What kind of questions should be asked in studying the social acceptability of food biotechnology? A Moral-economic approach

- Ilkka Kauppinen,

Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy
Unit of Sociology, University of Jyvaskyli, Finland

E-mail: kailju@cc.jyu.fi
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 12 (2002), 182-5.

The main purpose of this paper is to introduce the moral economic approach as an appropriate framework for studying modern food biotechnology. The starting point is that the value of food is not limited to its material or commercial value. On the contrary, food has also an identity value both at individual and collective level.

Moreover, food can function as a source of communal perceptions with respect to legitimate and illegitimate economic practices. Consequently, it is important to recognize that culturally constructed moral-political values impact on food-related economic practices both at production and consumption levels. For example, according to Arnold (2001, 91), "rice is a truly social good, and its longstanding and ongoing role in establishing a Japanese sense of collective self is at times a prominent factor in evaluating emerging developments".

These "emerging developments" can include economic processes such as the growing dominance of market mechanisms over social values, but also of technological change. "Biopolitical activism" (Goodman 2001, 1) illustrates the potentiality of food in creating hot debates and social conflicts in the public sphere between citizens, social movements, the biotech industry and regulatory bodies.

Let us first consider a symphatetic critique of the concept of risk society. Secondly, I'll introduce the concept of moral economy and deliberate over what kind of questions are important in studying the social acceptability of modern food biotechnology. Thirdly, an Ethical Matrix will be considered. Thus, objective of this paper is the problematization of risk society discourse and development of moral economic questions as starting points for analysing the concept of social acceptability, with the help of Ethical Matrix.

A Need to move beyond risk society

The concept "risk society" is probably the most common standpoint of sociologists when we are trying to understand and explain sociological aspects of modern food biotechnology. In one of his latest articles, Ulrich Beck (2000, 211), a father of "risk society", insists that we do not live anymore "in the normal world of nation-state modernity". According to him, it is sociologically more relevant to speak about "world risk society" or a "post-traditional cosmopolitan world". While I agree with him that we, sociologists and more generally social scientists, are in need of some new categories and concepts, I'm not convinced that discourse of world risk society is an all-embracing conceptual solution in the age of globalization and rapid technological changes - even if one is studying modern food biotechnology.

There are many global risks in relation to human health and environment that have caused resistance and criticism against modern food biotechnology. And surely we live in a complex and interdependent world, where technological risks pose serious questions to democracy and politics (Beck 2000, 214).

I belief that the discourse of risk is especially meaningful when "trust in our security and belief in progress end. It (discourse of risk)ceases to apply when the potential catastrophe actually occurs." (Beck 2000, 213). In this sense discussion about risks and risk society is an appropriate way to approach the problems and challenges that modern food biotechnology has posed in the contemporary world. In many countries, biotechnology industry and regulatory bodies are in a position where they have difficulties in building trust-based relations with the general public. More generally, modern biotechnology has raised questions which make the earlier taken-for- granted positive relation between progress and technology problematic. However, there are some crucial points why simple contextualization of food biotechnology alone to world risk society is both theoretically and politically problematic.

Firstly, it can be argued that for Beck (2000, 213) a risk society characterizes "a peculiar state, intermediate state between security and destruction, where the perception of threatening risks determines thought and action". On this explicit level this kind of articulation of risk society and human action is problematic because there seems to be only little room for ethical deliberation. And what is more important is that peoples' judgments concerning the social acceptability of modern food biotechnology cannot be reduced to how they perceive risks. Later Beck (2000, 215) says, that risk statements are at the same time value statements and factual statements. For this reason, risk statements are related to the question "How do we want to live?" There is in this basic question also an ethical dimension and here we are able to find the possibility to connect the discourse of risk society to moral economy as a kind of inquiry. Nevertheless, discourse of risk society is in itself and from the point of view of ethics too thin and conceptually underdeveloped.

Secondly, for Beck, the concept of risk is related mainly to human health and environment. If, in risk society the main responsibilities of different state institutions are related mainly to "public safety" and "pollution control" (Beck 2000, 225), then there are some serious problems in the theory of risk society. I insist that we miss some important ethical and political dimensions of biotechnology if we speak only about the risks that are related to human health and environment, and on the other hand, to public safety and pollution control. But broadening of the concept of risk does not seem a very promising theoretical path.

