The Not-So-Simple Ethics of Biotech

Here’s an interesting article about using genetically-modified (GM) crops as a source of pharmaceutically-useful chemicals. From The Guardian: Down on the pharm
The story starts off at a high-security, sealed research lab where GM plants are being grown:

The plants are tobacco, but they are not intended to be smoked. Instead, the scientists who work on them believe they could save lives. Each has been genetically engineered to carry a gene that is usually found in common algae. Inside its cells, the foreign DNA forces the tobacco plant to churn out a protein that is useless to it, but that happens to be a potent drug against HIV. The scientists say the drug, and others like it, could save millions of lives across the developing world. The technique has been dubbed pharmaceutical farming, or pharming, and it is emerging as the latest battleground in the war over genetic modification.

The fundamentals of the battle are pretty familiar:

One one side, activist groups such as Genewatch, who fear that “If they put these genes into food crops then it is only a matter of time until there is a mix-up and they get into the food chain.”
On the other side: scientists, frustrated by the possibility that a technology they see as having the potential to save millions of lives may be stymied by fears that they see as unfounded.

What about the corporate side of things? Mostly, industry hasn’t been that interested. Why? The Guardian piece cites two reasons. The first has to do with market. The places most likely to benefit from pharming are also among the least able to pay. Here’s why pharming holds promise for poor countries:

Conventional ways to make modern medicines are expensive, which means pharmaceutical companies generally target those diseases that affect lots of people who can pay. Plants can be grown, harvested, and the useful medicine purified from them at a fraction of the price, so using them as leafy drug factories saves a fortune, and opens the doors to treating people in poorer countries. Advocates say just 250 acres of GM potato crop could churn out enough hepatitis B vaccine to protect the entire population of south-east Asia from the disease for a year.

But as the story notes: “With a few exceptions, the big companies do not smell big profits in the vulnerable people or regions of the world that would benefit most.”
The second reason has to do with what some might call “contextual” or (broadly) “environmental” issues. According to one industry spokesperson: “There is no tolerance, either regulatory or in public perception, for a human gene-based pharmaceutical to end up in the world’s food supply.” In other words, even if industry believes this process is safe, not enough people outside of industry are convinced of that to make it a viable business.

A final twist in this story has to do with stakeholders:

Britain has rejected GM plants once already – a media and consumer backlash persuaded most companies there was little market in the UK for crops that have had their genes tweaked to be resistant to pests or herbicides. But with pharming the battle lines are less clearly defined, as protesters who trashed experimental GM corn plants in France discovered. The crops were making a protein that could be used to treat cystic fibrosis, and when patient groups angrily denounced the action, mainstream green campaigners were forced to deny involvement.

So, what is a company engaged in this sort of work supposed to do when told (as companies often are) that they’re ethically obligated to take stakeholders into account? Key stakeholders, here, disagree with each other. Should the company side with patient groups (how could anyone have more of a stake than them?) or with environmental groups (who, after all, claim to represent the interests of nothing less than the planet and every living thing on it)?

This is just the kind of real-life case-study that everyone with a theory (or even just an opinion) about business ethics ought to be thinking about. Ask yourself this: does your way of thinking about business ethics (or the theory proposed by your favourite guru) help you sort your way through to a reasonable point of view on pharming?

(In fact, I find this stuff so interesting that I’m writing a book on it. That will be the topic of my very next posting.)

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