Plant Ethics

I have to do a speech for my Ethics class in a few weeks and the professor said that my topic would be okay (it isnt a conventional topic like say ethics concerning Terri Schiavo or something else fresh in our culture’s mind). Anyhow, I was curious as to some veiw points from this group concerning the ethics of genetic manipulation on plants. Is it “bad” or “evil” to change the genetics of a plant with chemicals (like doubling for example). Is it “bad” or “evil” to change the genetics of a species through breeding? What are the possible negative aspects? Negative for the environement? Negative for humans? Negative for animals? Any aspect would be wonderful so that I can help answer questions from the class/professor. This topic is so “grey” for me so it is very difficult for me to contrast my values into it. The only destructive thing that I can think of is the Rose Rosette example (Rosa multiflora) of mixing things so that certain diseases transfer more easily and wreak havoc. What about other plants, though?

Anything would be very, very helpful. BTW Im not trying to provoke any arguments since this can be a touchy topic.

Jadae, that is a great topic!

One possible negative that I can think of is when they insert herbicide resistant genes into certain plants, there is a remote possibility of the gene being transposed in nature to other plants - like pesky ones. Yikes!

Jim Sproul

I think one can hardly call hybridization or chromosome doubling “bad” or “unethical.” Both are events which happen VERY frequently in nature. In making controled crosses we are doing nothing more than adapting natural events to serve our purposes. If that is bad or unethical, than so is gardening or farming at all.

Genetic engineering is of course a different issue, to some degree. It is not an event which happens in nature, and of course there are real risks associated with it (as Jim mentioned) but I personally feel it is unethical to turn out backs on a technology which could do so much good. An example: Casava is a major food crop of much of Africa and other poor, developing nations. It is highly nutritious, very easy to grow in extremely harsh enviroments where wheat etc will not grow, AND, unless cooked properly, is highly toxic. Just recently I read a news story about 27 school children in (if I recall correctly) the Philippines who died after eating improperly prepared cassava. Such deaths are a fact of life of many of the worlds poorest countries. A research at Ohio State (where I am a student) it working on genetically engineering a non-toxic form of cassava. Natural? No. Neither are cancer treatments, or electric power, or clean drinking water, or a million other things that make our life better and safer and longer.

That having been said, the same argument may not apply to things like herbicide resistant corn and soybeans, and most certainly not to GMO blue roses. I mean, I’d certainly love to grow blue roses, but I can hardly argue having roses with blue pigment is going to make the world a better place. But I think that people should certainly think twice before labeling all genetic modification as unethical.

I personally believe that any gene sequence could evolve in any organism given enough time, and therefore there is not a well-defined moral/religious dimension as has been put forth by some. I do agree that the consequences - in whatever guise they may take - matter regardless of the ethics of manipulation.

Labelling is more of an issue regarding organisms and products made from them. Should the modifications be required to be listed? What are the ramifications of labelling/not labelling/labelling some things but not others?

Here are some points I think are interesting to add:

  • Genetic engineering is natural. Agrobacterium tumefaciens is our model and is one of the major means by which transgenes are inserted in plants. This bacteria has a very effecient means by which to insert genes which mimic the plant hormones cytokinin and auxin. Having these genes integrated into the host genome allows for the plant to “overproduce” these hormones and then produce lots of tumor-like callus growth which the bacteria can live in. Researchers harness the endogenous transfer mechanisms of A. t. and replace the endogenous hormone genes in the plasmid DNA with genes of interest.

