Can Genetically Engineered Foods Compromise Social Equality?
Both the volume and extent of genetically altered food crops newly introduced
into our food supply ensures they will have an impact on society.
New genetic sequences are often introduced into such food crops from disparate species assuring a de minimus deviation from conventional food products.
Of necessity, when a genetically modified seed is able to replicate and
carry its features on the next generation of consumers, it poses special
ethical issues both now and in the future. The central public health
and ethical questions center on whether engineered changes are sufficiently
new enough to pose unanticipated health risks, and if so, do they impact
differentially on varying members of the population.
If genetically engineered foods differ significantly in terms of adverse
health impacts, the skewed distribution could disproportionately burden
vulnerable populations, exacerbating health gaps already created by differential
access to health care and exposure to toxic substances. For instance,
persons with deficient metabolizing or detoxifying systems including children
may be unjustly burdened by genetically engineered foods. Some infants
and newborns, especially those living in poorer socioeconomic conditions,
may have little or no choice but to eat genetically engineered foods.
This is because their parents‚ food choices are constrained by poverty
or because non-genetically engineered (e.g., organic) foods are unavailable.
Are susceptible populations unjustly burdened?
Currently in the United States, no mandate exists to label genetically
engineered foods, in spite of the fact that 65-75% of the foods sold contain
genetically engineered components or byproducts in the form of new proteins.
This reality conflicts with consumers legitimate desires for labels that
would reveal the presence of byproducts of genetic modification in their
food. Presently the only way to avoid genetically engineered foods
is by purchasing organic foods which by definition exclude genetically
modified material. But many families are unable to purchase such
premium priced, non-genetically engineered goods, raising the a question
of access to non-genetically engineered foods. More critically, should
any novel protein adversely stimulate the immune system, the inability
of persons in the lower socioeconomic strata (for whom asthma and food
allergies are special problems) to avoid such foods raises a critical question
the equitable distribution of risk in society.
A second issue hinges on whether or not genetically engineered foods
are in any way nutritionally deficient or defective compared to their conventional
counterparts. Our own work suggests soybeans may lose valuable phytoestrogens
after being genetically engineered. (We have recently confirmed our initial
finding of below conventional levels - by some 12-18% - of genistin and daidzin
in a third series of tests). Were genetically engineered foods, which
are presently flooding world markets at below par prices, to prove
nutritionally inferior as a group, they could compromise the very populations
the life science industry claims to be interested in aiding.
Special Attention to Children
The fact that children seem to be more likely to react adversely to
novel foods than do adults makes it important to ask if genetically engineered
foods pose any undue burden upon this young population. Foods derived
from the advances in genetic technology include new and potentially allergenic
proteins coded by their novel genotypes. Should children from lower
socioeconomic strata experience an especially elevated risk, such as from
allergic reactions, as a result of their increased exposure to genetically
engineered antigens, the inability of their parents to "exit" the system
(e.g. no labels; because of the high price of organic foods, limited availability
of conventional foods, etc.) compounds the ethical problem.
The debate surrounding the alteration of the food supply has been entrusted
to the science community with very little input from those with differing
philosophical and perceptual convictions. For instance, the scientific
community has continued to debate the equivalency of genetically engineered
foods in relationship to conventionally created ones, while neglecting
the potential secondary effects of novel foodstuffs on exposed populations,
or the necessity to perform extensive safety testing to assure the well-being
of infants or children.
In spite of only a tiny fraction of the necessary testing being completed,
the Food and Drug Administration has declared foods derived via molecular
biology to be analogous to conventionally bred foods. Likewise the
Life Sciences industry has published data asserting the comparability of
genetically engineered foods, and have even claimed the novel foods may
improve health and nutrition. However, the novel genes and their
products, many originating from bacteria, have not been tested adequately
for long-term safety. Nor have the food‚s active biological chemicals
been tested for significant alterations which might create novel antigenic
configurations, e.g. through differential folding of genetically engineered
Specific Concerns: Allergenicity
These realities are particularly eventful in light of the potential
allergenicity posed by new genes which program for novel proteins.
