Backing into Eden Chapter 15: GMO Ethics

In the last post, I simply listed both our traditional and our “new” ways of using animals.  Perhaps I was a little harsh, since humans have treated certain classes of animals like family.  We have even gone so far as to evolve essentially symbiotic relationships.  For example, I wouldn’t want our family dogs to have to live wild.  They don’t have those skills.  On a related note, I read a recent article about how wild animals are adapting to urban environments.  But I digress.  This is a three-post series.  It started with the lists of what we’ve done up to now.  It will end with a post about what we might do in the future.  And this time, I want to talk ethics.

Ethics can provide one framework for finding our way from now to a better future.  They’re no guarantee, but they’re foundational.  In this case, I’m hoping they might guide the direction in which we take our ever-growing ability to tinker with life.

iStock_000003700175XSmallI’m going to address the ethics of GM and other futuristic animals across a wide range of possible – and different – actions.  For example, de-extinction is different from creating designer pets, and protecting cows (and thus humans) from mad cow disease is different than growing human organs inside pigs.  If you’re lost, refer to post number one, and follow the links.  I’m only going to attempt to talk about ethics within the context of this series, which is all about how we take responsibility for the ecosystem in which we live.

I want to be very specific.  I’m talking about action we take via science to create new animals, to modify or help or de-extinct existing animals, and the use of animals as subjects for experimentation with GM tools for human or animal health or other reasons.  I’m including mammals and insects – and not crops – in my thinking in this post.

I’ve got five points:

The animal must be no worse off

I’d like to see “do no harm’ here, but that’s not possible in this world or the new world.  After all, we eat animals.  Additionally, even this ethical bar will not be possible when managing ecosystems (see earlier chapters that discussed removal of invasive animals – a hard choice, but sometimes one population must be killed to save another).  But in the sense of things we do to animals in the name of science or health, I think we can get to this place.  We can stop experiments that harm animals.  If growing human organs inside of pigs for transplant makes the pigs worse off, we should find another way.  If making a goat with milk that adds in an anti-diarrheal which could save thousands of human children makes the goat no worse off, then that would fit inside of this ethical boundary.  If giving a horse a new gait makes it weak in the spine so it has a short life, we should not do that, but if we can give it a blue mane and it’s no worse off, that’s all right (if silly).  We should apply this backwards to breeding programs as well.  My family fostered a dog that had been bred for its beautiful white coat but came out deaf with epilepsy – a common outcome of recessive/recessive crosses for this breeding.  This cruel and legal behavior should not be allowed.  New or changed or even “improved” animals must – at a minimum – be no worse off.  And I far prefer if they are better off.

No animal slaves

You can buy kits now that give you the ability to make cockroaches turn the way you want with a remote control.  Similar research is directed at creating bugs that can be used as spies.  This should not be allowed.  Note that there are PETA positions that suggest we should not own our pets.  This is not what I mean here.  Training a dog or a horse is a good thing, and can be done humanely in a way that allows the animals to make willing choices.  And that’s the difference.  My dog can choose not to sit (and sometimes she does), but military spy bugs can’t choose not to fly in the direction they are told.  They will fly to their death.   That is not a power we should develop.

Operate inside the ecosystem

I truly believe that we are going to be in far more control of ecosystems than we are today.  All of them.  From watching the boundaries of preserves (to save elephants from poaching or allow sharks to mate) to managing the lives of urban wildlife, we’ll be more involved than ever.  Any large-scale change needs to be designed to work inside of the ecosystems we’ll be managing.  For example, the re-introduction of velociraptors should not occur in a temperate forest where we’re also trying to bring back or protect grizzly bears.

Mind the boundaries

GM and other related technologies are all comparatively new.  We would be wise to err on the side of extra caution.  Boundaries are should be designed based on the technology and animal in question.  But they must exist and be enforceable.  This may require tagging and tracking of gene-mod animals, or forced sterilization after they are finished with their work and adopted out (today, some are euthanized, which violates the ethical boundary “the animal must be no worse off.”).  We are not yet as wise as nature, and we may never be.  There are bound to be mistakes, and better models as we learn, and all of the other mess that comes with science.  It’s a good mess, but we need to be sure to clean up after ourselves in a way that honors the lives we touch.

