EurActiv, June 23, 2008

ETHICS OF AGRICULTURAL TECHNOLOGIES UNDER SCRUTINY

[Rachel's introduction: "Europe can perhaps afford to make a fuss about food safety and ask for the precautionary principle to be respected as the continent still has enough food to eat but this is not the case for all regions of the world," said Professor Wilhem Gruissem.]

Responding to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's request, the EU executive's ethical advisory body will issue an opinion on modern agricultural technologies by the end of 2008.

Stakeholders representing the public sector, NGOs and industry gathered, on 18 June 2008, at a roundtable to debate on ethical aspects of modern developments in agriculture technologies.

Under discussion throughout the day were the ethics of food security, the sustainability of agriculture, global trade, biofuels, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), GMOs and intellectual property rights (IPR), all of which are set to be addressed by the Commission's opinion.

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Sidebar: Background:

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) examines, at the request of the Commission President or on its own initiative, ethical questions arising from the rapid advances in science and technology.

It issues ethical opinions, the aim of which are to provide expertise in connection with the Commission's preparation and implementation of Community legislation or policies.

The opinions are prepared by 15 independent experts representing different fields, such as biology and genetics, medicine, pharmacology, agricultural sciences, ICT, law, ethics, philosophy and theology.

Before issuing its opinion, the group also organises public roundtables to gather stakeholders' views on the issues

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The aim of the meeting, organised by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), was to contribute to the group's upcoming opinion on the issue.

The opinion is being prepared at the request of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Positions:

"The challenge is to develop European food supply respectful of European values," said Graša Carvalho, principal adviser to the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), a Commission department reporting directly to President Barroso. Therefore, "proper reflection on [agricultural] technologies is necessary to make sure we respect European values," she added.

"Hunger, poverty and malnutrition are unethical, in particular as we know how to solve the problems," noted Rajeswari Raina, senior research fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. She underlined that it is important to think whose deprivation modern technologies can alleviate and who has access to them, adding: "There is no evidence that plant breeding technology has so far helped to alleviate hunger in the world."

Her comments were echoed by Donald Bruce, representing European churches' bioethics group. He argued that if people cannot afford genetically modified products, such as seeds, then the technology is unethical.

Meanwhile, Natalie Moll, executive director of green biotechnology at EuropaBio, argued that the regulatory framework for modern agricultural technologies should respect ethical values of equal access to technology. Current central GM crop approval processes deny people freedom of choice, she said.

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Sidebar: Other related news:

France seeks solution to EU GMO deadlock

'Era of cheap food is over,' says EU

Mixed reactions to proposed EU farm sector reform

Commission hesitant to approve more GM crops

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Professor Wilhem Gruissem, president of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) asked a number of questions about the relationship between Europe's attitudes towards modern technologies and hunger in the rest of the world. "Is it ethical for Europe to ignore hunger problems in the rest of the world, to denounce new agricultural technologies that bring benefits to poor farmers or withhold support for novel crops and new agricultural technologies while people go hungry elsewhere?," he asked.

Europe can perhaps afford to make a fuss about food safety and ask for the precautionary principle to be respected as the continent still has enough food to eat but this is not the case for all regions of the world, he added. "Agricultural innovation is ethical," said Gruissem, underlining that the challenge was rather to ascertain which technologies are needed to improve food standards for all.

Ethical assessment of modern developments in agriculture has to deal with the uncertainties of the long-term consequences of different technologies, said Karsten Klint Jensen from the University of Copenhagen. "We also need to assess our attitude to uncertainty and precaution and well as to assess the prize of precaution," he added.

As for basing policy decisions on science, Erik Millstone, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, argued that "science is and remains profoundly uncertain and scientists can have conflicting views on the same issue. Therefore, policy can't be based on science only".

"Policy judgements are concerned with the acceptability of possible risks in exchange for anticipated benefits, and those are socially variable value judgements -- they are policy matters, not scientific issue," said Millstone. He also noted that the current EU risk assessment is framed by "a priori up-stream normative assumptions of what is important".

As for professor Julian Kinderlerer, a member of EGE, he noted that the relationship between the use of agriculture for food, feed, fuel and fibre production needs to be considered by the group as well.

His comment was endorsed by Professor Goran Hermeren, EGE President, who noted that the question of sustainability of agriculture is not ethically neutral as there are conflicts between the goals of agriculture regarding the use of arable land for either food, feed, fuels or fibre.

We need to evaluate different methods, such as mechanical (machinery), chemical (pesticides), genetic (GM crops) to know how they improve or hinder food security, continued Hermeren. However, it is not only about technical issues, he added. "It is ethically important to know who has access to these methods, how they affect farming and access to farming."