Sound science, ethics make a valuable combination

Sound science, ethics make a valuable combination

Norway has one of the most restrictive genetics-use rules in the world, which makes most new plant breeding tools off-limits. Many countries look to its well-debated positions for influence, and anti-GM advocates tout the nation as having taken the right path.

Could the rules be shifting for that northern nation?

Norway is now in the process of reviewing its rules. It may allow more use of genetic tools, but it could also become the first country to enshrine ethical considerations as part of any genetic modification approval process.

The current rules are subject to relatively broad interpretations. The new proposal potentially places ethical considerations on par with scientific ones.

Should the rest of the world be listening? And what can we learn?

A recent Norwegian research paper suggests it is time to rethink its government’s approach and reduce the vagaries in regulatory language about molecular breeding.

Last month a pair of researchers published an updated, English version of a Norwegian academic paper from 2020 that suggests globally acceptable rules should be established for GM tool use and should include ethical standards.

Norwegian approval of GM developments demands that they be sustainable, ethically justifiable and beneficial to society. It also requires that the use and release of materials must be free from harmful effects on human health and the environment.

Risk analyses are carried out according to international standards and are based, as in Canada, on data mainly provided by the developers.

For farmers, the ethical justification for using advanced crop genetic technologies would likely include higher production, lower costs and improved land-use efficiency.

The authors of the Norwegian paper say an ethical approach would consider all of society’s stakeholder needs and give each the appropriate, but not equal weight, and would acknowledge that the position of each had been reviewed.

Norway’s current rules use terms that imply ethical behaviors such as care, naturalness, no-harm and stewardship. These subjective terms depend on the experience and perspective of those interpreting the statutes.

The researchers who wrote the recent paper suggest these terms should be dropped or refined to be more specific and measurable and avoid personal views about ethics.

Would adding ethics as a requirement for molecular tool use in plant breeding reduce efficiency in the world’s food production? Would it encourage deforestation, marginal land cropping and the misuse of arable land? Or would the opposite occur?

The approach is starting in Norway but considering ethics as part of a regulatory regime’s essential elements could become a global standard. In that case, Canada needs to be prepared.

It is also an opportunity for professional ethicists, rather than only scientists and administrators, to be engaged in the judgment of genetic tools’ use in food production and trade.

Sound science alone is proving to be a tough sell in large sectors of society but it has ethical behaviour at its core. Agricultural science stands accused, but not convicted, of many ills, especially when it comes to molecular biology. Adding new rules that clarify the ethical behaviours that already take place should be good for the industry.

Ethics shouldn’t be feared. Nothing should be more ethical than feeding the world.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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