The famous researches over the diabetes lead to genetically modified bacteria E. coli that produce insulin.

Development of biotechnology brought also a chance to investigate diseases by using genetic fingerprints. They are used in for instance pre-implantation diagnosis such as screening embryos, pre-symptomatic testing for predicting adult’s disorders or estimate the risk or level of genetic diseases.

Scientists attempt to overcome the lack of human’s organs intended to transplantation by using animals’ against. The problematic issue is the probability of rejection of foreign organs by the recipient’s body. Therefore scientists conducted researches with pigs which take a big part in people’s diet and have internal organs in the similar size to humans.

Biotechnology makes possible the identification of allergic genes. Every GM needs the authorisation which is preceded with several tests also the allergic ones so that the consumer can be sure about its harmlessness.

Disadvantages

The genetic engineering is quite new branch of science and it is difficult to predict
the results of its products’ release to the nature. The unexpected genes mutation and transfers are one of the main concerns of anthropocentrists. They can accidentally appear in the food chain and cause dangerous body reaction especially in people with allergies. That was in a case of Brazilian nuts, which allergenic genes were inserted into soya beans. It is still uncontrolled whether genes take the right place in the DNA chain. It is always burden with a certain risk. One of the examples is the serious concern about transfer of antibiotic resistance genes. They can build in the bacteria’s DNA and become a serious threat for human being. Those genes are used as markers to indicate whether the transmission process were succeed. However, many scientists think that it should be prohibited as a precaution for mankind.

Food and nutrition

Advantages

Genetic engineering is seen as a solution for the world famine, its products can serve the humanitarian purposes. The Golden Rice technology inventors take a part in a project which main aim is to provide developing countries, especially in Southwest Asia and Africa, with nutritious grains. Bad diet and lack of vitamin A can lead to the many serious consequences such as blindness, weak immune response or even death. The Golden Rice is enriched with the provitamin A what can reduce those problems. The USA concerns producing GM grains have already sent an aid to many African countries like Zimbabwe or Mozambique.

The modified food is available on market since early 1990s. Monsanto’s statistic estimated 1 trillion meals with the GM ingredients that had been already consumed. The consumers are provided with improved vegetables that have better flavour, colour and high nutritious values like for instance soya beans enriched with essential Omega-3 fatty acids.  The transgenic food is or at least should be properly labelled, what assures the buyer that it passed testes and received conformity certificate. The presence of GMOs on food market creates responsible and conscious consumer, who is interested in the process of production and origins of the product which he/she buys.

Disadvantages

The monocultural crops of nutritious plants in the case of failure can be the main cause of the world famine. They are resisted only to the limited number of herbicide or insects. Therefore when new kind of threat appears they will not have any natural protection, what can bring serious implications for the humankind. Greenpeace’ websites gives example of Southern Corn Leaf Blight disease which attacked the maize crops in southern US and caused loss of almost 1 billion dollars.

Recently, the presence of GM food on the market raised the discussion about its negative effects on human body. It was proved by the scientists from the Harvard University that the modified soya can affect the sperm and play role in man’s fertility. It can also increase the risk of breast cancer. There was a demand of clear labelling of GM ingredients in food products. However, as well as obligatory tests, the process of labelling contributes to the increase of prices. Despite of the financial problems, still many governments haven’t decided to introduce it as a certain law.

The GM food plays an important role in the international policy and economy. It is used by wealthy countries’ governments to gain their target. There were serious accusations of intentional use of African famine by USA as a pretext to break the GMOs prohibition and extend their influence in that region.

Agriculture

Advantages

For many decades people were interbreeding plants and animals to gain the most valuable results. It required many years of observations, saving the grains and separation of cattle with the most appreciated features. However, the attempts not always had been successful – only many trials and failures lead to the desired end. Genetic engineering accelerates this process and makes it more efficient. Growth of world population demands more food supplies, affects farmers’ productivity. They are expected to adapt to the economic trends and the biotechnology comes with considerable help. It enabled farmers to produce more with using less chemical remedies. The modified plants are more resistant to the weed and weather changes what prevents fields from the crop failure and makes them less affected by the soil’s impoverishment. Therefore, farmers can more effectively cultivate their own property without need to extend it by for instance digging up the forests.

