Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet

Social and ethical aspects

Here you can read summaries of some of the publications from our research. You can read more about the research projects here

How to label “natural” foods

A standard argument in the debate on biotechnology and food is that food produced using some kind of biotechnology (for instance genetic modification) is unnatural. Against this background we may understand demands for labelling food, for instance with claims such as ‘all natural ingredients’. There is controversy on how to justify, design, and implement such labelling without misleading the consumer. 

Naturalness is not one single concept, but several ones (polysemy). Furthermore, those concepts typically allow degrees, so that things can be more or less natural. This complexity should be reflected when food manufacturers label their products. However, there is no obvious way of presenting an aggregate measure of a particular food item’s naturalness. One way to visualize this is to make a graphical presentation that contains several axes, with the degree of naturalness represented on each axis.

This is done in a scientific paper with the title “How to label ‘natural’ foods: A matter of complexity”. A diagram with more axes would probably be too complex to be practical. It would therefore be advisable to strike a balance between a label’s being comprehensive and it's being clear and easily recognizable. A way to solve this would be to analyze what combinations of naturalness axes are present in different food items. If some types of naturalness usually go together, the most common combinations could be represented by a small number of distinctive labels.

Sandin, P. 2017. 
How to Label ‘Natural’Foods: a Matter of ComplexityFood Ethics 1-11

GM crops, the hubris argument, and the nature of agriculture

Thoughts about human relations with nature and our place in the world play a central role in environmental ethics. Payam Moula (KTH, Royal Institute of Technology) investigates the moral status of agricultural biotechnology and, more specifically, genetically modified (GM) crops by employing the hubris argument. 

The old notion of hubris, given to us by the ancient Greeks, provides a narrative from which we can understand technology and ourselves. The strong, persuasive power of narratives in ethics and politics has been acknowledged and can be traced as far back as Plato. 

Several authors have claimed that to engage in agricultural biotechnology is to exhibit arrogance, hubris, and disaffection. Ronald Sandler offers us an understanding of hubris that he claims gives us a prima facie reason and a presumption against the use of GM crops. At the core, his argument is that biotechnology falls within the tradition of manipulating and dominating our environment, and because this tradition has caused many of our current problems, relying on further manipulation and domination in the form of technological solutions would be hubris. 

Payam argues that Sandler’s hubris argument fails for several reasons:

1) Sandler and many others fail to have a proper understanding of agriculture as an inherently technological practice that is radically different from “nature”;

2) the notions of control and manipulation that are central to the concept of hubris are difficult to understand and to use in the context of agriculture;

3) trying to establish a prima facie reason against GM crops runs into serious difficulty because many GM crops are profoundly different from each other; and

4) even if we accept Sandler’s argument of hubris, it actually plays no role in the reasoning and evaluation of the moral status of different GM crops.

Payam provides a second interpretation of Sandler’s argument that does not imply that we have reasons to oppose GM crops per se, but rather that when we choose a strategy for meeting our agricultural challenges we cannot rely on GM crops as “the solution”. Payam’s interpretation of the argument might provide us with insights for how GM crops are to be used as a part of an overall strategy, but the argument does not provide us a prima facie reason to oppose GM crops nor does it succeed in establishing a presumption against their use.

Moula, P. 2015. 
GM Crops, the hubris argument and the nature of agriculture Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28: 161-177

Genetic engineering in large-scale cattle breeding raises ethical and practical questions

Novel development of biotechnology opens up for new possibilities to change the genetics of farm animals. Through the use of so called molecular knives and genome editing the cows can be edited to be born without horns, and thus will not have to be dehorned. It is also possible to lower the risk of mastitis in cows by transferring genes from humans through genetic modification (GM). Those are just a few examples on possible applications for new technologies in animal breeding.

To date there are no genetically modified or genome edited farm animals in food production and it is uncertain how the future legislation will regulate the application of those techniques. If such applications will be permitted, the techniques will probably be used in large-scale breeding programmes, which will raise new questions – both practical and ethical. Can we, do we need to, and should we use these techniques in commercial breeding? Does it matter what reproduction technology we use, how we handle cows and embryos, or what trait we change? Are there alternatives ways to reach the same goals?

In a new interdisciplinary article, the researchers describe the scientific literature, and contribute with ethical reflections on this topic. Ethical questions regarding animal welfare are important. Values and views on the integrity of animals, naturalness and risk assessments are other factors that affect how the new technologies could be assessed and could be received in society.

The knowledge in the area of genetics is expanding in a fast pace but we still have limited understanding of how complex traits are regulated on the genetic level. To change individual genes with known effect is currently closer at hand than changing genes at several places in the genome to affect complex traits. The techniques can be used to different extent and for different purposes, which will determine to which degree the animals are affected. In the article the researchers suggest that the new techniques should be evaluated within the breeding context they are to be applied in, before being used on a larger scale. In this process an advisory committee with researchers, industry representatives, representatives of the public, as well as ethically or philosophically educated persons, could provide valuable views.

– These are complex issues, but they will be easier to manage if we focus on specific applications, says Susanne Eriksson..

Eriksson, S., Jonas, E., Rydhmer, L., & Röcklinsberg, H. 2017. Breeding and ethical perspectives on genetically modified and genome edited cattle. Journal of Dairy Science101:1–17

The precautionary principle should be handled with precaution

When we do not know whether something might be dangerous or not, it makes sense to be cautious. If a new technology promises some benefits but also raises concerns of unexpected but possibly disastrous consequences, the technology should be introduced stepwise with adequate safeguards – or perhaps not at all. This is the rationale behind the precautionary principle. This is an established principle in policy and law, and there are many versions of it. One often mentioned version is the one found in the so-called Wingspread Statement:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

There have been plenty of critical objections to the precautionary principle over the years. Some claim that it is pointless to talk about ‘the’ precautionary principle, since there are several different versions, and, in addition, those versions are vague, that is, it is not clear what they mean and entail. This makes the principle difficult to apply, and to apply in a fair way. Another critique is that the precautionary principle is rigid and will lead to the undesirable situation where everything will be banned – after all, everything we do might turn out to have some severe unexpected consequences, however unlikely that outcome might be.

In the article “Is the precautionary principle a midlevel moral principle?”, Per Sandin and Martin Peterson deal with these problems and present a new way of conceiving the principle. First, they argue that even if there is perhaps no ‘core’ that is common to all versions of the precautionary principle, it is plausible to think of the different versions as being related to each other by way of family resemblances – like a sister resembles her brother, who resembles their cousin, though the sister and the cousin do not resemble each other at all.

Second, they argue that the precautionary principle can be seen as a moral mid-level principle. Applications of such principles is today a commonly adopted approach in the ethics of medicine and health care. Mid-level principles do not offer any ultimate justification of moral judgments. Instead they are more flexible and must be balanced against other principles, vas general guidelines from which more specific rules are formulated. Peterson and Sandin’s tentative version of a mid-level precautionary principle states: ‘Reasonable precautionary measures should be taken to safeguard against
uncertain but non-negligible threats’.

Sandin, P & Peterson, M. 2019. Is the precautionary principle a midlevel principle? Ethics, Policy & Environment 22: 34-48

Published: 29 May 2019 - Page editor: