Genetic Eco-engineering in Asia and International Bioethics Committees

Journal: pp. 131-7 in Genes the World Over (Evangelische Akademie Loccum, 1998).
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
Genetic engineering has been a catalyst for the reexamination of human relationships within nature and the environment. The attitudes that people have towards nature are basic to the acceptance of new applications of biotechnology in agriculture and medicine. Since the beginning of agriculture around 8-10,000 years ago, people have started to use living organisms to provide goods and services in a planned way. People have developed bioethical relationships with each other and our fellow animals, and living organisms in our ecosystems. The importance of agriculture and aquaculture to human life is universal among large societies, which raises the questions, to what extent are the attitudes to the use of organisms to provide these goods, the relationships with the organisms and ecosystems that provide them, and the attitudes to the consumption of the products, universal.

In the title I use the term genetic ecoengineering to refer primarally to genetic engineering of nonhuman members of ecosystems, both agricultural and non-agricultural. I will look at descriptive bioethics (the way people view life, their moral interactions and responsibilities with living organisms in life), and prescriptive bioethics (To tell others what is good or bad, what principles are most important; or to say something/someone has rights, & others have duties to them).

This conference, Genes the World Over, addresses the subject of genetic engineering across he world. One of the central issues of international comparisons of the acceptance and thoughts about biotechnology is whether there are any specific predictors of people's choices, and the selection of the values they consider when faced with applications of genetic engineering. Can we predict someone's attitudes to biotechnology by their culture, religion, religiousity, age, gender, education, ethnic origin, personality type, experience of disease or suffering, or some combination of these and other factors? Surveys from Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere, suggest that we cannot predict attitudes or behaviour so simply.

To answer this question, what are predictors of the bioethic that each person has, and whether there could be any cultural specific bioethic, we can chose a number of strategies. Firstly we can look at the use of organisms and new products in different groups inside each society and between them, for example, do people eat beef or do they not? Do they drink milk made from cows that have been given bovine growth hormone to enhance milk production? Do they farm animals in open spaces or in factory farms? We have to standardise for environmental and economic conditions, and also look at the religious traditions.

The religious traditions include guidance on ethical issues, answers to problems that are faced around the world. In one sense looking at the end result of choices, the adoption of science and technology products, consumption, is the best description of acceptance of science and technology. However, if we only look at the consumption statistics we may still not understand the reasons behind the choices, and whether, for example, there was really much choice for the consumer in their home environment and society. The ideal model would say a consumer will determine what products are best, but this is arguably never seen in a world dominated by large commercial interests, trade groups and associations, and connections between producers, retailers and regulators. For example, the European Commission banned the use of bovine growth hormone to increase milk production whereas in United States more than 10% of farmers used it in 1995, but they kept about one quarter of the 9.5 million dairy cows in the USA. Can we group USA with Malaysia, Russia and South Korea, for example, that have allowed its use? What cultural groupings can we use? This policy decision would ignore the deep division found in all countries between those who support use of all technology to lower costs of farm production, and those who, perhaps naively, claim that farming should stay natural. Naive because it has been developing based on anthropocentric ethics for nearly 10,000 years of recorded history - and much earlier if we include cave paintings as historical records.

If people are very interested in science and technology they may purchase books and magazines on the subjects, or use them at libraries, or access relevant pages on the Internet. They could attend public lectures on science, or give donations to scientific charities. These are all ways we could examine the interest, but do not show us how much, and what, is taken in. They also have difficulty of the chicken and egg problem, namely, which came first? One or a few motivated individuals can found a charity, or start public education, but are they products of a specific culture that supports technology, or pilots for society to move to those concerns?

Is genetic engineering based on a particular world-view, such as the atomic viewpoint suggested by Hanafi? It is true that molecular biology is associated with reductionism in the the way we understand all of life to be generated by an interaction of DNA, but biology also tells us that the interactions of genotypes (the total of all genomes of an individual) with the environment in the ecosystem affect the expression, or phenotype, of each. The title of this paper, eco-engineering, suggests that we can envision genetic engineering of a total ecosystem, not one element reduced to a component. Any successful application of biotechnology requires that, whether it be optimisation of characteristics of a microorganim or plant as a bioreactor to produce interferon, introduction of a new variety of potato with enhanced disease resistance, or production of city parks that can absorb air pollution. All these are active research projects, and they rely on the later synthesis of knowledge obtained from reductionist approaches with knowledge obtained from ecology and total environmental or medical sciences (including social impact).