Disadvantages

The poor countries while opening their boarders for GMOs becomes a part of international market which is controlled by few powerful corporations. Haley Stein writes in her essay that : “Until the nineteenth century, seeds were seen as a public commons which were bred and then freely distributed by the public sector. (…)there was little private investment in seed development and therefore a very small seed industry. Seed buyers purchased not only the product, but also the means of production. Farmers did not need to buy seeds yearly from a company”. Today situation has changed. The ecological farms, with people devoted to the idea of natural interbreeding, are threatened by the big corporations who monopolize the seed market. When they once buy the grains from the leading company they can face problems related to their own tillages. The access to the new technologies is blocked by the set of patent-laws. Therefore, farmers who use genetic material derived from their own field to improve the crops can be accused of stealing the Intellectual Property. Large companies play a significant role in the establishment of safety and health standards. If one cannot afford buying the grains from the companies or fulfil the requirement he/she is automatically classify as less efficient and marginalized by the demanding market.

Monsanto

Monsanto is leading agricultural company that uses genetic engineering It was founded in the beginning of XX century in USA and now becomes a one of the main monopolist on the seed market. Its motto is “Produce more. Conserve more. Improve Farmer Life’s”. The company’s aim is to provide farmers with new technologies that help to maintain sustainable grow of their crops, obtain better quality of animal feeds and healthier food. Monsanto’s leading products are mainly herbicides and seeds that were genetically modified. It supports scientists and biotechnology experts in their researches and patent their achievements. It also employs the specialists who are responsible for the public relations and maintaining the image of the environmental friendly and reliable concern. Monsanto supports the farmers, which are presented as being undermined in today’s society. Therefore, it conducts many initiatives directed to the farmers and their families, like for instance vote for “Mom of the year” and “Thank the farmer”-forum on which internauts can appreciate farmers’ deeds.

Monsanto is the most famous and the most controversial company. It is criticized for its aggressive patent policy and environmental destructive activity. Small companies and individual farmers, who once launch the businesses with Monsanto become entangled in its legal system. The most controversial development is “Terminator Technology”. It consists of three stages while the terminator genes are inserted into a crop, activated by inducer and planted by the farmers. The process which was launched by the scientists causes seeds’ infertility that protect from re-breeding. This technology forces farmers to buy new grains and spent certain amount of money every year.

The terminator process raised many social and bioethical questions. It is seen as harmful for both farmers’ society, which facing inequality and financial pressure, and the environment, infertile seeds can spread into the nature and decrease the harvest.

ETHICS

The fast development of genetic engineering brought in use many tools and methods that raised public discussion. Opinions are divided. On the one hand, new technologies are seen as a big step forward for the humanity. From the other perspective, they are considered to be destructive and harmful for natural balance.

Uncertainty, derived from lack of confirmed information and still no clear effects of using GMOs, provokes pseudoscientific speculations. However, what lay beneath is fear of unknown and changes that are irreversible. The main question concerns our right to play God. How far people can interfere into the nature without reflection about its consequences? Where are the limits of manipulation with living organisms? Do the human have the right to sacrifice another being just to fulfil their needs? The latter question is related to the ethic problems of transgenic animals. They are modified to produce valuable ingredients of medicines, but simultaneously suffer from the side effects, for instance pigs with inserted growth gene, they grow faster but with having arthritis, ulceration and progressive blindness.

People are afraid of modifications that hit the core of humanity – those genetic modifications that can affect them directly: like GM food availability on the market. The insertion of animal’s genes into the plant and vice versa, like for instance lettuce with the high content of Vitamin C gained from rat’s gene or the tomatoes protected from lethal plant virus by the animal’s genes, raised many objections and is perceived as immoral (EurekAlert 2001). If this kind of cross-species transfer of genes becomes common, will the clear division between animal, plant and human be still possible? Another highly controversial issue is cloning. The biggest religions in the world perceive it as a threat for human’s dignity but many scientists emphasise its contribution to medicine especially the transplantology.

CONCLUSION

Fast development within the life science has brought into the public discourse notions of genetic engineering and DNA manipulation. It simultaneously has risen many controversies and questions related to this topic. But still that debate is full of insinuations
and confusion caused mainly by the poor information available in public.

Until now, we still do not have an affirmation of GMOs’ negative effects on human’s body but it is also uncertain whether it is entirely safe. The presence of GMOs and transgenic food can have direct influence on health condition, nutrition and environment. It can simultaneously affect indirectly both humans and nature what can be perceived as a proof of their strong unity. The time can bring irreversible changes therefore once we make a decision we will bear its consequences in future. Anthropologists and  ecocentrists  do not seem to have a clear attitude concerning genetic engineering. Both sides give for and against arguments while discussing this problem. Some of them see a big chance in fast development for both humankind and nature, while the other ones see it from a very different perspective. However, there is no doubt that biotechnology research will be continually surprising us with its new achievements and so that we will be able to observe the crystallization of certain ideologies and attitudes.

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