Reflections on Transgenics and Sustainable Development
- Lucas Moraes de Aguiar, Nilza Maria Diniz, Ph.D.
1 Universidade Estadual de Londrina, Londrina, PR, Brazil.
2Departamento de Biologia Geral, Universidade Estadual de Londrina, Londrina, PR, Brazil; Núcleo de Bioética de Londrina, Londrina, PR, Brazil; Coordinator of Londrina State Committee of Ethics on Research; Member of National Commission of Ethics on Research/Brazilian Heath Organism
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Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 85-89.
The development of modern society was based on two false premises - no end to technological progress and nor to natural resources - making sustainable development difficult. The "Green Revolution" was characterized in this situation, despite its importance, as contributing in fact to the destruction of a good part of Brazil's natural heritage. At that moment, however, a sin was committed with regard to ethics. The State of Paraná, with 3% of its original forests due to the spread of agricultural areas, has large parts of forest surrounded by farms. This fact has contributed to the extinction of these refuges and the accumulation of pesticides in the remainder. The use of transgenic crops could help in reducing the advance of the agricultural border, since it is predicted that they could increase productivity by 25%. This practice could contribute to the increase and maintenance of refuges, since it would promote ecological recovery projects in agricultural states. The use of transgenics based on presuppositions of sustainability could minimize the damage caused by other technologies utilized without adequate planning. By introducing humans as an integral part of nature and by accepting that cultural evolution does not proceed teleologically, Jonas' principle of responsibility could be reinterpreted, mitigating its emphasis on the heuristics of fear. This would point out the possibility of using a technical method to guarantee a more sustainable development for future generations.
Keywords: Bioethics, transgenic plants, sustainable development, agricultural revolution, responsibility principle.
The model of modern society built over the last 400 years makes sustainable development difficult, such that, in many human productive sectors this development has become economically unfeasible. Such model has been based on two false premises: technological progress towards the future and natural resources are both endless (Pessini & Barchifontaine, 2000). This fact is similar to the well-known phenomenon known as the "Green Revolution" (Agricultural Revolution), which was needed for the food demands of a growing population but which practically wiped out a significant part of the natural heritage of almost the whole of Brazil
During this period, around the 1950s, plant genes were being extensively manipulated leading to the rise of hybrid seeds, which together with the use of fertilizers and insecticides, were responsible for the large increase in agricultural production (Arantes, 2001). Although necessary, the agricultural revolution erred because information was not made available that would have helped to reduce the damage to the environment. It can be said that there was a lack of ethical concern. All the ethical specialties needed to have gone beyond their immediate concerns and worked towards their long-term obligations (Potter, 2000). However, from a political point of view, nobody would suggest that the developmental process started by the Agricultural Revolution could (or should) be reversed. It is impossible to imagine a civilized community without such an outcome in the process of populating this planet. On the other hand, it is necessary to fully assume the consequences (Guimarčes, 2001). It can be said that the social and ecological problems created by the Agricultural Revolution were due to the lack of preliminary studies.
Like other Brazilian states with an agricultural economy, Parana suffers with the problems of the extinction of native species, linked to the improper, if not the indiscriminate, use of natural resources. Parana has been undergoing intensive devastation, principally due to agricultural and livestock activities, which have decimated the native forests that once covered 84% of the state (Lange & Jablonsqui, 1981). In addition to the current problem of fragmentation and extinction, the surviving refuges that are now affected, are undergoing further damage due to the accumulation of pesticides invading the forest from surrounding plantations. Furthermore, high levels of these kinds of substances have accumulated in the sylvatic food chain near plantations. Also, the contamination has affected the water used for human consumption, directly lowering the quality of life and social well-being.
In this way, only with time will it be possible to see the economic importance related to the ecological matters of the state's native forests. Their maintenance could certainly bring about benefits for farmers, such as the guarantee of a permanent supply of water, an increase in the level of soil moisture and the control of insects and pests (Research Society of Wild Life and Environmental Education, 1996). The idea for preserving parts of the forest rather than clear-cutting for plantations, then arose with the aim of guaranteeing at least in part the biological and physical balance between landowners and the environment. In this way, this balance gained force through the 387/99 Decree of the "Parana Forest Law," which is now in effect. The principal objectives are to attain a minimum of 20 % forest cover in the state, and to maintain, recover and protect the legal forest reserve so as to also have a minimum of 20% property with a total area of up to 50 hectares (Research Society of Wild Life and Environmental Education, 1996). Once more, a pseudo environmental conscience, even though flawed, was applied due to economic interests, actually appearing as a tendency but far from being a sustainable goal.
