Genetically modified foods

I. Introduction

Genetically modified foods (GMFs) are foods or semi-luxury foods that consist, in whole or in part, of a genetically modified organism (GMO). Genetically modified foods also include foods that consist of the product of a GMO or that use a GMO in their production. The GMO may be a microorganism, a plant or an animal.

Plants and animals - especially in connection with food production - have always been the subject of human breeding. In contrast to conventional breeding methods (selection, cross, hybrid, and mutation breeding), however, the new, green genetic engineering enables the more targeted transfer not only of entire genomes but also of individual genes, even across species boundaries. In this way, it should help to achieve the goals of increasing yields, securing yields, and improving processing and quality properties, which are also pursued with conventional breeding methods, to a greater extent or to implement them more efficiently.

The legal framework for the production and handling of genetically modified foods in Germany is primarily determined by the Genetic Engineering Act (GenTG). Together with the EC Genetic Engineering Implementation Act (EGGenTDurchfG), it transposes the requirements of the European Community (EC) and EU genetic engineering directives (the System Directive and the Release Directive) into national law. The question of the extent to which organisms produced with the aid of modern genome editing techniques (such as CRISPR/Cas9) are considered genetically modified organisms within the meaning of the existing EU directives on genetic engineering is also currently being discussed at the political level throughout the EU.

Genetic engineering and transgenic organisms

In a narrower and more specific sense, genetic engineering refers to all techniques and in vitro procedures (procedures in the test tube) for isolating, modifying, propagating and transferring the hereditary substance DNA. Genetic engineering makes it possible to isolate specific DNA segments from cells, modify them, and transfer them to other cells. If such a transfer of genetic material occurs to cells with totipotent developmental capacity, i.e., those capable of forming a multicellular organism, such as plant cells or early embryonic mammalian cells, or to cells that later participate in the formation of totipotent cells, such as germline cells or cells whose cell nuclei are used for the cloning technique of cell nucleus transfer (Dolly method), then a genetically modified or transgenic organism develops from these totipotent cells, which, in addition to its species-specific characteristics, also develops those that are encoded by the foreign genetic material introduced into its genome.

Use in food production

Genetic modification in food production is currently carried out mainly on plants and microorganisms, as these groups of organisms are particularly suitable for this purpose due to their asexual multiplicity and ease of culture, whereas genetic modification of vertebrates is much more difficult to achieve. However, the use of cloning technology, cell nuclear transfer and new genome editing techniques could change this in the coming years. Genome editing techniques allow the targeted modification of individual sequences of a genome, e.g. "rewriting" a DNA sequence, adding to it, deactivating it or cutting it out completely. Since genome editing methods can be applied to all organisms, plant or animal organisms can also be modified in this way.

In the context of food production, genetic engineering methods are used with different objectives, which can be distinguished from one another using the terms "input traits" and "output traits“:

Modification of input traits

Input traits are those characteristics of a plant that affect its growing conditions. Genetic engineering is used in an attempt to modify input traits in such a way that the agricultural or biotechnological production of certain foods and feeds or certain additives becomes more efficient or is made possible in a certain quality or quantity in the first place. This mainly involves influencing tolerance and resistance characteristics. For example, a number of crops, such as corn plants (e.g. MON810 and MON863) and potato plants, have been endowed with bacterial resistance genes against certain pests, while other plant species, such as soybean and canola, have been endowed with genes that induce tolerance to certain herbicides. One example of this is the so-called glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready crops from the agricultural corporation Monsanto, which is also the leading manufacturer of glyphosate-containing herbicides.

Change in output traits

In contrast to input traits, output traits refer to characteristics that affect the use of a plant. Genetic engineering can be used to change the properties of individual natural products in terms of their processability, their ingredients or their compatibility with humans. One example of this is so-called golden rice, which contains a higher level of iron and provitamin A than conventional rice varieties, or the Amflora potato variety, in which starch production has been improved.

Another field of application of genetic engineering in food production is genetic testing methods, which can be used within the framework of conventional breeding methods for diagnostic purposes and for monitoring and quality control of food.

In the case of genetic modification, a distinction must be made as to whether or not foreign genes are used. If this is the case, the results are referred to as "transgenic" plants, animals, etc.. If, on the other hand, only genes specific to the species are used in the modification, the term "cisgenic" organisms is used. Their production is made possible by so-called SMART Breeding. Although laboratory techniques are also used here, the process is more akin to classical breeding methods due to the restriction to species-specific genes.

