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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Kristian Høyer Toft.

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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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-010-9295-x

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Keywords

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