sealPurdue News

November 2000

Are genetically engineered foods natural?
A bioethicist responds

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Scientists say that genetically modified foods are safe, but many people are still uncomfortable about eating them, saying they're unnatural.

Others, especially those in the science community, become dismayed when discussing biotechnology with people who use such a vague term as "unnatural."

Paul B. Thompson, the Purdue University Department of Philosophy Joyce and Edward E. Brewer Distinguished Professor in Applied Ethics, says even people who label foods as unnatural don't always have an exact explanation for why they think the way they do.

"It's not exactly a religious view, because it's not something they would have learned in church," he says. "It's quasi-religious, because it's a particular way of thinking about nature that's not in the direction that science has gone."

According to Thompson, there is a disparity between what people have believed since antiquity and what science is telling us about the world today. "Part of the anxiety about genetically engineered foods is that our view of how the world works is eroding away from underneath our feet," Thompson says. "It's a shame that this anxiety has been attached so strongly to genetically engineered foods, because the feeling really exists in many areas of life."

Thompson, author of books on the ethics of food and agriculture, including "Food Biotechnology in Ethical Perspective," says there are reasonable explanations for why people might think genetically modified foods are unnatural.

Pure, unadulterated foods have been important as long as people have been on earth, because contaminated foods are a danger to one's health. The idea that a gene has been added to a food that wasn't originally part of that food makes it seem impure, which, according to deep-rooted beliefs, makes it seem harmful, Thompson says.

But he points out that there is a problem with that type of reasoning. Scientists are finding that foods we might consider pure aren't, at least with respect to their biochemistry.

"For me there's nothing that connotes good food more than a late summer ripe tomato," Thompson says. "But is it pure? The tomato was developed from a plant that was poisonous, and that same tomato I love to eat contains mutagens, which are biochemical substances that can induce changes in cell growth. But current scientific thinking is that mutagens in our food are counterbalanced by other compounds that are anti-mutagens. That's what makes an ordinary tomato safe to eat."

The idea that foods considered pure and natural may contain harmful or cancer-causing substances conflicts with deep-rooted moral and cultural notions about food, Thompson says, and simply adds to the anxiety about food.

Another reason that people might consider genetically modified foods to be unnatural has to do with an idea that all living things, including crops, have some kind of natural essence. This natural essence gives each living thing a level of moral standing that varies.

Although scientists and others may pooh-pooh the idea that foods contain life forces, Thompson challenges them to think about how they would respond if they were served a dish made from the meat of a dog or cat.

"There is nothing scientifically wrong with eating dog or cat meat," Thompson says. "It is eaten routinely in some parts of the world, but few Americans would want to eat it. Now why is that?"

Dogs and cats have a special place in society as companion animals, and because of that they have a moral status that food animals do not have. "This belief that living things have a natural essence or life force – call it what you will, it is a character that makes them distinctively what they are – is deeply embedded in our outlook on the world," Thompson says. "But it is a belief that is becoming less and less easy to interpret in scientific terms."

Just as companion animals have a different essence or moral standing than food animals, some people seem to attribute a higher moral standing to crops that have been selectively bred using conventional means than to those that have had a gene inserted in a laboratory.

There is a general belief by some people that these conventional crops have been provided by nature or a Supreme Being to ensure the health of our bodies (scientists who have spent their careers cross breeding crops might dispute that), and that because genetically modified crops were not provided by nature, they have a lower moral standing.

Thompson says such an outlook has deep cultural and moral roots. "It drives me crazy when someone stands up and says that our food decisions have to be based on science," he says. "It sounds like they're saying that our culture and values are somehow irrelevant or illegitimate."

Because beliefs about food are so entrenched, there will always be those who are opposed to genetically modified foods. "There's one segment of people — they're not nuts or crackpots — that is committed to a holistic way of understanding the world. They are not going to be easily persuaded by any scientifically reductive account that talks about molecules and building blocks of nature," he says. "These people aren't going to revise their beliefs just because science has a better theory."

Thompson says society has a moral and ethical responsibility to make sure that these people aren't forced by the marketplace to eat foods that they are opposed to.

"One of the mistakes people in the food systems have made is to think that everyone would accept genetically modified foods," he says. "Let me be clear: I have no objection to them myself, but a minority out there won't accept them under any circumstances. Does their right to hold that viewpoint have to be respected and protected? I think it does."

Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued guidelines that say that genetically modified foods cannot be labeled organic – despite protests from some in the scientific community who argue that there is nothing inorganic about genetically modifying the crops – an inadvertent system has been set up to allow people to avoid eating genetically modified foods.

"If this is enough to protect their right to opt out of genetically engineered foods, then perhaps we can have a productive conversation about genetically engineered food with the other 80 or 90 percent who basically want to know whether agricultural biotechnology is safe and environmentally sound," Thompson says. "We need a food system that allows us to be informed by the best scientific thinking on food safety and environmental risk, but not one that requires people to take a 13-week course on molecular biology in order to plan a meal, or to sort out their feelings about genetic engineering."

Source: Paul Thompson, (765) 494-4276; home: (765) 463-5782,

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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