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Electronic Journal of Biotechnology

versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458

Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.4 n.3 Valparaíso dic. 2001


EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 2001 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Biotechnology, bioethics and the poor

Minakshi Bhardwaj
Institute of Biological Sciences
University of Tsukuba
Tsukuba Science City 305-8572, Japan
Tel: 81 298 53 4662/4625
Fax: 81 298 53 6614


Convention on Biological Diversity describes biotechnology as "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use" (UNEP, 1992). There is a wide array of biotechnologies and its different techniques and applications have provided various goods at different times. Considering the definition under CBD, we can regard using biotechnology dating back when humans started using yeast for making bread or using lacto bacillus for yogurt or curd. We are dependent on biotechnology in our everyday life and it has become inevitable to not to use it.

Biotechnology has come under sharp criticism and media focus for its potential negative impacts and contingent risks. There is an unprecedented and injudicious uproar because of the irreplaceable potentiality of the technique and the way it can change the course of nature and life. The issue is just not limited to agriculture and food, but goes beyond the animals and humans. Although we can say that humans have been altering the genetic make up of plants and animals for centuries through selective breeding in plants and animals to obtain desired characteristics and particular traits of desired species. With the improvement in the basic understanding of the biological make up and processes of growth and development as well as increase in understanding of the genetic make up with other molecular and cellular processes, we are now in the position to apply this knowledge in a more considerable manner in plant and animals for agriculture and food and medicine purposes.

Biotechnology is a multidimensional issue and it has social, economical, ethical and legal implications; along with its discrete implications for the environment and all the biological systems. Although biotechnology has largely been regarded as a legacy of the developed world, and the current debate on the future of biotechnology has also included its benefits and risks for developing countries. Many propositions have been made on its advantages and disadvantages for the poor in the world. Sometimes debates have not been poised and not involved participation from third world.

Morality and ethics semantically mean roughly the same, although they are not. Morality describes the accepted norms that govern behavior towards others. Ethics involves rational decision-making, balancing risks and benefits. There are 4 basic principles of bioethics beneficence, autonomy, do no harm, and justice (Macer, 1998). Ethical principles essentially mean the same for all regardless whether one is rich or poor. However, they are generally prioritized according to circumstances for beneficence and justice to all.

Basically, the main questions raised for the new biotechnology applications include if it would eradicate hunger, can it assure sustainable development, will it effect biodiversity and how environment is affected, can it provide a disease free world, will it ensure renewable resource economy and most importantly its contribution to sustainable development. The premise of this paper is to reflect on some of the bioethical issues that challenge the principles of bioethics as biotechnology is applied in many new socio-scientific contexts, especially its relevance to poor countries.

Food and agriculture

Food is one of the basic necessities of life and its provision and access to it are fundamental ethical questions. Despite the fact that right to food is recognized as a human right, hunger still very much prevails and it is causing a lot of suffering and death. The right to food is a concept extending from Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims " everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food..." (United Nations, 1948). But there are over 800 million people estimated to be hungry and malnourished globally (FAO). It is an ethically unacceptable situation, and protagonists of biotechnology believe that it can help to solve the food insecurity problems. Food security as described in World Food Summit 1996 Rome Declaration on food security, "food security exists when all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life" (FAO, 1996). The issue is multifold and complex. Food is the need and the one of the most urgent demands for the third world. We need to examine why there is food insecurity? Food insecurity exists because of poverty, lack of resources and furthermore inability to properly utilize the available resources, lack of information and education and there are many more that can be counted.

It is believed that biotechnology has great potentials to provide some answers to some of the questions. Although food security for growing population is considered as the most common and most urgent need, it makes a little impression on biotechnology opponents who dismiss these arguments as being heard before for Green Revolution. Green Revolution failed to meet its promises in the long-term. Post Green Revolution concerns on yield deceleration, productivity decline, yield ceiling, large yield gap, social inequity, unequal distribution of food and assets; and environmental degradation as justification for their outright rejection. The second line of thought is that the new biotechnology provides opportunity for any kind of species in any environment. It is valuable tool for any kind of land or climate conditions of either high or low potential. It is plausible to target it to meet any environmental conditions. Nevertheless these are based on unexamined assumptions.

