Utilizing a social ethic toward the environment in assessing genetically engineered insect-resistance in trees
- Cite this article as:
- James, R.R. Agriculture and Human Values (1997) 14: 237. doi:10.1023/A:1007408811726
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Social policies are used to regulate how members of a society interact and share resources. If we expand our sense of community to include the ecosystem of which we are a part, we begin to develop an ethical obligation to this broader community. This ethic recognizes that the environment has intrinsic value, and each of us, as members of society, are ethically bound to preserve its sustainability. In assessing the environmental risks of new agricultural methods and technologies, society should not freely trade economic gains for ecological damage, but rather seek practices that are compatible with ecosystem health. This approach is used to evaluate the environmental risks associated with genetically engineered insect-resistant trees. The use of insect-resistant trees is a biologically based pest control strategy that has several advantages over pesticide use. However, the use of genetically engineered trees presents particular ecological concerns because the trees are long lived and often are not highly domesticated. The main environmental concerns reviewed include: (1) adaptation of pests to the trees, leading to a non-sustainable agricultural practice, (2) transgenic trees producing environmental toxins, (3) insect resistance enhancing the invasiveness of the tree, causing it to become weedy or invade wild habitats, and (4) transfer of the transgene to wild or feral relatives of the tree, possibly increasing the invasiveness of weeds or wild plants. Some methods are available to offset these risks; however, the environmental risks associated with this technology have been poorly researched and need to be more clearly identified so that when we evaluate the risks, it is based on the best information obtainable. To fulfil an ethical obligation to the environment, public policies and government regulations are needed to preserve the sustainability of both the environment and the future of our production systems. A better understanding of both the ecological issues and of genetic engineering in general are needed on the part of citizens and policy makers alike to ensure that sound environmental decisions are made. Otherwise, the environmental benefits of this technology, mainly decreasing the use of more toxic pesticides in tree crops and forests, will either be lost or traded for other environmental hazards.