Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 265-293

First online:

Ethical Discourse on the Use of Genetically Modified Crops: A Review of Academic Publications in the Fields of Ecology and Environmental Ethics

  • Daniel GregorowiusAffiliated withInstitute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of ZurichCentre for Ethics, University of Zurich Email author 
  • , Petra Lindemann-MatthiesAffiliated withInstitute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich
  • , Markus HuppenbauerAffiliated withCentre for Ethics, University of Zurich

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The use of genetically modified plants in agriculture (GM crops) is controversially discussed in academic publications. Important issues are whether the release of GM crops is beneficial or harmful for the environment and therefore acceptable, and whether the modification of plants is ethically permissible per se. This study provides a comprehensive overview of the moral reasoning on the use of GM crops expressed in academic publications from 1975 to 2008. Environmental ethical aspects in the publications were investigated. Overall, 113 articles from 15 ecology, environmental ethics, and multidisciplinary science journals were systematically reviewed. Three types of moral concerns were used to structure the normative statements, moral notions, and moral issues found in the articles: concerns addressing consequences of the use of GM crops, concerns addressing the act (the technique itself), and concerns addressing the virtues of an actor. Articles addressing consequences (84%) dealt with general ecological and risk concerns or discussed specific ecological issues about the use of GM crops. Articles addressing the act (57%) dealt with the value of naturalness, the value of biotic entities, and conceptual reductionism, whereas articles addressing the actor (43%) dealt with virtues related to the handling of risks and the application of GM crops. The results of this study may help to structure the academic debate and contribute to a better understanding of moral concerns that are associated with the key aspects of the ethical theories of consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics.


Gene technology Agriculture Consequentialism Deontology Virtue ethics Literature analysis