Thus, we propose here a hypothesis we believe could be effective and applicable in states whose economy is strongly agricultural, such as Paraná State. Also, we intend to promote ethical reflection about the use of a new technology applied responsibly to correct and reduce the damage caused by previous activities, with the aim of mitigating conflicts between extreme points of view. Moreover, the objective is to create a bridge between traditional ecology and modern technology, based on social ecology which unlike traditional ecology, introduces human beings and their culture and society into nature.
For a good application of science with the objective of providing a better cost/benefit ratio for society and the planet, and in agreement with each present situation, a sense of ethical responsibility is needed to prevent this human tool from becoming a true mandate of the technocratic religion: "You will do everything in any which way you can!" (Lorenz, 1986).
Forest and Agricultural Situation in Parana.
In the second half of the 19th century, agriculture became more important for the Paraná economy, going from a form of subsistence to overcoming forest lands. According to the Land and Cartography Institute of Paraná, there remains only 3-5.2% of the state's primitive forest, represented by isolated fragments, principally by Serra do Mar and Parque Nacional do Iguaću. The situation in the North region of the state is still more alarming: the original forest has been reduced to 1-2% (Paraná, 1987). The state was transformed into a mosaic of monocultivations and forest fragments, which currently cover the state, due to the intensive expansion of agricultural lands. In the majority of the forest islands, which function as biological refuges, there are versatile species surviving the drastic reduction in habitat. In those forest islands the isolated species can face genetic problems, among others, diminishing still further the populations' variability and hindering the maintenance of these vestiges as natural refuges.
It has been estimated that Paraná has only 1.5 million hectares of large forests remaining and that 40% of those are concentrated in protected areas along the coast and the western side. Other protected areas such as parks and state reserves form a little more than 1% of the total area of the state. The rest of the native forest (59%) is comprised of small private reserves, which are already altered due to the removal of fine woods.
The large reduction of the native forest area has occurred in the regions of intensive agriculture, being transformed into key areas in the sense of native forest cover. On the other hand, the principal concentration of native forest is localized in properties with more than 100 hectares (Research Society of Wild Life and Environmental Education, 1996). Still, the decimation of Paraná's remaining forests has continued at the same rate, demonstrated by more recent research pointing out the annual loss of approximately thirty thousands of hectares.
The bounty of the Mata Atlantica which once covered the state has been substituted, as a result of the "Green Revolution," by monocultivations of grains, cotton, vegetables and others. The largest and main crops in the state are in decreasing order soy, maize, beans, wheat, sugar cane, yucca, coffee and others. Soy and maize crops alone occupied areas of 2,823 675 and 2, 829 641 hectares, respectively, in 2001 (Paraná, 2001). As a consequence, there has been a tendency toward a concentration on primary production, with emphasis on soy development. Taking into account the two major state crops, the focus becomes still more evident because these crops were responsible for 75 % of the cultivated area and 85% of the total harvest volume of that season (Paraná, 2001).
Transgenics and Sustainability
The combination of environmental education, appropriate economic planning and the use of new technologies, all together leading to the optimization and increase of agricultural production, could be effective in fighting forest depredation, which in turn would diminish the ravaging of the land caused by unbridled agriculture. Thus, a significant increase in agricultural production could be achieved using less area to reach a given production, based on the presupposition that it is more viable, in sustainable terms, for a strongly agricultural state to reduce forest depredation, instead of using agricultural areas to re-grow forest. In this way, the percentage of forest cover in a given region could be increased with a consequent improvement in quality of life.
Biotechnology can be defined as the use of cellular systems with the aim of producing goods or services. There are two types of biotechnology, classical and modern. The classical one is very old and includes the production of wine and bread, among others, by microorganisms. The modern version of biotechnology concerns the possibility of manipulating a gene outside the cell and introducing it in other cells (Arantes, 2001). One of the products of recombinant DNA technology is transgenic plants which are aimed at the optimization and improvement of agricultural production. These genetically modified plants comprise four types: bioreactors, herbicide-tolerant plants, crop protectors and those in which products are improved.
In order to be released into the market, transgenic products undergo a rigorous bio-security protocol (one of the application fields of bioethics). In this process, the main practical actions against real or hypothetical risk possibilities could be associated with the vigilance of scientific knowledge, a rigorous evaluation of food safety before the product is put on the market. It is therefore also important to promote research that enhances the understanding of GM food, monitoring of human and animal health to prevent any possible unexpected adverse effect, and environmental monitoring to collect information on the impact of genetically modified organisms when released into the environment. In Brazil, The National Technical Commission of Biosecurity (CNTBio) is in charge of these functions. Possas and Nepomuceno (2002, p.169) stated that:
"[...] up to now, there is no scientific evidence, however, of the detriments of any nature caused by these new developments in plant biotechnology in countries that practice adequate evaluation procedures and manage the direction of biosecurity procedures established according to bioethics principles."
In addition to the benefits brought about by transgenic products, the possibility of a healthier environment in the future and a more productive agriculture elevate the importance of these products in the development of environmental improvements. According to Rech (2000), Brazil will have to produce sufficient food for an increasing population. However, this will not be possible without the intensive extension of the agricultural frontier and massive migrations, resulting in a still more serious and deleterious impact on biodiversity. Thus, the use of biotechnology could improve food production in a more rational and sustainable way.
James (2001) has pointed out that the application of genetic engineering in improving crop breeding has induced enormous changes in the agricultural production systems leading to increased food productivity with environmental security and cost reduction. The biotechnological results in the agricultural area have demonstrated that GM products would contribute a 15-25% increase in food productivity during the next years, leading to a reduction in production costs and defensive measures, therefore, improving the quality of life (Rech, 2000).
Currently, the two major crops in Paraná are soy and maize, which are responsible for 72% of farmed areas (approximately 5,500,000 hectares) and 85% of total volume harvested. The substitution of these two crops by trangenic plants would provide for an increase and optimization of production, resulting in an effective reduction in forest devastation. Therefore, it would be possible to reach or maybe overcome the index of 20% for forest cover and legal forest reserve in the state as proposed by the government. Also, the use of transgenic plants would diminish the quantity of toxic pesticides affecting wildlife food chains and water for human consumption. In summary, transgenic products would provide a means for reducing the adverse effects of the Green Revolution on the natural environment.
The use of transgenic products on a large scale would have beneficial environmental effects for potentially agricultural states. These effects might not have the force to totally transform the environment back to its original condition; however, this technology could act as the basis for reducing forest use, which could be a step at a critical level of environment recuperation. This technology would then contribute to the application of projects directed at environmental recuperation, which would make development economically viable and sustainable.
Thus, genetically modified agricultural plants can contribute to sustainable development, ideal for such situations as in states that are largely agricultural. Sachs (1993) pointed out the need for five conditions to achieve sustainable development: it should be (1) economically viable, (2) ecologically viable, (3) socially just, (4) without economic agglomeration, and (5) culturally adequate. It seems that the first two can be attained with the use of this technology. In relation to the third condition, it should be noted that the production of transgenics by itself is not able to do away with hunger or much less to put an end to social differences. These are very grave problems present mainly in developing countries, where the solution can be found with political and humanitarian will.
With regard to economic agglomerations, it is not known whether it would be possible for transgenic agriculture to be applied; however, one should keep in mind that all new science becomes more economic with time and popularization. Scientists have taken a glimpse at the possibility of a productive dialogue among enterprises, consumers, producers, environmental groups and other social segments in relation to the use of recombinant DNA technology and the social benefits derived from its use. Certainly, they consider this concern to be an ethical position on their part. Unfortunately, human agglomerations are a political problem, and are not related to the use of any technology.
Concerning the cultural aspect, it is important for society to have sufficient information, because only then will it be possible to challenge false myths created by the media and also allow full freedom in making choices (Arantes, 2001). The role of specialists in participating societies is to afford their knowledge in order to discuss in a broad setting between people with different learning but having a common wish of building a unified society (Siqueira, 1998). Free choice will come only when information is available to everyone.