Surely it is important to recognize that theory of risk society shouldn't be based on neglect of "older" type of risks (Barry 2000, 2), such as the uneven distribution of power through economic practices, the repression of poor farmers in the Third world or the consequences of contemporary trade laws and intellectual property system for justice, autonomy and well-being. But I think that concepts used in political economy and political philosophy are more appropriate tools than risk related concepts, in exploring these problems in the context of food biotechnology. By widening the concept of risk we would risk making discourse of risk an imperialistic project, where academics are using risk related concepts in fields where they are inappropriate. Anyway, these kind of "risks" reflect a notion that isolating bioethics, at least at the global level, from the context of conflictual social relations and socio-economic consequences, is prone to lead to misunderstandings concerning the social criticism that food biotechnology has faced in recent years.

Consequently, my standpoint is that criteria and elements of social acceptability of food biotechnology can not be reduced to risk assessments even if we approach them from the point of view of sociology of risk and risk society. In building social acceptability trust-based communication procedures and relationships between authorities, the scientific community, industry and citizens, are of crucial importance. However, it should be recognized that it is not enough. Also the democratization of decision making process is a critical issue. Moreover, social acceptability depends also partly on what kind of social and economic consequences biotechnology has and whether the commercialization of biotechnology contributes to the good of society and well-being of especially those who are marginalized in some particular society.

Thus, there are important moral-political and economic issues which go beyond conventional discourse of risk society. For example in Denmark, the general public see biotechnological applications (for example genetically modified organisms) as problematic regardless of whether they are safe to their health or environment (Sandoe & Lassen 2001, 206). Reason for this is that the public "probably have a broader set of criteria than mere risk criteria in mind when they assess GM crops." (ibid, 204) and because people usually try to balance different principles and ideals (Macer 1994, 29). Generally, it is important to recognize that peoples' action and evaluations concerning the social acceptability of food biotechnology may be based on more broader normative ground than only avoiding detrimental health effects (Jensen & Sandoe 2001, 5).

These points imply that we have to base sociological analysis of social acceptability of food biotechnology also to some other sociological context than risk society, where people are mainly seen to be worried about their health and environment. I suggest, that neo-liberalistic economic globalization is other appropriate macro-sociological context for the evaluation of modern food biotechnology.

Commercialization of food biotechnology has created new economic spaces on a global level, which are mainly dominated by multinational corporations. Social construction of world biotechnology markets, in which national states, intergovernmental institutions and corporations are involved, is massive and a contingent political project in contemporary world. These general points reflect the notion that food biotechnology is tightly connected to economic globalization. Consequently, it is reasonable to connect the evaluation of social acceptability of modern food biotechnology to global political economy.

A Moral Economic Approach

According to Andrew Sayer (2000, 2) moral economy "embodies norms and sentiments regarding the responsibilities and rights of individuals and institutions with respect to others. These norms and sentiments go beyond matters of justice and equality, to conceptions of the good, for example regarding needs and the ends of economic activity. They might also be extended further to include the treatment of the environment". Instead of reflecting on instrumental economic rationality, moral economy offers a chance to deliberate the acceptability of different commercial applications through political and ethical arguments.

Social scientists and anthropologists have usually applied the term moral economy to pre-capitalist societies, where markets are under-developed in relation to modern (post-) industrial societies. But it is reasonable to argue that moral-political values and sentiments effect economic activities also in modern societies for all economies are embedded in broader sociopolitical environment (Polanyi 1944; Booth 1994; Sayer 2000). In order to avoid misleading soft-headed (Weber) attitude it is vital to keep in mind that ethics can't replace politics and that also power and self-interest effect economic activities. Nevertheless, and as Sayer (2000, 3) notes, there is no reason to accept the dogma, that self-interest is the only motivation in the field of economy.

