How much of this is Really Proven? Commentary on De Aguiar and Diniz

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 89.


Lucas Moraes de Aguiar and Nilza Maria Diniz think that biotechnology, particularly transgenic plants, can rescue Brazil's ecology from the damages of deforestation, soil depletion, forced migrations, etc. They think that transgenic plants: would provide for an increase and optimization of production, resulting in an effective reduction in forest devastation. They claim that transgenic plants would diminish the quantity of toxic pesticides. They believe that technology can be used to guarantee the well-being of future generations.
I am not aware of any proofs of these statements, and I do not see that the authors have made sufficient effort to prove them. A scientific attitude demands that statements and proposals be "evidence-based". But the belief that technology can solve our environmental, food and health problems is taken to be obviously true, with no need of proof. Surely this is not a scientific attitude.
I also have problems with the authors' statement that: unfortunately, human agglomerations are a political problem, and are not related to the use of any technology. I am not sure that agriculture based on transgenic plants is suitable for anything other than large scale corporate agriculture. As has been extensively discussed in India, it is not clear that genetically modified organisms are appropriate for small farmers and peasants who save their own seeds. It is not clear that traditional varieties are not better suited for small scale and subsistence agriculture. But surely a technology which serves corporate interests, serves a specific politico-economic arrangement. So, technological and political problems cannot be kept separate.
I am not taking dogmatic stand against biotechnology in agriculture. I have no firm opinion on either side of this debate, and would like to learn more. But I object to dogmatic defenses of biotechnology, just as I object to dogmatic defenses of Evidence- Based Medicine, or of conventional Western medicine, as opposed to traditional, alternative and Asian medicine. (On the question whether Evidence-Based Medicine is itself evidence based, I highly recommend a paper by M Gupta, A critical appraisal of evidence-based medicine: some ethical considerations. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. (2003) 9:111-121, and the ensuing discussion in that journal.) I'd like to see more open debate of these issues, based on sound, scientific evidence.

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