Genetic modification

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

5. Risk and precaution

Perhaps the most overriding ethical concerns over genetic modification are those of risk and safety (see Risk). There is a clear link between how harms, benefits, welfare, etc. can be accounted for, and the value placed on risks. Decisions over how to proceed in the face of risk generally involve weighing-up the possible scope and scale of any potential harm or benefit. This includes considering the potential magnitude, intensity, duration, and distribution of any foreseeable harm or benefit.

What constitutes a harm or benefit is also an important question. This can incorporate physical, psychological, social, emotional, or moral aspects. In the case of plants and non-human animals, consideration is also given to whether benefits for humans should outweigh the interests of other entities – raising questions of anthropocentrism in our ethical evaluations.

Although concerns over risk and safety can be broken down into numerous, more refined issues, two basic questions about risk always initially arise. The first is how risks should be identified, and the second is what level of risk might be deemed acceptable.

These two questions have led to a widespread adoption of what has become known as the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is a general approach towards risk management and harm reduction. Broadly speaking, it requires society to delay or forego the use of potentially risky new practices until there is a better developed idea of the potential harms that might arise from the practices in question. It has strong and weak forms, depending upon the level of risk and the quality of the evidence surrounding that risk. Strong versions tend to require prevention or regulation where there is a lower threshold of risk of harm (and those harms are more severe). Weaker forms tend to be less restrictive in the face of uncertainty about risks. They also place the burden of proof onto those advocating the use of the principle, in that it is up to them to show there is a potential risk and that the principle should be invoked. Note that the principle itself says nothing about what constitutes a risk or harm, as this is determined by the context in which it is applied.

The precautionary principle has been regularly appealed to over the use of genetic modification in humans, non-human animals, and plants. In humans, the focus has been on the potential for the modification to cause irrevocable harm to future generations, for example, a modification introducing a deleterious change to cause a new disease. Discussions have drawn in particular on the uncertain and unpredictable effects of genetic modification technologies, such as where the modified genes turn out to be important for other human traits and functions, or where the desired effect does not arise from the modification.

In plants and non-human animals, different emphases arise regarding risk and precaution. The use of genetic modification in humans is, at least at an early stage, unlikely to limit species diversity to the point of endangerment. However, previous techniques of selective breeding and other agricultural practices have already led to a dramatic decrease in biodiversity in both plants and agricultural animals destined for human use and consumption. This has been driven by (potentially problematic) human desires for plants and agricultural animals that have a particular appearance, yield, or disease resistance. If more radical genetic modifications were to be employed in these circumstances of already decreased biodiversity, the potential for catastrophic outcomes through iatrogenic risk (that is, a risk caused by the intervention itself) is significantly increased. On the other hand, genetic modification could be used to introduce or increase biodiversity or other advantageous features where they are missing.

Whether this risk-averse approach of the precautionary principle is genuinely prudential or whether it is too conservative and likely to stifle scientific progress has been at the heart of much debate (Harris and Holm 1999; Hughes 2006). Being overly risk averse (say, in terms of scope and scale of harm), invoking precautionary measures that are too demanding, or requiring too strong an evidence threshold as to the safety or harms of an activity, may impede scientific progress or even cause harm by preventing benefit. On the other hand, adopting an approach which rejects restrictions unless there is a high degree of evidence for potential harms, will likely enable faster innovation but will also give rise to increased risk.

Considerations of public trust are also relevant to whether it is appropriate to invoke the precautionary principle. A cautious governance model may engender higher public trust than scientific self-regulation of genetic modification.

A concept related to those of risk and precaution is dual-use. Genetic modification technologies have the potential to be used in a way deemed as fruitful or useful to all. Yet the same technologies could also be put to other, less desirable, uses. This is known as the dual use problem (Rappert and Selgelid 2013). Although concerns and risks surrounding dual use of developing technologies arise in many areas, the dual use problem in genetic modification is seen as particularly pressing because of the potential risk should a particular modification become a weapon or be used to alter heritable traits of a species in an unregulated way that could have a global impact.

Citing this article:
Newson, Ainsley J. and Anthony Wrigley. Risk and precaution. Genetic modification, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L133-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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