On a positive level the basic idea of moral economy is to study the role of moral-political values and sentiments in influencing economic activities (Sayer 2000, 2). It can be asked what are lay people's moral sentiments and values concerning certain commercial biotechnological applications in different kinds of cultural settings. This information can be gathered through surveys. which give appropriate information about the values, sentiments and perception of risks of lay people i.e. what is the level of social acceptance of food biotechnology among citizens.

Secondly, also normative questions are a crucial part of the analysis of food biotechnology. On a normative level moral economic questions should be concentrated on two broad areas. These two areas are the relationship between humans and the natural world and secondly, the relationship between different groups of humans as mediated by biotechnology (Barry 2000, 2). A similar kind of approach is adopted also by Sylvie Pouteau (2000, 1), who critizes conventional models of risk assessment for ignoring the social, economic and political context in which food production and distribution are located. These views imply that the evaluation of the social acceptability of food biotechnology can not be limited to environmental hazards and food safety. Therefore normatively oriented moral economic questions are based on an understanding of the ethical dimensions of many aspects of the food system (see FEC 2001, 8).

These normative questions might include (see Sayer 2000):

  1. What are our responsibilities towards nature and sentient beings?
  2. What are our responsibilities towards future generations?
  3. What are biotech industrys' responsibilities towards different interest-groups?
  4. What things should not be commodified?
  5. How should we distribute rights and responsibilities concerning the decision-making prosess about economic activity in a context of uncertainty?
Normative moral economic questions like "What things should not be commodified?" and "What responsibilities do companies and other employers have to workers, suppliers, customers shareholders, creditors and the communities in which they locate?" are of crucial importance in order to resist the estrangement of economic system and lifeworld. For "if we fail to acknowledge that economic activity is at least in part morally guided, and that even where it is not, it has moral implications, economic action appears to be wholly a matter of power and self-interest. If this happens, political economy reflects the domination of the life-world by the economic system, accepting the latter¥s priorities and reflecting rather than challenging the de-moralisation of economy" (Sayer 2000, 8).

It can be claimed that there are five main reasons, why a moral economic approach is appropriate in the context of biotechnology. Firstly, all the major players in the field of biotechnology such as corporations, farmers and state have economic interests (Macer 1995). Secondly, economic activities which are related to biotechnology have morally significant social and environmental consequences. Thirdly, moral-political values influence economic activities of biotech industry. These values are constructed, for example, by social movements such as Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace. And fourthly, new economic spaces, which are created by the biotech industry, are embedded in different kinds of non-economic institutional contexts. And fifthly, it is important to be critically reflexive in the neoliberal climate, in which "freedom of innovation and the "inevitability" of scientific-technical progress are stressed and where issues of legitimacy and fairness have been relatively marginalised" (O'Mahony 1999, 3).

Technology and economy are not autonomous subsystems of differentiated modern societies. On the contrary, they are social constructions. Otherwise there would be no sense to speak about politics and ethics because technology would be indifferent to values and more generally, beyond human intervention. Social aspects of technology reveal that because technology in some particular time and space is socially constructed, it can be also challenged and problematized by human actors. The same point is valid also in the field of economy. Thus, moral economic approach includes important theoretical standpoints that are compatible with a view that technology is a social construction (Table 1).

However, it is important to notice, that moral economic approach isn't intended to serve as a theoretical tool for challenging and/or resisting some particular research object (for example modern food biotechnology). Instead of that it offers discursive space to make normative assessments about objects of study. As a subfield of critical social science, moral economy is critical of objects that it is used to study.

Ethical Matrix: Conceptual framework to help a construction of moral economic questions

At least part of these moral economic questions can be located on the "Ethical Matrix" (Table 2) developed by Ben Mepham. According Mepham (1996) ethical analysis of consequences of food biotechnology should be based on three ethical principles, namely well-being, autonomy and justice, which reflects "the common morality". Moreover, these three principles are concretized on a level of different kind of interest groups, which can include e.g. farmers, citizens, sentient beings and the ecosystem. These three principles and four interest groups form an ethical matrix, which consists of twelve cells (FEC 2001, 6-8). It is important to notice the point made by Mepham (1996, 107); "construction of the Matrix is in principle ethically neutral: any evaluation process would require weighing or ranking of the different ethical impacts."