Unlike Green Revolution, which concentrated on High Yielding Varieties (HYV) biotechnology goes further beyond to produce herbicide resistant crops, insect resistant crops, virus resistant crops, salt tolerant crops, increase in food quality and high yield staple crops. Ethically, we can regard if biotechnology can enhance food quality and food supply with production without much disturbance to agro-ecosystems, it should be applied to feed the hungry world. But the issue goes beyond that argument when technologies like terminator technology are being discussed or FLAVR SAVR tomatoes are being genetically modified to suit the market needs. Use of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURT) have been controversial especially for small scale farmers in poor countries who need to buy new seeds every year; where the general practice had been to save and use the seeds from the previous crop for the following year. However, it is arguable on the cost effectiveness of using saved seeds, which many times get diseased due to long improper storage or develop disease later in the cycle.

In majority of the developed countries large-scale farming is done and agriculture is big business. The picture is different in the poor countries where agriculture is still considered as a social activity and usually done at a household level or small level. The challenge is how we can merge the two when it comes to international level. Globalization has its advantages and disadvantages. Increase in market competition and lack of resources to develop better infrastructure for agriculture has jeopardized the future of small-scale farmers in poor countries. Although we can argue that information on technology has become relatively more easily accessible with globalization.

With regard to consumer's choice and other genetically modified food related issues like labeling, many surveys show that public has negative feelings against GM food, especially in Europe and Japan. Choice of food, whether GM or non-GM holds small meaning for the poor who need food to survive. There are developments for producing genetically modified food carrying vaccines or enhanced nutritional content that could be source of preventing nutrient –deficient diseases. This might be useful in the countries where large populations suffer from malnutrition.

Health and medicine

The concept of health and medicine is largely related to food and the environment. Hunger, malnutrition results in sickness and death. Ethical issues in biotechnology applications in medical sector became more vocal after the sequencing of genome and also partly due to controversies over the Human Genome Diversity Project. Will biotechnology be able to provide good health to all sick people? There are fears that it might widen the poor and rich divide. In the developing world, such a revolutionized molecular medicine based expensive health care may not be the first choice for better treatment, where millions of people do not even have access to basic medical treatment. Poverty and fierce patent protection makes drugs unaffordable poor people in the world. As many disease-causing microorganisms are becoming antibiotic resistant, the people need new medicines. A parallel issue is that in many developing countries, traditional medicine is used for treatment of many diseases. Countries like China and India have developed Ayurveda and Acupuncture and it is a big source of income as well as cultural practice (WHO). From that aspect biotechnology may affect their income generation source. Many developing countries also make cheaper generic drugs and have a big market in poor countries in Africa. When world trade regulations come into force from the year 2006, the supply of those generic drugs would dry up. In June 2001 UN announced a Global Health Fund of $ 10 billion to fight AIDS, TB and malaria in the poor countries but it could generate only one tenth of its target because of differences in the priorities between Europe and Unites States (Mackenzie, 2001).

The arguments are not meant to depreciate patents. Patents encourage scientific spirits and retain enthusiasm of stakeholders to explore new things. The challenge is how we can balance the needs of the poor with satisfying the demands of drug manufacturers. Roughly it takes approximately $ 500 million to produce a drug, with decades of intensive research. For scientists who spend time, money, energy and intelligence, patents are a reward for their invention. But there are limits to autonomy and scientific freedom. Scientists also have social duty above their personal autonomy to provide best from their expertise without doing harm in any form (Bhardwaj, 1999).

It is agreed that it will be extremely difficult and in some cases impossible to provide best treatment to all in need, but a rational and balanced approach is needed so that the people in the developing world have their share of benefits from these advancements. The principal of justice is not limited to the provision of good health-care systems, also it could be related to biocentric thinking when animals are used for experiments, which is another cause of concern in many countries. Criticism has been raised against multinational drug corporations using poor, disease prevalent countries as testing grounds or for placebo control trials, especially in African continent where it is not only cheaper to do trials, also, since the epidemic is at very alarming stage, the results for the trials are easy to obtain. Ethically we should provide food and medicine to those who need them. The concept can be argued from utilitarian ethics, which says maximum good for maximum people or based on theory of Justice by Rawls, that argues for goodness based on the least that could be benefited.

Need for proper Information management

Information management is ability to access information and at the same time being able to disseminate information. Information management is an important issue in the light of rapid emergence of information tools. It is part of capacity building and empowerment of the nations. Still there is a very visible divide on the issue of information management between the rich countries and the poor countries. The central issue in information management is the knowledge gap and information problem (World Bank Report, 1998). The relationship between knowledge gap and information problem is a twin issue and cannot be addressed separately. It is unlikely to entirely eliminate unequal distribution of knowledge and close the digital divide in the larger context of the rural environment, but it can be elevated from its present situation if parallel efforts are taken to improve the local environment; being able to accept the rich flow of information in a new and different form.

