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

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

Social impacts of GM crops in agriculture

The importance of addressing social impacts for meeting sustainable development is getting increased attention worldwide. Ending poverty, increasing wellbeing, and reducing inequality are all central aspects in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. There is vivid debate in society at large as well as within the research community regarding whether or not the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops can contribute to meeting such goals.


In a systematic literature review of published research on the social impacts of GM crops in agriculture Klara Fischer and colleagues show that the different dimensions of social impacts are addressed to different extent in research. Studies on economic impacts dominate the field. Many other dimensions of social impacts, such as studies of wellbeing effects remain rare. Also a focus on the Global South currently dominates the literature. The study indicates that an important reason for the apparent conflicting views regarding whether or not GM crops can have positive social impacts on agriculture is that most studies have focused on a limited spectrum of social impacts and that studies focusing on different impacts come to different conclusions.

Studies focusing on economic aspects are, in general, more positive to GM crops, whereas studies addressing aspects of access, distribution, and cultural heritage present a more negative picture of the impact of GM crops. Important barriers for reaching positive social impacts highlighted in the literature are the dominance of the private sector in GM crop research and development and regulations that prevent poor farmers from re-using seeds. The economic studies currently dominating the literature seldom address these aspects.

Fischer, K., Ekener Petersen, E., Rydhmer, L., & Edvardsson Björnberg, K. 2015. Social impacts of GM crops in agriculture: a systematic literature reviewSustainability 7: 8598-8620

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

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

Evaluating ethical tools

The issue of biotechnology in agriculture involves many ethical issues such as the value of nature and naturalness and the moral status of species. Sometimes instead of discussing the issue we talk past each other because we do not understand the other person’s viewpoint. We might also not be fully aware of how committed we really are to the issue at hand.

Ethical tools are devices for facilitating such deliberation, reasoning, and decision-making about ethical issues. They might, for instance, consist of computer games that help the users to clarify their own ethical standpoints or of meeting formats that help a group of decision makers to arrive at an ethically well-founded decision.

There are a number of such tools available. Until now, however, there has been a lack of clear criteria for evaluating them; that is, what makes an ethical tool a good one, and how can we choose among different tools? Payam Moula and Per Sandin critically reviewed existing suggestions for how ethical tools are to be evaluated. Among other things, they argued that one particular proposal for evaluating ethical tools based on the concept of “ethical soundness” is unhelpful. Instead, they suggest that the quality of an ethical tool is decided by its purposiveness, i.e., how well the tool achieves its intended purpose(s). Just like regular tools, such as hammers, shovels, and scalpels, a good ethical tool is one that fulfils its purpose. The purposes of ethical tools differ, and thus the quality criteria should differ as well. Moula and Sandin present a categorization of such tools and the assessment criteria for each:

1. All ethical tools can be judged on the crucial qualities of comprehensiveness, or how well a tool includes all relevant considerations, and user-friendliness.

2. For tools that have the goal of reaching a decision in a democratic context, the criteria of transparency, action guidance, and justification of decision-supporting mechanisms are important.

3. For tools with the aim of engaging the public, procedural fairness is crucial. Procedural fairness ensures that the use of the tool, if used by a group, is carried out in a fair and justified way. Several such tools have been used in the assessment of biotechnology in Europe.

Moula and Sandin also note that the scope of use for an ethical tool is limited to a single moral community (a group of people who share basic norms and values) and that this feature is frequently overlooked. Tools are typically unhelpful if the users of the tool disagree too much about some fundamental value issue. If a group of discussants have a completely different view on whether naturalness is a morally relevant consideration, some tools might be of limited use. Thus future research should focus on identifying criteria for the scope of an ethical tool’s applicability and the limits for its successful application.

Moula, P. & Sandin, P. 2015. Evaluating ethical toolsMetaphilosophy 46: 263–279

Book chapter
Moula, P. & Sandin, P. 2017. Ethical Tools. In S.O. Hansson (red.), The Ethics of Technology London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield International, pp: 115-127

Breeding for public health: A strategy

Significant improvements in public health can be achieved if we manage to enhance the nutritional quality of our diets. This is true for populations in all parts of the world, although the needs for dietary change are partly different. Plant and animal breeding can contribute to promote human health by providing new and healthier food products that farmers can produce in an economically viable way and consumers can choose to buy and eat. However, this will only be achieved if breeding makes full use of knowledge about nutrition, consumer behaviour, farming and agricultural economics. A strategy is needed for breeding for public health. A multidisciplinary group of researchers, food scientists, nutritionists, animal and plant scientists and social scientists led by Sven Ove Hansson has developed a strategy for plant and animal breeding for public health. The strategy includes the following:

  • Breeding for health-promoting traits should target both micronutrient deficiency (primarily low-income countries) and diseases such as overweight and coronary disease (primarily high-income countries).

  • The highest priority should be given to healthy variants of traditional food items that can be introduced universally i.e. completely replace older, less healthy variants, followed by products that may not be suitable for universal introduction but have a large market potential in major consumer segments.

  • Efficient incentives to produce healthier foodstuffs are currently lacking and need to be created. The crops and products must be attractive for farmers to produce and for consumers to eat.

  • Social influence through general endorsement is key to obtaining a general adoption of more healthy food habits among consumers.

  • The best available technologies should be used. For certain crops and traits, modern technologies such as genetic modification and genome editing will be needed.