HandshakeNo greed

Animals are generally owned.  I’ve owned at least a hundred in my lifetime, from gerbils to budgerigars to competition horses. Food animals are owned by a farm, then a butcher, then a store, then a restaurant and then whoever eats them.  But I have never owned a line of animals, or a species.  I believe that new animals that are created using GM should not be owned in that way either.  This is a tough one, since a profit motive drives innovation.  This is going to be tough at the court level as well.  Drugs are patented for 20 years, with the option to extend for five more.  Something like this seems reasonable for new creations, except that a standard of care should be added.  For example, if you use GM tools to create a border collie with opposable thumbs, not only would you only have the patent for only twenty years or perhaps twenty-five years, but because border collies are living things, you should also be required to guarantee that the dogs are cared for, tracked (so that you don’t create a wild opposable-thumb border collie to kick-butt in agility) and so that intelligent decision can be made at the end of the patent period.  This is even more important if you make an animal smarter (once more, think of David Brin and the concept of uplift, and then marry that with the animal personhood movement that is starting to hit the courts and which may grant some human-style rights to certain animals).


These are ideas – sparks for conversation.  But they are important sparks.

There is another discussion about whether or not we should do any of this at all.  I’ve never seen us put a genii back in a bottle.  Even large and scary science like nuclear bombs have (at best) been managed.  This – like nuclear physics – is a technology that can bring great good and/or great harm.  Our values and ethics (with a sprinkling of fear) are the core of how we have managed not to spread mushroom clouds all across the earth.  We need the same values, ethics, and fears to deal with new GM world.

5 thoughts on “Backing into Eden Chapter 15: GMO Ethics”

  1. GREAT post! I have several things I can think of that might be of interest to your discussion (certainly that I am mulling over personally), but one that sticks out pertains to the “No Greed” item.

    I think your concept of maybe a 20-25 yr “ownership right” timeframe – to recoup your money and hopefully profit from your GM’d animal – is conceptually a good idea. I certainly don’t think you ought to get to “own all rights to that anti-diarrheal milk goat” ad infinitum (though Monsanto seems to be doing that w/ their GMO food crops – note – I haven’t researched into that, so could well be wrong there :-).

    My big concern would be if a law like “25 years from maturity of first ‘producing’ specialist animal” came into being, why wouldn’t the GM animal company just breed them to be sterile? Or introduce sterility into the last generation before their control expired? Or something similar, so that they could never become “generically available” if you will. Of course, if anybody had gotten hold of one of those animals, they could theoretically clone their own. But that possibility would probably increase the likelihood of said originating company keeping 100% of their created animals under lock and key (and probably not in the happiest of conditions, were I to guess) before basically letting them go extinct, or, possibly a lot more likely, tweaking their genes just enough to get another 25 year extension on them (like we see the big pharmas doing a lot these days with their mega-selling drugs).

    Result – essentially animal slaves, which is also against your “no slaves” item (which I also agree with :)).

  2. Should have said, “create them to be sterile” – breed certainly implies lack of sterility. 🙂

  3. Thanks for commenting Julianna. Any rules that get made will be gamed. This balance of ownership and what can be owned is going to be tricky. I’d like no ownership and all open- source but I’m not sure that’s feasible or even optimal. I’m struggling with this question in the book I’m working on. Fiction.

  4. Do no harm is a broad and very generic term. Do no harm to a gerbil is very different than do no harm to a border collie. And yet both have pain, both potentially a voice whether we understand it today or not. Any intelligent creature raised and confined to a lab for experimentation purposes is inflicted with harm – their expense, perhaps our gain. How much are we worth? Even jelly fish now have been shown to demonstrably show physiological pain. As have a number of plant species. How inconvenient for us that we can’t use other life forms to experiment upon without our conscious having to be pushed aside. How inconvenient to have evidence of pain and communication capability about “sub” species on the planet. The entire process of tweaking genes developing next generation species implies we know what we are doing and that we are doing no harm – to the individual? to the species?

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