Another strategy that is used is to seek the guidance of traditional wisdom of a culture in determining what should be adopted. For example, the Hindu Council is unlikely to support the establishment of a hamburger chain shop, because of their distaste of killing cows. Some governments attempt to stop human embryo research and human cloning, because it is against something called "human dignity", a concept that I agree is central to preserve, but no one really knows how to clearly define it in practice. It seems that some practices that to me seem contrary to human dignity, like imbalance of rich and poor (a universal observation), are supported while others are not, perhaps because they are seen as unnatural.

The strategy that I think allows us to look at what individuals really accept, and the reasons they use, is survey research with them as individuals, sometimes supplemented by small group discussion forums. Small group discussion forums do allow cross-stimulation of people's thinking and may arrive at a more balanced decision that if I am left alone in a room to think by myself. However, I wonder if it really represents the way people make decisions in the real world, as not many people talk in such depth about an issue before chosing to try it, and then buy or use it. This is a question for further research.

Since 1991 I have been conducting opinion surveys in Japan and other Asian and Pacific countries (Macer, 1992, 1994; Macer et al. 1996, 1997). These surveys allow trends to be examined, whether it be the adoption of new technologies such as gene therapy, genetic screening, and the arrival of foodstuffs from genetically modified organisms into supermarkets. We can also ask whether the technology, and the associated debates, have altered opinions.

One of the clear messages of these surveys is that the diversity of reasoning inside every sample is a picture of the total diversity we see across all. This means that rather than comparing cultures between countries there may be cultures found within every society, for example, those who accept new technology and those who prefer traditional ways. Analysis of the surveys suggests there is no simple predictor of bioethical reasoning or decisions.

The largest determinant of the support for a new application of biotechnology is the moral acceptability rather than benefit or risk (Macer, 1992; BEPCAG, 1997). There is strong support for the specific examples of environmental release of genetically modified organisms in all Asian countries. The highest level of support was seen for bacteria to clean oil spills and disease resistant crops (about 70%), with over half supporting tasty tomatoes or meat with less fat (Macer, 1994). This is similar to in the USA (Hoban and Kendall, 1992). In the question on general concerns about foods made from GMOs in the surveys, meat is the product with the most concern expressed. There was less support for enhancing milk production in cows in the International Bioethics Survey, which may be because we ask whether we really need more milk. This is consistent with the existing milk surplus in some countries.

The International Bioethics Survey looked at the question of acceptance of enhancement genetics. The sports fish is an example of genetic engineering for fun - and many people reject such genetic engineering in Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, but not in Thailand and India (Macer, 1994). This trend for acceptance was also seen in the Singapore and Hong Kong samples, and also reported in a student survey in China (Lo et al., 1994). Support for specific applications of gene therapy was significantly less for "improving physical characters", "improving intelligence" or "making people more ethical" than for curing diseases like cancer or diabetes, except in India and Thailand, but there was little difference between inheritable or non-inheritable gene therapy. In India and Thailand more than 50% of the respondents in each country supported enhancement of physical characters, intelligence, or making people more ethical. It could suggest several things: that poor living standards and infectious disease make people more pragmatic about "improvement", or that people do not mind enhancing themselves or their children (see paper of Bandyopadhyay), or that people in those countries have not thought about the implications (even though they were relatively highly educated samples). It is interesting if this is a general trend in developing countries, as it could have significant implications for international policy and the role of international committees (Macer et al., 1995).

These surveys have included general and specific questions on acceptance of biotechnology and genetic engineering. There was more acceptance of specific applications, and if we want to develop a bioethically mature society, one which can balance benefits and risks of science applications, this is the better measure of acceptance of science. Coming back to descriptive bioethics, if we cannot predict attitudes so well we have to re-examine the goals of intercultural dialogue. Are we looking at only policy differences, and ways that the division of values in any society is balanced and then projected into public policy and law, in the prescriptive ethics of the group.

One of the aspects of bioethics that can contribute to cross-cultural debate, and the function of this conference, is interactive bioethics - the discussion of descriptive and prescriptive bioethics among persons of different views and from different cultures. One of the international forums that has most widely developed this is the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee (IBC). It was formed in 1993, and the 50+ members from 40 countries meet each year to discuss selected issues of bioethics. This has led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, unanimously by 186 member countries of UNESCO in November, 1997, and the publication of a number of reports.

