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Is the GMO controversy relevant to computer ethics?

Ubiquity, Volume 2008 Issue January | BY Paul B. Thompson 

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Computing and information technology professionals have exhibited high standards of engagement with ethical issues relating to privacy, information security and abuse of the technical capabilities they have been responsible for developing. But one can argue that computing capability is implicated in ethical controversies that receive relatively little discussion within the IT community. Stem cell research, nanotechnologies and other controversial areas of science would be impossible without the computational capacity of information processing. In many instances, the downstream applications of computer technology are deeply involved in the issues surrounding contested technologies.


Computing and information technology professionals have exhibited high standards of engagement with ethical issues relating to privacy, information security and abuse of the technical capabilities they have been responsible for developing. But one can argue that computing capability is implicated in ethical controversies that receive relatively little discussion within the IT community. Stem cell research, nanotechnologies and other controversial areas of science would be impossible without the computational capacity of information processing. In many instances, the "downstream" applications of computer technology are deeply involved in the issues surrounding contested technologies.

So-called GMOs are a case in point. The acronym stands for "Genetically Modified Organism," an expression in popular use to indicate agricultural plants and animals that have been transformed using recombinant DNA. The introduction of GMOs into Europe in the waning years of the 20th century produced one of the most protracted international controversies ever recorded. Though seemingly accepted in the United States, surveys indicate some level of concern or opposition from almost one in three Americans, and episodes of controversy occurred in the U.S. long before GMOs were introduced in Europe (see Gaskell, Thompson and Allum, 2002).

The actual methods of transformation are far removed from computing technology. Both plant and animal cells can be transformed through the use of viral vectors that move readily into the cell nucleus and become incorporated into the cell's DNA. In plants, ballistic methods can also literally blast DNA coated pellets into a cell nucleus, and in animals the cell wall can be penetrated by microscopic needles that directly inject DNA. Though all science, like all of contemporary life, is greatly abetted by computers, these specific transformation techniques might well have been developed without advanced information processing capabilities.

But the practical utilization of transformation techniques depends upon the ability to identify the sequence of bases that characterize the genome of a species, as well as unique differences (alleles) in the sequence that determine key phenotypic characteristics of individuals. This activity has only been possible as a direct result of automated sequencing protocols. Characterizing the function of sequences and the relevant differences between alleles is wholly dependent upon informatics, the blending of genetics and information systems analysis. It is thus does no injustice to the biology of GMOs to describe them as relying on information technology for their practical application in developing altered crop and livestock varieties.

Yet information technology has been implicated in public controversies over GMOs both more directly and unexpectedly, though the role of information processing in these controversies is seldom appreciated by the public. For example, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) was among the first products of genetic engineering to be commercialized for agriculture. This product involved the transformation of a bacterium to produce a hormone that regulates milk production in lactating dairy cows. rBST became controversial in three ways. First and most fundamentally, early research on the economic implications of the product showed that it would favor a shift toward fewer and larger dairy farms. Second, high producing dairy cows show susceptibility to mastitis, hence methods that increase milk production have been opposed on grounds of animal welfare. Finally, some critics have raised questions about food safety, though these concerns have received very little scientific support.

Though animal welfare and food safety criticisms were important in creating a controversy over rBST, the prediction that it would precipitate radical concentration in the dairy industry was an important element in mobilizing public opposition. As rBST entered the market in the United States after 1992, these predictions appeared to be being realized. But computer technology was an important, if little recognized, confounding factor. The use of computers to automate and manage record keeping in dairy production were absolute critical to an increase in the average herd size. Yet average herd size in the United States grew from approximately 200 to 2000 animals in the decade from 1985 to 1995, and by 2005 herd sizes in the range of 10,000 animals were not uncommon. It is doubtful that any biological technology, including rBST, would have been deployed in the absence of computerized management abilities, and likely (though no empirical research has been to support this conjecture) that computing technology was the cause of this change in the U.S. dairy industry, rather than biotechnology.

If GMOs become controversial in part because of their economic implications for small farms and rural communities, why should the information technologies that may be more deeply implicated in the trend toward large scale farming be exempt from criticism? There may be answers to this question that rely on social psychology: GMOs provoke a "Yuck Factor" response that computers do not. But from the standpoint of social ethics, if traditional, family or smaller scale farming is important either for aesthetic reasons, or because having more farms is vital to the quality of life in rural areas, then there is no reason to apply this criticism selectively to biotechnology, while giving other technologies that have identical implications a pass.

My point is not to say categorically that such technological changes are unjustified, but simply to note that what may have appeared to be an issue relating to GMOs might have actually been an issue for information technology. In fact, it is only by taking a broad view of technological ethics, by paying attention to controversies and ethical issues that arise in many domains where technical change is occurring, that the information sciences can discharge ethical responsibilities effectively.

For a complete discussion of the rBST episode and other issues relating to GMOs see Paul B. Thompson, Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective, 2nd Edition. Dordrecht, NL: 2007, Springer.

Other articles related to the controversy are:

G. Gaskell, P. B. Thompson and N. Allum. "Worlds Apart? Public Opinion in Europe and the USA," in Biotechnology: The Making of a Global Controversy, M. W. Bauer and G. Gaskell, Eds. Cambrdge, UK: 2002, Cambridge University Press, pp. 351-375.

P. B. Thompson, "The Environmental Ethics Case for Crop Biotechnology: Putting Science Back into Environmental Practice," in Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice. A. Light and A. de-Shalit, Eds. Cambridge, MA: 2003, The MIT Press, pp. 187-217.

P. B. Thompson, "Ecological Risks of Transgenic Crops: A Framework for Assessment and Conceptual Issues," Sustainability in Agriculture, R.E. Hester and R. M. Harrison, Eds. Issues in Environmental Science and Toxicology, Vol. 21, Cambridge, UK: 2005, Royal Society of Chemistry, pp. 16-30.

P. B. Thompson, "Ethics, Hunger and the Case for Genetically Modified (GM) Crops," in Ethics, Hunger and Globalization: In Search of Appropriate Policies Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Peter Sandøe, Eds. Dordrecht, NL: 2007, Springer, pp. 215-235.

Author's bio:

Dr. Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, where he is also a professor in the Philosophy, Agricultural Economics and Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies Departments. He has engaged in research and teaching on ethical issues associated with food production and consumption for 25 years, and is the author or editor of seven books and over one hundred journal articles and book chapters. He is a two-time recipient of the American Agricultural Economics Association Award for Excellence in Communication, and serves as a member on numerous advisory committees, including Genome Canada's Science and Industry Advisory Committee. Thompson is the PI on a National Science Foundation project to examine ethical issues associated with the development of nanotechnologies in agriculture and food. e-mail: thomp649@msu.edu

Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 2 (January 15, 2008 - January 21, 2008)

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