  • Determining the value of GMO’s as some pointed to also must include their value relative to other options (versus more difficult weed control, the value of “yellow” rice versus traditional white and not having the extra vitamin A provided through transgenic means for poor people who eat rice anyway…, inserting disease resistance genes to allow crops to be grown with less pesticides…). Here’s a good case study to think about. How about a late blight resistance gene from a wild potato relative (Solanum bulbocastanum) placed into potato cultivars to confer resistance? It’s a potato gene going into another potato. It seems there are some transgenic cultivars that possess all the characteristics we value in the commercial varieties and just have the added bonus of resistance. If one would use traditional breeding it would take decades to breed in the resistance and also select for something of commercial merit. Should we go on spraying greater volumes of fungicides over the next couple decades as we wait for breeders to do it? How about if the gene was inserted in a way that the selectable marker gene (antibiotic resistance) could be removed and the resistance gene is governed by the native potato promoter and not 35S from cauliflower mosaic virus like most other transgenics? Such potatoes exist and are being evaluated. We’ll see how the public will receive them in the years ahead. Will they make it to the market???

-The truth is us scientists and/or the media may inadvertently be communicating we really know the effect of teh genes we are iserting. Unfortunately there is much we don’t know. As the gene(s) are inserted in different areas of the genome their expression can be different, they can interact with and/or disrupt the expression of other genes, and who knows the details of how that gene will be expressed outside of it’s original organism and that organisms basic genetic background. For instance, my Masters advisor worked for Monsanto screening thousands of New Leaf potato transgenic events. His job was to document their growth habit, storage ability, yield… to try to identify one that behaved most closely to the original cultivars but had beetle resistance. He screened through a lot of odd potatoes to find the ones introduced.



Things are not that easy with a clear cut division of what is natural (and good) and what is not.

Nature did and does a lot of that we name Genetical Manipulation. Chloroplast are from an algae initially symbiotic actually integrated with all its chromosomes. As are mitochondrias that are some sort of bacterias integrated very early in life evolution. Integretion is such that most mitochondria’s genetical information migrated to the cell nucleus.

What man is trying to do that is adding foreing genetical parts; viruses, bitting insects and many other life forms did for millenaries.

May be not as powerfully that man may eventually do it but very effectively: actual life forms are the wonderfull result.

No the problem is man responsability.

When nature builds a new virus this responsability is not obvious but if the virus is from GM and harmfull then the man that did and those that allowed are guilty.

GM results, being potentialy quite dangerous, have to be prealably controled.

Final point in my opinion: patented appropration of GM is a big fault as it create a situation where private profit is clearly conflicting general interest.

the ethic of genetic manipulation on plants ?

Genetic engineering is a method, and is not benefical vs evil per se.

The way you use it, and the kind of transformation you propose can be ethically judged.

As for the use of electricity for reanimating patients in cardiac arrest or on an electric chair.

I agree with Arnold. Technologies like the steam engine, the Internet, and the genetic engineering of plants, are not inherently good or evil. People can choose to use technologies in ways that benefit mankind, or that harm mankind. It is the job of ethics to give us guidance as to which uses are good and which are not, in theory, anyway. It isn’t quite that simple in the real world. There are usually gray areas where the ethics aren’t clear, and even the best intentioned uses can have unanticipated negative side effects.

It seems that whenever a new technology has the potential to change people’s lives, there are people who think that it is good and others who think that it is evil. A classic case of this revolved around steam engine-powered looms in England in the early 1800s. For a historical perspective, you might want to research ‘Luddite’, a term that was originally applied to people who opposed steam power and has come to mean anyone who opposes new technology. The orignal Luddites thought that steam power would replace human laborers, so they smashed steam engines in large riots. Steam power did replace many jobs, but it created more jobs than it destroyed, and provided a huge benefit to the English economy. Of course, it wasn’t all positive. Nobody anticipated the air pollution caused by burning coal in steam engines.

This may be slightly off topic, but I’ve read of instances where companies used the knowledge of native peoples to identify medicinal or other uses of plants. They then patent that information, in some cases making it (technically) illegal for the native peoples to use that knowledge for their benefit. I belive there are some articles about this and other simular items at the CybeRose Gardens web site.

As far as genetic engineering, I’d have to agree that there are good and bad points to it.


Thank you all for replying (and keeping it civil). I think Im going to find a specific subject and bring about the facts and contrasts and let each decide. The problem is finding a subject (ie news article, media piece, etc) that isnt one-sided.