  • Breeding has to be combined with economic development, treatment of diseases that aggravate malnutrition, and adequate dietary information.

The current market structure for farm products does not give farmers sufficient incentives to produce more healthy plant and animal products. Farmers are often paid for quantity, without any reward for health-related quality. The food production chain needs to be reformed so that consumer demands for healthier products have a stronger impact.

Hansson, S.O., Åman, P., Becker, W., De Koning, D-J., Lagerkvist, C-J., Larsson, I., Lehrman, A., Risérus, U. & Stymne, S. 2018. Breeding for public health: A strategyTrends in Food Science & Technology 80: 131-140

Farmers´ and scientists´ experiments complement each other

Farmers all over the world perform experiments in their fields, and have done so since long before the modern experimental agricultural science took shape. There is an extensive anthropological literature on the farmers´ experiments, rich in empirical details, but the philosophical issues that these experiments give rise to have not received much attention before.

Now, Sven Ove Hansson, Professor in philosophy at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, have investigated the methods in farmers´ experiments from a philosophical perspective and written an article about this.

He thinks that we should see the philosophy of experimentation as a philosophical discipline of its own, and not as a sub-discipline of the philosophy of science. This is because there are many experiments that are not carried out as part of what we usually mean by science, but still have a great importance in different areas of knowledge.

Farmers 'and scientists' experiments are two traditions that are complementary, he says, and neither of them can replace the other. Many of the farmers' experiments are sophisticated; for example, they involve control fields and long-term trials. They usually aim at finding methods that improve practical work in agriculture and can to some extent be compared to applied research, such as clinical trials and scientific field trials.

Compared to field trials conducted by scientists, farmers' experiments have the advantage that many more replications are performed and that results pertaining to many more specific local conditions. On the other hand, farmers' experiments often have less stringent controls and their evaluation methods are less precise than those of researchers.

Lack of knowledge, for instance about the causes of plant diseases and other stress factors affecting crops, can sometimes hamper the formation of plausible hypotheses in farmers´ experiments. Hypotheses that are easier for researchers, with specialized knowledge, to come up with. Thus, each of the two experimental traditions has advantages that the other lacks. Neither can replace the other, but there is the potential for mutual and respectful learning between them.

Hansson, SO. 2019. Farmers’ experiments and scientific methodology. European Journal for Philosophy of Science 9: 32. DOI:10.1007/s13194-019-0255-7

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 even more difficult 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 as 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

GMO or not GMO? Here are the issues we should talk about instead

What do genetically modified (GM) crops have in common with HIV and blood donation? A lot, says Sven Ove Hansson, Professor of Philosophy at KTH and SLU and program director at Mistra Biotech. In a recently published article, he points out the similarities in how the risks have been managed in terms of the ability to grow GM crops and gay men's ability to donate blood. From the first reaction with safety measures and regulations to prevent negative consequences, followed by research and increased knowledge, and the difficulties to revise initial risk assessment.

– In both cases, with GM crops and blood donation, uncertainties previously highlighted by the experts have now been replaced by scientifically based knowledge. What was previously well-founded caution is not relevant anymore, but it is politically difficult to reverse decisions that were once taken to protect the public, says Sven Ove Hansson.

Especially the risks and precautionary principle are interpreted incorrectly in the case of biotechnology in agriculture, Sven Ove Hansson claims. What many seem to believe is that the precautionary principle is a general instruction to be cautious, while it is actually evaluation of uncertain or incomplete scientific evidence. Sven Ove points out that no plant breeding is risk-free but that the discussion about how the plants got their traits is scientifically outdated.

– We should talk about the breeding goals, regardless of technology. For long time the focus has been increased yield, which in itself does not have to be in conflict with, for example, environmental sustainability or nutritional content. But we need to consider how socially beneficial breeding goals can be realized in a system that today is dominated by large international companies with their own priorities that do not necessarily go hand in hand with what can be considered sustainable and what farmers and consumers think is important. We need to ask whether intellectual property rights can be reformed or applied in a better way, to strengthen the farmers and to enable innovations that are important for sustainability and food safety, says Sven Ove Hansson.

Regarding the current legislation, Sven Ove Hansson reflects on the lack of addressing benefits in the EU's risk assessment of GM crops and how, from both sides in the debate, it is talked about "GMO or not GMO" as if it was a choice between no GMOs at all or to allow all GMOs. The motifs for one or the other is often about what may come in the future, rather than what the decision refers to here and now.

Instead of focusing on GMOs or not GMOs, there are several ethical aspects to reflect on that relate to plant breeding and biotechnology in agriculture:

• The selection of breeding goals, a choice that should be guided by the long-term public good and by the interests of smallholders and consumers,

• The implementation of these breeding goals in a system for plant breeding that is currently dominated by large international companies with other priorities,

• The measures that plant breeders need to take in order to prevent the inadvertent release of cultivars with undesired traits, such as toxicity or weediness,

• How the (science-based) precautionary principle should be applied to plant breeding,

• How a food labelling system can ensure adequate information to consumers wishing to avoid foodstuffs obtained with biotechnology, without contributing to unjustified worries concerning these products, and

• How the intellectual property regime can be reformed and/or better applied, in order to empower subsistence farmers and better support innovations that are important for sustainability and food security.

Hansson, SO. 2019. A science-informed ethics for agricultural biotechnologyCrop Breeding, Genetics and Genomics DOI:10.20900/cbgg20190006

Published: 20 November 2019 - Page editor: