Rights: The University of Waikato Published 21 November 2007 Download

Many people are happy for modern biotechnologies to be used for medicines, but not for farming or food production. Why is this?


Michael Reiss

One of the things that really interests me about modern biotechnology is how in many countries around the world, people are very uncomfortable or unsure about its use in agriculture, but are pretty happy about it being used in modern medicine. And there seem to be several reasons for this, one of which is the argument that it's not essential to use, for example, genetic modification for the production of foods. You could get along pretty well without it. But there are certain medicines where already genetic modification has been life saving. And practically everybody just wants to save lives. So the benefits in medicine are so clear cut and absolute.

The second reason is a bit more subtle, and I am not certain of it, but it goes as follows: It's that everybody knows that drugs and medicines in a sense are a bit artificial, that is whole point of them. So if you are prepared to take an artificial medicine, as almost everybody is, you the might be quite prepared to take a medicine made with the most recent sort of biotechnology.

Many people have a possibly slightly naive un-thought-through view of foods as being natural, and of course people who advertise foods very much use words like “fresh,” "natural,” “organic”. And therefore some people might not like to think of a product as basic as bread or milk or beer as having been made through modern biotechnologies.

Now to a biologist of course it is a bit ironic because we know that bread and milk and beer have been the result of biotechnology for thousands of years, but for many people that is not how they like to see their food. They like to see them as archetypically natural.