Even with the costs of communications plunging, the 'digital divide' is conspicuous between North and South. Poor countries first need technology get to access to the information. They don't need to recreate technology, they can just adopt the technology; but the paramount issue is lack of basic resources to get access to technology for information. Computers and Internet is not available in the remote villages. Even if it is available, illiteracy is an obstacle to people to fully exploit the advantages of digital technology. The local people in the rural villages lack the capacity to understand and capture the knowledge in the digital form. Internet connectivity alone will not solve the issue of information problem where in the most development programs the main source of information is through training and direct consultation with expertise.

Information dissemination is equally important as the access to information. Information is still a property of the rich world, and in the world where half of the world still does not use telephone, it is difficult to distribute equal and proper information. Over 40% of the US now uses the Internet – but just 1.6% of Asians and 0.3% of Africans do so. And when it comes to content over 80% of web pages and 90% of documents on the web are in English despite the fact that the vast majority of the world does not speak it (Brown, 2000). The question is prudent but should not be ligated to the need for education or health improvements; but how best we can improve the technology so that it can reach the grass roots in an effective way. We need to find new ways to leverage information technology for distance learning, basic health information to patients and practitioners and also weather forecast, crop techniques to farmers in the area of food and agriculture.

Sustainable development and natural resource management

Sustainability is often used in environmental concern arguments during GM debates. However people are not sure of its accurate meaning. Sustainable development includes sustainable use of natural resources for better quality of life. The concept of sustainable development is a balancing act that focuses on socio-economic development with the demand for sustainability and safeguarding the environment with economic development for present and future generations. The difficulty is to lessen the threat of economic growth or economic development to the environment. Out of 1100 million people of the developing countries, 800 million people live in the rural areas, and since such large populations are concentrated in the rural areas, they often get marginalized in the development process resulting in an alarming growth in the number of hungry and unemployed people in rural areas.

Sustainable system should ensure sustainability of environment, which provides natural resources that are harnessed and utilized for our existence and well being of society. It includes both resources that are renewable and non-renewable. It should ensure sustainability of economy, which is one of the essential basic criteria for sustainable life. Measures for poverty eradication will not be successful unless people are empowered. Empowerment by education, helping them to be self-reliant by promoting training programs, extension services, providing technical expertise at the grass-root. But these programs have sometimes been alienated from the ways or opportunities of their returns for implying enhanced technologies for improving productions. According to FAO Sustainable development should focus on sustainable livelihoods, people's participation and mainstreaming of gender; and population issues. Sustainable rural development should work for agrarian transformation and institutional reform; research, extension, education and communication; natural resource monitoring and management (FAO, Sustainable Development Department). A sustainable rural development will occur only when there is a clear, understandable, fruitful interaction is there between donors and the recipients. When demand and supply is balanced and resources are not exploited but harnessed. There is participation and interaction at grass-root level.


Ethical issues of biotechnology are not limited to the issues discussed in this paper. We need to examine our own judgment before we apply ethical principles in any aspect of life. How to balance our own interests with the interests of the society in which we live and share the fruits of the knowledge and expertise? Bioethics gives value to everything, either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we apply bioethical principles to biotechnology, the greatest challenge for humankind is to accredit value of food, value of human health and well being, value of oneself and community, most importantly value of nature and natural resources.


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Brown, M.M. (2000). Bringing Information Affluence to the Developing World. Address to The State of the World Forum, New York, 7 September 2000.        [ Links ]

FAO. Available from:        [ Links ]

FAO. (1996). Rome Declaration on World Food Security. Available from:        [ Links ]

FAO. Sustainable Development Department. Available from:        [ Links ]

Macer, D. (1998). Bioethics is Love of Life. Eubios Ethics Institute, Japan.         [ Links ]

Mackenzie, D. (2001). Protection Racket. New Scientist. 21 July 2001.        [ Links ]

UNEP. (1992). Convention on Biological Diversity.         [ Links ]

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.         [ Links ]

WHO. Available from:        [ Links ]

World Bank Report 1998. Knowledge for Development, Geneva 1998. Available from:        [ Links ]


Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network

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