Sugar is Sugar (or, the Ethics of Caving in to Silly Demands)

See that molecule at left? It’s sucrose. Sugar, a.k.a. “C12H22O11” to you chemists out there. Sucrose can be derived from lots of plant sources, such as sugar cane, sugar beets, sorghum and sugar maples. But wait! Is the sucrose molecule pictured at left from a regular sugary plant, or from, like, a genetically modified sugary plant? The short answer is: it doesn’t matter. Sucrose is sucrose. It’s chemically identical whether it comes from sugar cane or sugar beet or sugar maple trees, and it’s chemically identical whether it comes from a genetically modified plant or a “normal” one. Plants also give off oxygen, you know. But genetically modified plants don’t give off genetically modified oxygen: it’s just good old-fashioned oxygen, plain & simple.

But don’t bother trying to explain this to groups currently lobbying businesses to promise only to use non-genetically-modified sugar. Check out there story, here:
Coalition of Ethics-Based Investors Aim to Stop Planting of Genetically Modified Sugar Beets

An investors’ coalition called the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) has launched a campaign to secure promises from companies not to use sugar from genetically modified (GM) sugar beets.

The campaign encourages consumers to write to 63 U.S. beverage, food and restaurant companies and ask them to swear off the GM beets for the spring 2008 planting season.

Now, why would anyone genetically modify sugar beets in the first place? The main reason (as explained here) is to render sugar beet crops more resilient in the face of herbicides. Why would anyone object to that, you ask? The groups protesting are concerned about “weak governmental review and oversight, and the lack of long-term, independent and peer-reviewed safety studies.”

Now, I’ve blogged about GM foods before. At this point, I’ll only say that of all the foods to worry about, sugar — sucrose — is very far down the list. If you’re eating a genetically modified potato, I guess you could wonder whether, of all the many many things that make up a potato, there might be something in there that could hurt you. Science says “no,” but at least it’s not crazy to wonder. But sugar — from genetically modified plants or not — is just that: it’s sugar. And hopefully the companies being lobbied, here, will have the good sense to state that in their replies to this campaign.

3 comments so far

  1. William Buschert on

    Yes, sucrose is sucrose. But implicit in that response is the idea that human food safety is the main (or perhaps the only) morally relevant consideration when it comes to GM foods. Yet while it’s not clearly articulated in the ICCR initiative, one could support restrictions on GM foods that are grounded on considerations that have nothing do with food safety–indeed, nothing to do with consequentialist considerations of any kind. For instance, a call for restrictions on the use of GM foods could be based on opposition to GM agricultural practices or even simply the attitudes engendered by those practices (e.g., failing to respect the integrity of ‘natural’ species). I’m not suggesting that I think such objections are <>good<> objections (in fact, I reject them), but I do think that quite a lot of debate in this area implicitly assumes consequentialist premises that miss at least some of the force of what critics of GM foods are trying to say.In any case, your particular claim about sucrose is actually pretty weak. For instance, glysine is glysine (just like sucrose is sucrose). But if someone proposed to manufacture it by, say, boiling down human infants, the structure of the molecule would not be an especially morally relevant consideration.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Will:Thanks for your comment.Your critique is a fair one. I stuck with a consequentialist argument because it seemed like the objection being raised in this case was itself primarily consequentialist (“lack of long-term, independent and peer-reviewed safety studies…”) But you’re right, there are certainly other kinds of objections, ones which would require a different kind of response.Of course, I suspect that interest groups like the one mentioned in this blog entry are unlikely to base their prescriptions on ‘integrity of species’ arguments. Partly, I suppose, because they realize that sugar beets, as a species, are not a ‘natural’ species.’ But more likely because they can’t enunciate a clear, convincing argument about species integrity.Given that the <>objection<> here is primarily about safety, the “glucose is glucose” response seems pretty apt.Chris.

  3. […] (For an example of a difference that food packagers shouldn’t care about, see this blog entry of mine, about “genetically modified” sugar: Sugar is Sugar.) […]

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