Therefore, according to the current situation, the sustainability defended by Sachs appears to be somewhat difficult to apply in human productive sectors in relation to satisfying all conditions, mainly due to problems of political systems. However, it cannot be labeled as utopian. Guimarčes (2001, p.56), was able to summarize a better definition of the applicable sustainability model:
"ecoenvironmental sustainability in development refers to the physical basis of the growing process with the objective of conserving endowed natural resources incorporated in productive activities, i.e. maintaining the natural potential to absorb and recover from anthropic activities and the remains of productive activities"
Ecology and Reflections on Ethics
Among the subdivisions of ecology, social ecology calls for sustainable development with a minimal sacrifice of the earth's natural wealth, also considering the needs of future generations. Furthermore, social ecology also states that future generations deserve the satisfaction of inheriting a habitable earth with minimally disruptive human intervention. In addition, this science brings both human beings and society together with nature, giving priority to the benefit of both (Pessini & Barchifontaine, 2000).
Therefore, the introduction of humans and their culture in nature provokes insight into Jonas' principle of the ethics of responsibility (1985, 1995). We believe the two presuppositions present in the principle of responsibility by this author to be incompatible, which consider human culture as an artificial or antinatural entity and the scientific and cultural evolution as a teleological or predestined process. Technology phobia, the anti-nature view presented by Jonas becomes baseless because, from our understanding, rooted in social ecology presuppositions, the overall environment consists of the "human environment" and "natural environment," which are pseudo-terms that have been divided into different entities according to an anti-nature point of view. We find those terms to be confusing because the human environment is a product of nature, isn't it?
Bergson (1992, 1995) justly brought attention to the problem of the artificial and false view of science. Such considerations have contributed to the misunderstanding of Brazilians and people of other countries that the relation between man and nature would be become progressively distant and artificial because of scientific developments in the field of genetic engineering. This believe would have important ethical, legal and social implications in everyday life, which has led some people to condemn scientists for their excessive audacity and for "making fun of God." However, the artificial world should not be viewed as being opposed to the natural world, because the world of artifacts is a product of humankind's freedom and creativity, which uncovers through ethics an appropriate manner to intervene in nature and consolidate scientific activity.
In relation to the false teleological doctrine of the cultural evolution, this view of the direction of scientific development that would lead to a predestined result, seems to be intrinsic to the actual essence of humans. By the fact that we think negatively of our attitudes that make no sense, we get annoyed by phenomena that do not make any sense (Lorenz, 1986, p.22). This author continues his reasoning in the following:
"What displeases humans and hurts their pride most intensively is that all their noble qualities are absolutely indifferent to the occurrence of cosmic phenomena. Once they realize the predominance of things in cosmic processes with no sense, they begin to become fearful that, based on the immense quantity, it takes the better part of all human efforts to make sense of that which appears to have no meaning. From this distrust arises the imperative need of supposing the existence of some hidden meaning in whatever happens."
To many people it is difficult to believe that there are processes in the universe that are not directed by predetermined objectives. Despite the differences between biological evolution which follows neo-Darwinian paths and cultural evolution that follows Lamarckians, whereby the latter proceeds more rapidly, both must follow the same evolution game rules, without their results having any tendencies (Lorenz, 1986; Futuyma, 1992). Similarly, as biological evolution lacks tendencies (Futuyma, 1992; Gould, 2001), the supposition that the development of a culture is directed and oriented toward finding "the way," thereby being labeled teleological, could be a mistake. Thus, to support his imperative point of view of responsibility, Jonas (1984, p.80) seeks an argumentation based on nature itself, in his opinion also teleological. "Through the reality and efficacy of the existence of the world's purpose, (...) we can see a fundamental affirmation of existence (...)" Lorenz (1986, p.61). Discussing the possible analogies between the two evolutionary processes, the author summarizes the random character of cultural evolution:
"As in other living systems, cultures develop each separately, independent of the others, taking its own risks and without any previously established plan. For many people, it is difficult to accept the fact that the evolution of human cultures is directed in some way through some "superior being" based on human feelings and values, not on human comprehension, nor human good-will."
