, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 53-60

Biotechnology, ethics, and the structure of agriculture

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The “new” agricultural biotechnologies are presently high-priority items on the national research agenda. The promise of increased efficiency and productivity resulting from products and processes derived from biotech is thought to justify the commitment to R&D. Nevertheless, critics challenge the environmental safety as well as political-economic consequences of particular products of biotech, notably, ice-nucleating bacteria and the bovine growth hormone. In this paper the critics' arguments are analyzed in explicitly ethical terms, and assessed as to their relative merits. In some cases, a principle of “do no foreseeable harm” as well as a clear determination of likely harms would force us to conclude that research, development, and diffusion of a product or process derived from biotechnology is ethically wrong. In all cases, one conclusion that can be reached is that everyone involved in research, development, marketing and adoption of biotech products is responsible for the results of their actions; thus, each individual has a responsibility to consider a broader range of values and goals that effect and are effected by the biotechnology effort.

Jeffrey Burkhardt is Director of the Ethics and Policy Studies Program in the Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences at the University of Florida. Though trained as a philosopher, he holds an appointment as Associate Professor in the Food and Resource Economics Department, where he teachers courses in ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of economics, as they relate to agriculture and resource issues. He has published on a variety of topics in the area of applied philosophy/ethics.