Skip to main content

GMOs and Global Justice: Applying Global Justice Theory to the Case of Genetically Modified Crops and Food


Proponents of using genetically modified (GM) crops and food in the developing world often claim that it is unjust not to use GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in developing countries. In reply, the critics of GMOs claim that while GMOs may be useful as a technological means to increase yields and crop quality, stable and efficient institutions are required in order to provide the benefits from GMO technology. In this debate, the GMO proponents tend to rely on a simple utilitarian type of calculus that highlights the benefits of GMOs to the poor, but that overlooks the complex institutional requirements necessary for GMO production. The critics, recognizing the importance of institutional conditions, focus primarily on the negative impacts of institutional deficiencies, thereby overlooking the basically Rawlsian claim that institutions per se may generate claims to justice. This article investigates how GMOs might generate claims to global justice and what type of justice is involved. The paper argues that the debate on GMOs and global justice can be categorized into three views, i.e., the cosmopolitan, the pluralist, and the sceptic. The cosmopolitan holds that GMOs can and should be used for alleviating global hunger, whereas the sceptic rejects this course of action. I will argue here for a moderately cosmopolitan approach, relying on the pluralist view of institutions and the need to exploit the benefits of GMOs. This argument rests on the premise that global cooperation on GMO production provides the relevant basis for assessing the use of GMOs by the standard of global distributive justice.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Recently the EU decided “that it should be possible to combine a European Union authorisation system, based on science, with freedom for Member States to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory.” (EU Commission 2010).

  2. A possible practical political consequence of the balanced view is reflected in the Danish foreign aid programs, none of which support or promote GM crops in the developing world. In 2002, the Danish Agency for International Development (DANIDA) assembled a group of agricultural experts who wrote the working paper “Assessment of Potentials and Constraints for Development and Use of Plant Biotechnology in Relation to Plant Breeding and Crop Production in Developing Countries” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Danida, 2002). The working paper concludes with a moderately optimistic version of the balanced view.


  • Abizadeh, A. (2007). Cooperation, pervasive impact, and coercion: on the scope (not site) of distributive justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 35(4), 318–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beitz, C. (1979, 1999). Political theory and international relations. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

  • Bernauer, T. (2003). Genes, trade and regulation–the seeds of conflict in food biotechnology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blay, S. (2005). International regulation of biotechnology: Problems and prospects. Journal of International Biology Law, 2(1), 245–251.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Borlaug, N. (2000a). Ending world hunger. The promise of biotechnology and the threat of anti-science zealotry. Plant Physiology, 124, 487–490.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Borlaug, N. (2000b). We need biotech to feed the world. Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition) (December 6).

  • Brom, F. W. A. (2004). WTO, public reason and food public reasoning in the ‘trade conflict’ on GM-food. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 7, 417–431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chadwick, R., & Wilson, S. (2004). Genomic databases as global public goods? Res Publica, 10, 123–134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Clapp, J. (2004). WTO agricultural trade battles and food aid. Third World Quarterly, 25(8), 1439–1452.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J., & Sabel, C. (2006). Extra republicam nulla justitia. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 34(2), 147–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Danida, (2002). Assessment of potentials and constraints for development and use of plant biotechnology in relation to plant breeding and crop production in developing countries. Danida working paper.

  • EU Commission. (2010). Communication from the commission to the european parliament, the council, the economic and social committee and the committee of the regions—on the freedom for member states to decide on the cultivation of genetically modified crops. Accessed on August 31, 2010 from

  • Gonzalez, C. G. (2007). Genetically modified organisms and justice: The International environmental justice implications of biotechnology. Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, 19(4), 1–53.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jasanoff, S. (2005). Designs on nature–science and democracy in Europe and the United States. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nagel, T. (2005). The problem of global justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 33(2), 113–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nuffield Council on Bioethics. (2003). The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries—a follow-up discussion paper. London.

  • Pinstrup-Andersen, P., & Schiøler, E. (2001). Seeds of contentionworld hunger and the global controversy over genetically modified crops. Washington: IFPRI, Food Policy Statements 33.

  • Pogge, T. (2002). World poverty and human rights. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawls, J. (1999). The law of peoples–with the idea of public reason revisited. Cambridge US: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sandøe, P., & Hauge Madsen, K. (2007). Agricultural and Food Ethics in the Western World: A case of Ethical Imperialism? In P. Pinstrup-Andersen & P. Sandøe (Eds.), Ethics, hunger and globalization—in search of appropriate policies. The international library of environmental, agricultural and food ethics (Vol. 12, pp. 201–214). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sharife, K. (2009). Is GM food the future for Africa? New African, January, (480), 9–13.

  • Singer, P. (1971, 1985). Famine, affluence and morality. In C. Beitz, M. Cohen, T. Scanlon & J. Simmons (Eds.), International EthicsA Philosophy & Public Affairs Reader (247-261). New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

  • Singer, P. (2002). One world–the ethics of globalization. New Haven: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity. (2000). Montreal.

  • Thompson, P. B. (2007). Ethics, hunger and the case for genetically modified (GM) crops. In P. Pinstrup-Andersen & P. Sandøe (Eds.), Ethics, hunger and globalization–in search of appropriate policies. The international library of environmental, agricultural and food ethics (Vol. 12, pp. 215–235). Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thompson, P. B. (2010). Food aid and the famine relief argument (brief return). Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, 23, 209–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Winickoff, D., Jasanoff, S., Busch, L., Grove-White, R., & Wynne, B. (2005). Adjudicating the GM food wars: Science, risk and democracy in world trade law. The Yale Journal of International Law, 30, 81–121.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Earlier versions of this paper were written during my period as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen, priority area Biocampus 2006-07. I would like to thank participants at the 2007 EurSafe conference in Vienna, participants at the 2008 conference of the Association of Legal and Social Philosophy in Nottingham, Sune Lægaard, Søren Flinch Midtgaard, three anonymous reviewers and the editors for valuable comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kristian Høyer Toft.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Toft, K.H. GMOs and Global Justice: Applying Global Justice Theory to the Case of Genetically Modified Crops and Food. J Agric Environ Ethics 25, 223–237 (2012).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Global justice
  • Basic structure
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • International law
  • WTO
  • Borlaug hypothesis