The two types of evolution are analogous in a way (Lorenz. 1986, 1993) in that the methods developed to investigate both, are also similar. Evolution biologists and linguistics historians, for instance, can imagine ancestral forms as targets of their research and both can demonstrate evolution, whether biological or cultural, represented as a tree with random branches. In this way, without underestimating the differences that separate human beings from other living organisms, the similarities highlighted here in the process that led to our emergence, be it on the biological or cultural side, can help introduce us again as an integral part of nature. This would get rid of our anthropocentrism and our quality of unique and artificial, since our cultural side is a product of a natural process.
Therefore, recombinant DNA technology more importantly presents itself as a human tool that not only provides a better quality of life for humans, but also helps decrease ecological problems with regard to the unintentional ravage caused by the "Green Revolution." We can then see that the new technology can be used with respect and from an ethical view, acting to decrease the damage caused by other processes which formerly proceeded without any information or planning, practically exhausting the natural heritage of the Brazilian states. The application of this technology could provide beneficial effects in states with a strongly agricultural economy such as Paraná, working as a means of reducing forest destruction, which would be a step at the level of environmental recovery potential, creating a suitable and sustainable development. The use of transgenic plants would allow the increase and improvement of production, stop the advance of the agricultural frontier and in turn, reduce forest devastation. This would thereby maintain or even increase the forest cover index and the size of the remaining biological refuges. All of this, would provide a potential for the application of joint ecological projects in the future.
Thus, if applied with respect, science can benefit not only humans, but also the environment. Any technique is good or bad by itself, depending on its use. From our point of view, science is neutral, and it is thus our role to analyze and plan its application to better evaluate costs and benefits. Bioethics is responsible for this link, pacifying conflicts and finding common ground between these two extreme opinions, such as technocratic science in the case of the agricultural revolution, and traditional ecology in the protection of nature.
Therefore, the use of transgenic plants could contribute to a new interpretation of Jonas' principle of the responsibility ethics. By unseating the two presuppositions discussed above and keeping in mind that we can use the proper technology to guarantee the well-being of future generations, we are mitigating the heuristics of fear emphasized by this author. Therefore, the fear of a new technology could be substituted by renewed value and ethical prestige, taking into account cost/benefit analyses in order to guarantee a better quality of life and also the natural heritage.
We were created by the nature and we belong to it, thus we can work together for the benefit of both sides. However, our natural way of acting, make us unique in relation to the responsibility of our coexistence. The relationship between human beings, nature and ethics becomes clearer in the words of Gould (1997, p.358) from an interpretation of Thomas Henry Huxley (Evolution and Ethics, 1893):
"The control of the facts of nature is not, nor can it be, the control of our morals. We can learn how nature works for our own understanding in order to recognize our limits and possibilities in a cruel world. The process that governed for 3.5 billion years, modified all the rules by introducing new and interesting concepts such as justice and equality"
Recombinant DNA technology, which includes GM plants as one of its products, could be utilized directly to reduce the extension of agricultural frontier through the reduction of forest devastation in potentially agricultural states such as Paraná, while maintaining or even increasing the forest cover index, and even reducing the use of defensive pesticides. All of this could lead to improvement of biological refuges and of the quality of life for people.
The use of transgenic plants has brought about promising environmental results, which in turn could lead to beneficial environmental effects in states with strong agricultural interests such as Paraná. These effects might not have the force to totally revert the land back to its original condition. However this biotechnology could work as a basis of reducing the destruction, so as to be a step in determining the environmental potential for a specified area. Adding to this the joint action of environmental education, the correct information to society and projects aimed at improving the subsistence of farms, it would be possible to develop environmental recovery projects, making development more sustainable and suitable in this situation.
The use of transgenic plants for the improvement of the environment could bring into question two presuppositions of Jonas' ethics of responsibility, which do not make sense to us: the teleology of cultural evolution and the anti-naturalism of humans and their culture. By overcoming these presuppositions, we then see that technology diminishes the damage caused by other influences in which there was no appropriate evaluation of cost and benefits. In other words, this means the possibility to use suitable technology in order to guarantee improvements for future generations. Therefore, it is possible to reinterpret Jonas' ethics of responsibility, easing his emphasis on the heuristics of fear.
We would like to thank "Embrapa de Londrina- PR" and the Londrina State University support. We are also grateful to Dr. Olívia Marcia Nagy Arantes help.
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