In part because of this concern, the National Academy of Sciences, after
thorough review of potential harms stemming from genetically engineered
crops, has recommended an extended testing protocol for allergenicity.
Allergic reactions can cause discomfort, including shortness of breath,
hives, and in some cases can cause life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Since known food allergens tend to be proteins, foods with new proteins
added via genetic engineering could potentially become newly allergenic
food sources. Eighty-eight percent of people suffering from food
allergies are "atopic" in that they have other allergic reactions including
asthma or rhinitis, an inflammation of the nasal mucous membrane causing
a runny nose and sneezing.
Were allergenicity to prove to be a problem, it would almost certainly
impact differentially on the poor, and affect children specifically.
Food allergies tend to affect susceptible individuals. They have
become a serious public health concern, affecting roughly 2.5 to 5 million
Americans. Up to two million, or 8%, of children in the U.S. are
affected by food allergies as are up to 2% of adults. Food allergens - those
parts of foods that cause allergic reactions - are usually proteins.
Many food allergens can still cause reactions even after they are cooked
or have resisted the degradation which normally accompanies digestion.
Some like the Cry1A toxins expressed in insect resistant genetically engineered
plants (for human consumption) fit this latter category.
Most proteins added to foods via genetic engineering cannot be tested
directly for allergenicity prior to their incorporation into a foodstuff.
Instead, industry scientists simply screen the biochemical characteristics
of proteins to see if they are "consistent" with the characteristics associated
with allergens. It remains to be seen how effective such screening
will be in protecting the health of vulnerable populations of the public.
In order to decide that special duty of care is owed to children who
may be placed at a greater disadvantage due to the marketing and ubiquitous
nature of genetically modified foods, there needs first to be a discussion
as to why society should give special consideration to susceptible populations.
The underlying premise for such consideration is the notion of equivalency:
if two groups with varying degrees of vulnerability to a health limiting
factor are to be kept equal in health outcome, the more vulnerable group
requires differential treatment. In its broad sense, justice
requires that distribution be fair as a means of respecting the equality
of deservedness under an equal rights doctrine or to assure the fair distribution
of goods in a system designed to guarantee equality of outcomes and/or
Recall that as an independent ethical principle, justice permits a pattern
of distribution to be morally right even if it conflicts with maximizing
the aggregate social good. When patterns of distribution or risk
status are unequal, such as when one group is disproportionately
burdened with a health risk, egalitarian justice would defend assistance
to those worse off.
Recall also that egalitarian theory strives for an equality of well-being,
not of sameness. In the circumstance of the distribution of genetically
engineered foods, the relevant question is whether children generally,
and the children of adults not having access to non-genetically foods specifically,
have equal opportunity to achieve well-being as do those with the means
to avoid potentially deficient harmful foods. This problem is exacerbated
if genetically engineered foods create differential risks say by virtue
of their allergenicity, nutritional composition, or specific deficiencies,
thereby unjustly burdening susceptible populations. Conversely, preferential
marketing protections and "streamlined" safety testing might be justified
if enhanced gene products had greater nutritional levels, greater yields,
etc. Were these advantages afforded to "higher quality" genetically engineered
foods under this system, it could be justified under the principle whereby
basic inequalities are justified only when they work to the advantage of
the socially worst-off group.
Genetically engineered foods thus may not deserve their apparent preferential
treatment if they are not in fact "better." If the foods do place
children and in particular children from lower socioeconomic classes at
an increased rate of risk for allergenic reactions they would be deserving
of differential restrictions, not permissiveness. What is clear is
that no one has determined whether or not genetically engineered foods
are physiologically neutral, inferior, or better than conventional varieties
already on the market. Given that the new genetically engineered
varieties have virtually supplanted their predecessors, the ethical question
of equality is central to a deliberation of value to vulnerable populations.
The penultimate question turns on whether are we permitting the creation
of foods which could place an already vulnerable population at potentially
greater risk instead of creating foods and new technologies which could
truly create better health particularly for those who are worse off.