Wanted: Moral compass for uncharted waters of genetic engineering’s future

A conference on biotechnology and its ethical and social implications ended late Monday in Athens highlighting the tremendous gap between supporters and critics of genetic modification. The panel, which was made up of scientists and professors, issued recommendations for unrestrained scientific research and more public education about the benefits stemming from the use of biotechnology in food and drugs. However, some accused the conference of being hijacked by scientists in favor of genetic engineering. The symposium, titled «The Challenge of Biotechnology. Social and Ethical Extensions at the Future European Society,» concluded the five-day «Art Festival for Human Rights» which took place at the National Hellenic Research Foundation (NHRF) in Athens. Last week, the media reported that American researchers, funded by a $3 million grant from the US government, plan to create a new form of life in a laboratory dish, a project that spawned ethical and security concerns. Some see the experiment as paving the way for the construction of a new generation of biological weapons. «A culture of survival is a precondition for the survival of culture,» said Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos in his opening address, adding that the new threats do not stem from the State but from the private sector and, in fact, from people themselves, given that the market is an aspect of civil society. The panel said that the faltering popularity of genetically engineered technologies is largely due to misinformation, which is a result of citizen preference for tabloids and television rather than specialized journals. «It is remarkable that while television is considered to be the least reliable medium, it remains the most preferred source of information,» noted Dr Giorgios Sakellaris, head of the Communication and Bioethics Office at the NHRF, while projecting the related figures. He also said that humans have been altering the genetic map of plants for centuries through selective breeding in order, for example, to remove toxic substances found naturally, but such achievements have usually been ignored or downplayed. It is unsubstantiated news about monster tomatoes and killer weeds that make the headlines, he said. Genetically modified food can play an essential role in eradicating hunger in Third World countries, said Sakellaris, who added that in the face of the population boom in the developing parts of the globe and the growing need for foods such as rice, there has been no serious alternative to genetic engineering. «We would not be able to meet this [growing need], even if we went on to cultivate the beaches,» Sakellaris said. The world population is rising by a hundred million people annually. It is expected to top 8 billion by 2030, which means another 2 billion mouths to feed. The meeting also underscored the impact of technological evolution on society and culture which, a panelist argued, highlighted the relative quality of human values. Ioannis Oikonomidis, from General Directorate XII of the European Commission, invoked the theories of sociologist Emile Durkheim to assert the social origin of morality and the absence of an absolute moral threshold for coming up with a blueprint of bioethics. Oikonomidis often seemed to argue that whatever advances the well being of contemporary and future generations is morally good. «It is an ethical choice to employ scientific knowledge in the hope of improving the human condition,» Oikonomidis concluded. The festival was organized by Open Horizons, a non-governmental organization, in collaboration with the European Commission, the European Council, the General Secretariat for Research and Technology, the NHRF and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Public skepticism Paula Meier, a representative from the Network for the Effects of Genetic Engineering – a sub-network of DIO, the Inspection and Certification Organization of Organic Products – said the conference and its recommendations had been dominated by enthusiasts of biotechnology. «Contrary to its declared objective, this conference does not aim to sensitize the public [about the implications of biotechnology] but, instead, to advertise them.» The scientists’ primary concern, Meier complained, has been to find ways to reverse the tide of public skepticism, often portraying consumers as a dam blocking the sea of benefits from genetic manipulation. Other participants at the symposium called for the segregation of genetically modified crops from conventional ones, given that genetically engineered organisms cannot be recalled once released into the environment. They also called for greater state regulation via measures such as labeling of engineered ingredients and the scrapping of all patents on plants, animals and humans as well as patents on their genes. Patents are government guarantees granting an inventor the exclusive right to use or sell an invention for a set period of time. Proponents of patent claims say that patenting is an incentive for private research and investment. Critics, such as Greenpeace environmental organization, argue that patents should be granted only to human inventions, not discoveries like DNA. They express fears that patenting allows private firms to control and exploit genetic information which can then be used to manipulate doctors, scientists, farmers and employees. Patent claims on DNA will prevent scientists from conducting research in areas already chartered by private companies, warned Vassilis Zoubirzis, a researcher at the NHRF. Meier said that huge commercial interests put the brakes on efforts to promote product labeling and greater market transparency. It is indicative of the current monopolistic situation that of the world’s 52 million genetically modified crops, 92 percent is controlled by a single company, Monsanto, Meier told Kathimerini English Edition. Zoubirzis saw little hope for bioethics in this profit-driven context. «The whole game is already fixed,» he said.