The UNESCO IBC is perhaps the best example of an International Bioethics Committee. It includes scientists, lawyers, philosophers, writers, and a few so-called bioethicists, like myself. All the proceedings are open to the public, and the committee takes questions from anyone in their sessions. The Council of Europe has a Steering Committee on Bioethics, which in 1997 led to the adoption of the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, by a number of European countries. Other examples of international bioethics committees include the Human Genome Organization Ethics Committee, which includes 13 members from 10 different countries, but is limited in scope to human genetics arising from the Human Genome Project. There are also International Bioethics Associations, but they do not function as a committee nor make wide-ranging guidelines. National Ethics Advisory Boards and Commissions exist in several countries, like in France, Denmark and recently the USA. However, these bodies are usually limited to national approaches to issues.

Few of these committees have dealt with non-medical issues. There are several clauses in the UNESCO IBC Declaration which apply to biology and genetics in general. Article 19a(iv) states,

In the framework of international co-operation with developing countries, States should seek to encourage that:...the free exchange of scientific knowledge and information in the areas of biology, genetics and medicine is promoted.

Article 21 refers to education,

States should take appropriate measures to encourage other forms of research, training and information dissemination conducive to raising the awareness of society and all of its members of their responsibilities regarding the fundamental issues relating to the defense of human dignity which may be raised by research in biology, genetics and in medicine, and the applications thereof. They should also undertake to facilitate on this subject an open international discussion, ensuring the free expression of various socio-cultural, religious and philosophical opinions.

However the other articles were worded, and tended to be revised, to restrict themselves to human genome research rather than genetics in general. The work of the UNESCO IBC most related to this conference theme is the 1996 report on Food, plant biotechnology and bioethics, I prepared. A variety of ethical issues were discussed in an international perspective, including the perceptions of natural products, cross-species gene transfer, food safety, environmental impact and the need for improvements in agricultural systems. One of the main points is that risk assessment is an ethical concern, the basis behind doing safety tests for environmental impact and human and animal health, is the principle of do no harm. We should minimize harm that we cause. This is a universal principle, as is the principle of progress of science and medicine to benefit people and the planet.

In the future the differences between perceptions of what is acceptable enhancement and what is not, will be one of the main dilemmas to balance for international committees. Genetic engineering will be cheap technology and difficult to stop, especially in systems which do not recognize patent rights. The question what constitutes a moral being, human beings, animal species or a wider sphere will also be debated. However, these questions are considered given the basic universal consensus that we should protect human beings and their dignity, though there will continue to be different balances on individual and group. There is also a consensus that we should value nature, but how much environmental protection should shape human desires is a question that may not be resolved to the satisfaction of all. These issues however, as I have argued, are not inter-cultural but between individuals and we all are a little schizophrenic in the way we apply our ideal ethics to our bioethic of action.


These and further documents are on-line <">

BEPCAG, Biotechnology and the European Public Concerted Action Group, "Europe ambivalent on biotechnology", Nature 387 (1997), 845-7.

Hoban, T. J. & Kendall, P.A. (1992) Consumer Attitudes About the Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture and Food Production. Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina State University.

Lo, W.H.Y., Han, S., Zhang, J. & Lee, J.L. (1994). A survey of people with higher education to genetics and diseases in Beijing, pp. 195-198 in N. Fujiki & D.R.J. Macer, eds., Intractable Neurological Disorders, Human Genome Research and Society. (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z.).

Macer, D.R.J., Attitudes to Genetic Engineering: Japanese and International Comparisons. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute 1992.

Macer, D.R.J., Bioethics for the People by the People, (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994).

Macer, D.R.J., Akiyama, S., Alora, A.T., Asada, Y., Azariah, J., Azariah, H., Boost, M.V., Chatwachirawong, P., Kato, Y., Kaushik, V., Leavitt, F.J., Macer, N.Y., Ong, C.C., Srinives, P. & Tsuzuki, M. (1995), "International perceptions and approval of gene therapy", Human Gene Therapy 6: 791-803.

Macer, D.R.J., Asada, Y., Tsuzuki, M., Akiyama, S., & Macer, N.Y. Bioethics in high schools in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1996).

To Papers list
To Eubios Ethics Institute book list
To Eubios Ethics Institute home page

Please send comments to Email < >.