Table 1: Moral Economic Questions in the Context of Modern Food Biotechnology

Relationship between humans and

The natural world
Relationship between different

groups of humans
Positive level

(different kinds of


To what kind of (cross)cultural values BT is embedded?
Acceptance level of different kind of commercial applications?

- considering crops, plants and farm animals

What institutions are trusted by lay people?

  • including economic, political and scientific institutions
How lay people/social movements perceive socio-economic risks and ethically relevant dilemmas considering BT-industry?
Normative level

(based on concrete analysis of biotech in the context of political economy)

How does BT affect peoples' lives and the ecosystem?
What are our responsibilities towards nature and sentient beings?

What things should not be commodified?

- TRIPS, global intellectual property


Criteria set of acceptability?

  • role of ethical principles
What are biotech industrys' responsibilities towards different interest-groups?

  • for example consumers and small farmers both in "North" and "South", and future generations
How biotech markets should be regulated on national/global scale?

Criteria set of acceptability?

  • role of ethical principles

Table 2: Ethical Matrix



Satisfactory income and

Working conditions
Appropriate freedom

of action
Fair trade laws and


(incl. consumers, future generations, possible to construct different subgroups)
Food safety and


Quality of life
Democratic, informed

choice e.g. of food
Availability of

affordable food
FARM ANIMALS Animal welfare Behavioral freedom Intrinsic value
THE ECOSYSTEM Conservation Maintenance of biodiversity Sustainability
(Food Ethics Council 2001, 6)

This kind of matrix gives an opportunity to deliberate on the normative criteria set of social acceptability of food biotechnology. It can be applied in studying some specific biotechnological application or at a more general level in evaluating ethically important features of food biotechnology. This Matrix offers the moral economic approach a conceptual framework, which in turn facilitates the development of more specific and concrete moral economic questions. The Matrix can be used in consensus conferences, education and in stimulating ethical deliberation in the public sphere (Mepham 1996).

While it is obvious that use of the Ethical Matrix in political decision-making can not guarantee that values and interests of general public are truly respected, it can nevertheless facilitate ethical acceptability of that political decision-making process. Moreover, the use of the Ethical Matrix would, at least partly, guarantee, that modern biotechnology and its ethical implications are seen also by experts in a wider socioeconomical context.

Naturally there are many problems in a kind of overall framework as Ethical Matrix. For example, what is the relation between different principles? Are some of them more fundamental than others? If so, how one can justify it? And while those principles might reflect "the common morality" of the public, it should be remembered that people interpret justice, well-being and autonomy differently in respect their social position, economic interests and cultural context.


I would like to suggest that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed in the study of the social acceptability of modern food biotechnology. For example a moral economic approach can offer for bioethics an insight into the interplay between moral-political values, social power and self-interest but also concrete analysis about the structural features of the biotech industry, how biotechnology markets are embedded to different kind of cultural contexts and problems concerning moral boundaries of biotechnology markets both on a national and global level. Both the moral economic framework and Ethical Matrix, as presented above, challenges the way in which the criteria set of acceptability of modern food biotechnology is couched mainly or only in economic terms or through utilitarianist cost-benefit analysis.

The fragmentation of life styles and cultural pluralism make it difficult to achieve an agreement on normative issues, addressed, for example, by the Ethical Matrix, also in the field of biotechnology. Nevertheless, at the same time these features of contemporary pluralistic societies make confronting normative issues all the more important (Sayer 2001). This is a challenge also for cross-cultural bioethics in the era of a neoliberalistic globalisation process.

In order to make a decision making process legitimate also in the eyes of citizens and consumers, the governments and industry in western countries have realized the importance of involving representatives of civil society into this process. From the perspective of democracy this is one institutional and normative precondition of the social acceptability of food biotechnology. At the same time, social movements as collective biopolitical actors can be defined also essential part of social struggle over moral economy of modern food biotechnology. Moreover, these representatives are usually able to broaden the view about the challenges and problems of food biotechnology in contemporary societies. In this way they may effect how technologies have been adopted by different societies and what is, or should be, the direction of technology policy.


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