Biotechnology can save lives. If you think of medical biotechnology, the use of technology and biology can help to find treatments for diseases that kill millions of people every year.
There are many branches of biotechnology, such as agricultural and industrial biotechnology, that improve our lives by finding solutions to problems in the world, such as climate change.
But why might some people be opposed to the use of biotechnology?
Let’s look at some common and pressing ethical concerns related to biotechnology. We’ll also consider public perceptions of this field and how these are changing.
Eight Common Ethical Issues Of Biotechnology
There are many ethical issues linked to biotechnology.
These create obstacles for the adoption of biotechnology techniques and can make it difficult for various innovations to be given the greenlight so that they can assist in improving human health. Some of the most common ethical concerns and issues include:
GM Crops In Agriculture
Genetically modified crops are used to improve agriculture, such as by making crops resistant to pests and droughts so that the farmers’ yields can be improved and even increased.
Although the technology of modifying genes can do much good, this technology is controversial. GM crops have been banned in many countries due to concerns for their potential health or environmental risks.
There’s another issue that arises when it comes to agricultural biotechnology that makes use of genetic engineering: the unintended spread of transgenes to other organisms.
This can result in the spread of one crop’s DNA onto another organism, meaning that plant viruses can transfer DNA from a host chromosome to a wild relative, as Encyclopedia reports.
It’s still not clear if these things have occurred with GM crops and identifying if they have can be a tricky and complicated process.
The Threat Of Bioterrorism
Biotechnology has many different branches, such as medical and environmental biotechnology, but it also has a dark side: the use of biotechnology for malicious purposes.
Bioterrorism can be committed by people who use the beneficial technology to hurt others. For example, by growing viruses and releasing these into society to harm or kill people. This is a concern with innovative biotechnology techniques.
Bioterrorism is a concern, even among renowned organizations. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has listed bacteria that causes anthrax (bacillus anthracis) as one of the most likely agents to be used in a biological attack.
The Protection Of Patients During Drug Trials
When a biotechnologist discovers a new treatment to cure an illness or vaccinate against a disease, human trials are needed to ensure that the treatments are safe and effective. However, there’s always the risk of patients becoming sick or dying. There’s therefore a need to protect patients from harm.
It’s important for human wellbeing to be at the forefront of clinical trials, and these should include the following, as outlined in Stem Cell Research & Therapy journal:
- Reducing the risk of causing harm to people;
- Selecting and recruiting the appropriate patients for testing;
- Giving them information so that they can make their own informed decisions, as well as providing consent forms.
The Fear Of Environmental Changes
Some people worry that using biotechnology in the environment could result in replacing the natural world with an artificial one that deprives people of having contact with nature in its natural state, as Encyclopedia reports.
However, supporters of biotechnology argue that people have been producing genetically modified organisms that have changed the environment for thousands of years.
An example is how the oxygen in the atmosphere has been produced by photosynthetic organisms over billions of years!
Religious And Moral Concerns With Biotechnology
Some people hold a religious approach when it comes to opposing biotechnology, such as that life is sacred. This could result in people viewing biotechnology as a manipulation of life, which is considered immoral.
An example of biotechnology which has been viewed by critics as being immoral in this way is xenotransplantation. This is when organs, cells, and tissues are taken from animals, such as pigs, in order to heal diseases in humans.
These transplants are sometimes frowned upon by biotechnology critics due to how they take away one life in order to save another. The breeding of animals in order for their organs to benefit humans is also frowned upon as going against life as ordained by a divine power.
The Question Of Animal Rights
Earlier, we talked about how biotechnology research has to look after the patients that are involved, such as in the case of clinical trials. But xenotransplantation and other types of biotechnology, such as genetic engineering, bring animal rights into the spotlight.
Linked to our previous point, the use of animals in order to ensure human welfare can be seen by biotechnology critics as being cruel and calls are being made to increase the protection of these animals.
Potential Competition Between Food And Energy
When it comes to finding new ways to provide fuel to meet the world’s requirements, such as the development of biogas that’s made from organic waste, some people believe that such innovations could have the negative consequence of causing competition between energy and food requirements.
For example, if biofuels become more mainstream, this would result in lots of agricultural land being used in their production, and the result is that food production could be reduced.
There’s another issue that comes into play on this topic of food versus energy: the concern that unused agricultural land would be used to produce biofuels and this could result in deforestation, which is already a big concern when it comes to climate change.
Lack Of Access To Drugs And Treatment
One ethical dilemma that comes up when it comes to biotechnological innovations in healthcare is that not all people will have access to these new drugs and therapies.
These treatments can be highly expensive. Although many U.S. insurance companies will cover their costs, what about people in other nations who don’t have insurance or whose insurance companies won’t cover them?
They won’t be able to make use of these life-saving treatments.
Public Perceptions Of Biotechnology
Some people are afraid of biotechnology and it will take a lot to change their minds. One of the biggest disadvantages of this is that it can prevent biotechnological innovations from improving people’s lives.
An example can be found with genetically-modified crops that can be grown to be resistant to drought conditions.
While this should be a silver bullet for dealing with the issue of hunger in regions such as Zimbabwe, beliefs that these crops are unlucky has caused farmers in the region to avoid using them.
A lack of knowledge and understanding is one of the biggest reasons for why many people oppose biotechnology. In addition, we tend to view things that are natural as being less risky or dangerous than those that are man-made, as Food Insight reports.
And yet, this doesn’t always make sense because just because something is man-made, it doesn’t mean that it’s inherently going to be dangerous to human health.
Research published in Nature Human Behavior journal (via NPR) found that people who are passionately against genetically modified foods think they understand science but they actually have less of an understanding of it.
That’s something worth bearing in mind before we decide to oppose the latest biotechnology innovations.
Sometimes, only when we are confronted with a crisis during which we can directly benefit from the biotechnology innovations in question do we then change our views.
For example, we might be against xenotransplantation until we find ourselves on an organ donor list with no hope for receiving a human organ. Similarly, we might have been one of people who viewed pharmaceutical companies negatively until the COVID-19 pandemic struck and that has changed our opinions.
What are some benefits of GMO crops?
There are many benefits, and these include tastier, healthier food, pest-resistant crops that make use of less pesticide, and faster growing crops to meet the world’s nutritional needs.
What can stem cells be used for?
Stem cells have many benefits when it comes to the treatment of disease because they can become other cells. They can therefore be used to grow new cells in a lab to replace damaged tissues or organs in the human body, as Healthline reports.
Biotechnology can help our lives in various ways, such as by finding cures for chronic, deadly diseases. But it’s not viewed positively by everyone. Indeed, as can be seen in this article, there are many issues related to biotechnology ethics.