Expert response from Gary Marchant
Regent’s Professor and the Lincoln Professor Emerging Technologies, Law and Ethics at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University
Thursday, 05/15/2014 17:12
It is true that most technologies are not inherently good or evil but rather must be evaluated based on how they are used. In the case of genetically modified crops and foods, there have been enormous benefits from the applications used to date, as documented in a report released in May 2014 in the United Kingdom. There is the promise of even greater benefits in the future of this technology. But, like any technology, GM technology could be abused and applied in a malevolent or socially destructive manner. There are two principal checks against this misuse.
The first check is by the companies developing a GM product. Companies have learned from the well-established history in some other industries that legal liabilities, government crackdowns, consumer backlash, media outrage, market restrictions and shareholder and employee dissatisfaction make it counterproductive to produce a dangerous product. Thus, it will be in the self-interest of a company to ensure that it does not put into commerce a product that will be harmful or misused. We have already seen some well-known examples of this dynamic playing out in the biotechnology industry. For example, in the 1990s, the company Pioneer Hi-Bred International genetically engineered a soybean strain with a gene from the Brazil nut to try to make a more nutritionally beneficial food. When tests showed that the altered soybean could potentially cause an allergenic reaction, Pioneer Hi-Bred stopped development of the product before it was ever released into the market. Similarly, Monsanto, which jointly owned the intellectual property rights to genetic use restriction technologies, or GURT (sometimes called the Terminator technology by critics), announced that it would voluntarily not develop or commercialize the technology. This technology could have important potential benefits in preventing genetically engineered plants from spreading viable pollen, but Monsanto committed to not utilize sterile seed the technology in response to some critics’ concerns that the technology could be misused to prevent subsistence farmers from being able to replant seeds from their crops.
The second checkpoint for GM products is government oversight. Unlike most food products, GM foods receive extensive regulatory scrutiny for safety by government regulatory agencies. This review process requires a thorough scientific assessment of the safety of the GM product for human consumption and environmental impacts. It is estimated that these regulatory requirements impose over five years of additional testing, at a cost of over $35 million per crop, in addition to the normal product development time and cost. While this rigorous government oversight for GM products will almost certainly screen out any dangerous or unacceptable products, the burdensome requirements have the unfortunate effect of being economical only for large, commercially valuable crops. Some potentially very advantageous GM products developed by universities or smaller research institutes that would benefit smaller numbers of consumers or low-income famers in developing countries are not feasible because of the heavy regulatory hurdles they would need to pass. There is therefore a delicate balance between designing regulatory requirements to ensure that harmful products are identified and prevented and not drowning valuable innovations that cannot afford the regulatory requirements.
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