Complementing the SMART Breeding methods, changes are being made to organisms via the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, which has recently become widely used. With the aid of the technique known as "genome scissors", DNA sequences in cells can be inactivated, excised or supplemented very cost-effectively and precisely using an enzyme. It opens up the possibility, for example, of controlling the readout of existing -DNA sequences in an organism to be modified, whereby individual sequences of a DNA can be "inactivated". When applied to totipotent cells, to precursor cells of totipotent cells or to cells whose nucleus is transferred in the context of the cloning technique, it is possible - analogous to the production of transgenic organisms - to prevent the formation of the properties etc. encoded therein in the receiving organism. Whether those organisms that have been modified without the introduction of foreign or native genes and with the help of new editing techniques should be included in the group of GMOs is currently the subject of discussion. (See also Part II. Ethical aspects.)

In the discussion on the use of GMOs, concerns are sometimes raised about cloned farm animals and their use. It should be noted that reproductively cloned organisms do not exhibit any changes in their genetic material, nor has it been previously manipulated in vitro, so that such clones do not need to be labeled as GMOs and therefore do not fall within the broader scope of this topic.

II. Ethical aspects

A frequently voiced objection to the use of genetic engineering processes in the production of food concerns the "naturalness" of food. The "naturalness" of evolution or the genetic makeup of organisms is seen as an "absolutely protected good" that humans must not interfere with under any circumstances. Justification is usually based on the "dignity" or an "inherent right" of nature or - in a religious perspective - on nature as "God's creation". Often, however, the "natural" is simply seen as that which has proven itself and therefore must not be risked.

This is countered by the argument that naturalness in itself does not establish any binding force. Also, man not only always intervenes in nature in a transformative way, but is also dependent on transformative interventions in nature in order to be able to survive at all. To reject interventions categorically and without any distinction would therefore not only contradict the far-reaching acceptance of certain forms of culture and technology but would also endanger the conditions of human existence.

In addition, it is retorted that with the conception of nature as God's creation and of man as God's image within creation, limits are indeed set for man in his actions towards nature, but this does not mean that interventions in nature are necessary to be rejected. This is only the case if one assumes a primarily conservative understanding of man's task as a mere steward of creation. If, however, the task given to human beings in their image in the image of God is understood not only as a task of preservation but also as a task of creation, then transformative interventions in nature could not only be permissible but under certain circumstances even ethically required.

Assessment criteria

Even if interventions in nature are not necessarily prohibited, this does not necessarily mean that they are generally permitted. If the genetically engineered production of food is to be assessed in a differentiated manner, the relevant criteria for such an assessment must be considered. These must be determined, on the one hand, in terms of the obligations to protect humans themselves, who consume and produce genetically modified foods, and, on the other hand, in terms of any obligations to protect non-human life that is genetically modified for food production.

Criteria based on the duties to protect human beings

If one starts from the claims to protection of human beings formulated in the principle of human dignity, the central assessment criteria for the genetic engineering of food are, above all, their autonomy and health compatibility, their environmental compatibility, and their economic and social compatibility. In addition to possible incompatibility, i.e. the possible risks, it is also important to consider possible benefits, i.e. the possible prospects, on a case-by-case basis.

Prospects and risks


It is hoped that the use of genetic engineering techniques could improve the nutritional or health value of foods. In some cases, genetically engineered crops are even expected to contribute to improving the global nutritional and health situation by increasing yields or making them suitable for unfavorable locations. On the other hand, fears are expressed that the consumption of genetically modified foods could result in allergies, possibly even poisoning.

If the food contains antibiotic resistance genes as "marker genes," such as the potato variety Amflora, their consumption could, according to another frequently formulated fear, cause unwanted antibiotic resistance in humans. Also, the example of the MON863 corn variety shows that approval procedures for genetically modified plants repeatedly give rise to controversy about possible problematic health effects. The scientific standards on which approval studies should be based are also frequently disputed.

