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Gary Comstock, Religion, (515) 294-0054
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917


AMES, Iowa – The use of genetically modified crops in agriculture has fired the debate over the benefits of an advanced technology versus the unknown consequences of implementing it. Will GM crops benefit humans or are we unleashing unknown future calamities? It is where ethics and technology currently collide.

To argue against GM crops simply because we do not know what will happen is not reason enough to ditch this technology, said Gary Comstock, Iowa State University professor of philosophy and religious studies, and director of ISU's bioethics program. In fact, to argue against GM crops because of this "precautionary principle" is a bit foolhardy, Comstock said, because this principle "should not be entrusted with the future of a technology, especially when it has incoherent policy implications."

Comstock will make a presentation on the "Ethical Issues in Animal and Plant Biotechnology," at the 2001 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in San Francisco, Feb. 15-20. Comstock will be speaking at the symposium, "Will Social and Cultural Issues Derail Advances in Biotechnology for Agriculture?" It will be held 9 a.m.-12 noon, Feb. 18.

According to Comstock, who has followed the GM crop debate and written a recent book on the ethical issues raised with agricultural biotechnology, the real risk of cutting GM crops short is being excessively shortsighted. He said that many European countries already have used the precautionary approach to ban GM crops on the supposition that developing such crops will lead to environmental degradation.

"But is this the only implication," Comstock asked. "What if global warming intensifies, as some predict, to interfere dramatically with food production. In desperate attempts to feed themselves, billions begin to pillage game animals and clear-cut forests to plant crops.

"GM crops could help prevent that by providing hardier versions of traditional lines capable of growing in drought conditions, or in saline soils," Comstock said. "On the supposition that we might need tools of genetic engineering to avert future episodes of crushing human attacks on the environment, the precautionary approach requires that we develop GM crops."

Comstock, who has himself gone through a personal 12-year philosophical journey from vocal critic to cautious champion of genetic modification, said that despite the uncertainty of GM crops, we should move forward with their development.

"Yes, we lack full scientific certainty that developing GM crops will prevent environmental degradation. True, we do not know what the final financial price of GM research and development will be," Comstock argued. "But if GM technology were to help save the land, few would not deem that price cost-effective. Therefore, full scientific certainty that GM crops will prevent environmental degradation should not be used as a reason for postponing this potentially cost-effective measure."


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