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Social Philosophy Today

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published on July 15, 2015

Duncan Purves
DOI: 10.5840/socphiltoday201571421

GMOs, Future Generations, and the Limits of the Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is frequently invoked as a guiding principle in environmental policy. In this article, I raise a couple of problems for the application of the Precautionary Principle when it comes to policies concerning Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). First, I argue that if we accept Stephen Gardiner’s sensible conditions under which it is appropriate to employ the Precautionary Principle for emerging technologies, it is unclear that GMOs meet those conditions. In particular, I contend that GM crops hold the potential to provide more than a mere bonus; they hold the (admittedly uncertain) potential to prevent serious harm to millions of people. This means that, if proponents of the Precautionary Principle take prevention of harm as seriously as avoidance of harm, then precaution may tell in favor of GMOs rather than against them. Second, I observe that the use of GM technology in the developing world is likely to be identity-affecting; it will cause people to exist who otherwise would not have. I argue that this undermines Precautionary Principle-based objections to GM technology that appeal to the potentially harmful effects of GMOs on future generations.

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