It is hoped that the genetic engineering of herbicide- or insect-resistant crops will reduce the environmental impact of pesticides, either because fewer pesticides are needed or because more environmentally friendly pesticides can be used. In addition, the use of genetic engineering processes would make it possible to produce food in a more energy-efficient way and with less waste, and thus in a more environmentally friendly way. On the other hand, the possibility of an unintentional spread of genetically modified crops and gene transfer to related species ("vertical gene transfer"), but also to non-species organisms such as soil bacteria ("horizontal gene transfer") is pointed out - with potentially serious disturbances of the ecological balance. There are fears that "natural products" such as honey could be contaminated by pollen from genetically modified plants. Critical voices also assume that once genetically modified varieties have been planted, they can hardly be made to disappear completely; here, frequent reference is made to a study on genetically modified rapeseed conducted by Swedish and Danish researchers.

Economy and society

Proponents point out that genetic engineering could be used to produce food more efficiently and possibly more cost-effectively. This could reduce costs for consumers and increase the competitiveness of the economy. In contrast, concerns are expressed that monopolization tendencies and regional and global predatory competition would also be strengthened, to the detriment of smaller farms and further increasing the dependence of the so-called Global South. The issue of patenting plays a key role here.

Duties to protect non-human life?

Whether moral duties to protect also exist concerning non-human life, and if so, what limits are thus set to the human power of disposal, is controversially discussed. Although this question arises in principle concerning microorganisms and plants as well, the public discussion is primarily concerned with animal life. The positions represented in the field of natural ethics can be assigned to two approaches:

Moral anthropocentrism (Greek anthropos: human being) ascribes intrinsic value only to human beings, only they are to be protected for their own sake. Following the Kantian tradition, this is often justified by the argument that man is granted a special position by his ability to reason in comparison to animals, to which in turn his intrinsic value is linked. Nature with all its elements, on the other hand, has no intrinsic value, but only an instrumental value; it is only of value and to be protected insofar as it is valuable for man. In the context of this nature-ethical position, there are various shades and approaches to justification, each of which emphasizes different possible uses of nature - for example, the necessity of using nature as the basis of human life, the contribution of nature to a good human life, or the educational value of nature.

Second, moral anthropocentrism is contrasted with physio-centric approaches (physis: nature), which ascribe intrinsic value not only to human beings but also to various entities or, depending on the variety, to spheres of nature. Two of the largest currents within physio-centrism are pathocentrism and teleological physio-centrism.

Pathocentrism (Greek pathos: suffering), sometimes also called sentientism (Latin sentire: to feel, to sense), links the intrinsic value of a living being to its capacity for sensation, concrete pain or suffering. This can be recognized, for example, by physiological aspects such as trembling, crying and moaning or also by efforts to escape. According to this position, all sentient beings have an intrinsic value and are therefore worthy of protection for their own sake. The concept of interest is also connected with this approach - in a broad terminological sense sentient beings have an interest in things beneficial to them or in avoiding suffering. Thus, interest capacity can also serve as an indicator of moral significance in the sense of intrinsic value and for resulting duties to protect.

Teleological physiocentrism (Greek telos: purpose, goal) more fundamentally ascribes a moral intrinsic value to all entities that have basic strivings and purpose activities, to which, in turn, duties of protection are then linked. The intrinsic value is here linked to the purposefulness and the inner goal-directedness of entities, which, depending on the definition and scope of the concept of purpose in a broad sense, could be recognized, for example, in principle in the life-supporting or reproductive instinct of living beings. Depending on the line of argumentation and the concept of purpose represented therein, in a broad sense nature as such in its entirety has an intrinsic value, in a narrow sense individual organisms of nature.

These physiocentrically justifiable duties to protect are then to be measured in detail according to the species-specific expression and development of these basic strivings. Disposing of non-human life - for example, by genetic modification - is thus not generally impermissible, but it is subject to a case-oriented justification. This justification must take into account three factors:

  1. the expression and development of the species-specific basic strivings of the living being affected by the order,
  2. the compatibility of the disposition in question with these basic aspirations, and
  3. the goals pursued with the disposition.

In addition to possible incompatibility, i.e. the risks, it is also important to take into account possible benefits, i.e. the opportunities: For example, gene transfer could reduce the susceptibility of animals to disease - in the interest of safeguarding yields, but possibly also in the interest of the animals themselves.

Weighing up prospects and risks

Risk analysis

Opportunities and risks are to be assessed within the framework of comparative interdisciplinary safety or risk research, in which the possible desirable as well as undesirable consequences of a specific application are determined according to binding scientific standards. In addition to the estimation of risks, a risk analysis also includes a risk assessment. The estimation and assessment of consequences and risks of actions and technology applications are based on the current state of knowledge. The challenge of risk assessment is the definition and subsequent measurement of risks.  However, the available information is often incomplete or ambiguous. Reasons for this include the complexity of relationships between causes and effects and the difficulty of calculating the long-term consequences of new and as yet poorly researched technology applications. These factors contribute to the fact that the estimation and assessment of risks of damage to humans and nature are subject to significant uncertainties. Since the classification of certain expected consequences of genetic modification of food as risks already contain a value judgement, the first content-related disputes arise at this level.

The precautionary principle

In a risk assessment, a central question is based on which principles or which values a risk-benefit assessment of the genetic modification of food should be carried out. The precautionary principle, as a possible approach to dealing with risks, is composed of the principle of resource precaution and that of risk precaution. Resource precaution is the requirement for long-term conservation and sustainable management of environmental resources. Risk precaution is the requirement to manage and prevent risk situations characterized by ignorance, lack of evidence, and scientific uncertainty about possible consequences of a product, phenomenon, or process. These consequences are related to (as yet) unforeseeable global and possibly irreversible environmental changes and damage. The precautionary principle is intended to prevent environmental damage in advance and is thus contrary to the principle of limiting damage only after the fact.

Proponents of a (narrowly defined) precautionary principle consider even ignorance of the possible risks of a technology to be sufficient to prohibit or at least restrict its approval. Instead of waiting for a problem to occur or for proof of risk, innovations should be postponed if there is a justified concern. The so-called trial-and-error strategy is no longer appropriate, especially if the development of the precautionary principle is understood as a reaction to damage and disasters that have already occurred. However, uncertainty about possible consequences often arises at the beginning of the development of new technologies, so the precautionary principle may prove to be too restrictive under certain circumstances.

Critical voices fear that a strict precautionary principle will block innovation and competitiveness. It is said to inhibit development because it disregards the risk of inaction. Instead, they call for proportionality between a cautious but active approach to new technologies on the one hand and precautionary measures on the other. They argue that technological progress not only offers economic growth but also the opportunity to counteract central social and global challenges such as the climate crisis, resource scarcity and the problem of world hunger. Critics, therefore, call for an innovation principle that complements the precautionary principle. The innovation principle states that when drafting laws or regulations, it should be examined whether they harm the ability to innovate. Thus, when assessing the impact of technological applications, the focus should not only be on the risks of an application but also on examining and weighing up the possible opportunities that this application holds in store, which could be lost if it is not used.

Applied methods and pursued goals

When ethically weighing up the opportunities and risks to be considered concerning obligations to protect human and non-human life, it must be borne in mind that not only the possibility of producing and using genetically modified foods requires justification given the possible risks. The decision not to use such foods also requires justification because of the opportunities for their production and use, which then remain unrealized.

The objectives pursued in each case may be of different rank or urgency, and the means employed may vary in terms of the risk potentials associated with them. The riskier a means is, the higher priority must be given to the goals that can be achieved through its use if the means is to be justified. For example, the use of a genetic engineering process in food production may be more justified (or perhaps even necessary) if the aim is to improve the nutritional situation in countries of the Global South than if the aim is (merely) to give a food product a more attractive appearance to optimize profits.

However, it also applies that in some cases third parties cannot be expected to be exposed to a very high risk without their consent, even if this risk is to be taken due to highest ranking objectives - particularly if the probability of occurrence of the risks cannot be classified as very low from the most objective perspective. For example, the use of genetic engineering in food production to improve the global food situation could not be justified if large-scale cultivation of the crops were to entail a medium risk of local biodiversity collapse. To classify such risk scenarios, so-called threshold values are used in which the ratio between the expectable amount of damage and the probability is described and which should not be exceeded.

In weighing up a method, its suitability for achieving the intended goals must be examined. In addition, possible safety precautions that could reduce potential risks must also be considered, as well as possible alternative means. For example, the question has been raised on various occasions whether, given the desirable goal of improving the world food situation, a change in the political, social and infrastructural framework conditions would not be more promising instead of a genetically engineered increase in food yields.

Suggested citation

German Reference Centre for Ethics in the Life Sciences (2024): In Focus: Genetically Modified Foods. URL [date of access]

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