Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics

, Volume 25, Issue 6, pp 797-812

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Reconstruction of the Ethical Debate on Naturalness in Discussions About Plant-Biotechnology

  • P. F. Van HaperenAffiliated withWageningen University and Research Centre Email author 
  • , B. GremmenAffiliated withWageningen University and Research Centre
  • , J. JacobsAffiliated withWageningen University and Research Centre


This paper argues that in modern (agro)biotechnology, (un)naturalness as an argument contributed to a stalemate in public debate about innovative technologies. Naturalness in this is often placed opposite to human disruption. It also often serves as a label that shapes moral acceptance or rejection of agricultural innovative technologies. The cause of this lies in the use of nature as a closed, static reference to naturalness, while in fact “nature” is an open and dynamic concept with many different meanings. We propose an approach for a dynamic framework that permits an integrative use of naturalness in debate, by connecting three sorts of meaning that return regularly in the arguments brought forward in debate; cultural, technological, and ecological. We present these as aspects of nature that are always present in the argument of naturalness. The approach proposes a dynamic relation between these aspects, formed by gradients of naturalness, which in turn are related to ethical concerns. In this way we come to an overview that makes it possible to give individual arguments a relative place and that does justice to the temporality of the concept of nature and the underlying ethical concerns stakeholders have in respect to innovation in agriculture.


Naturalness Biotechnology Genomics Agriculture Public debate Ethical values