Ethical Considerations in Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering stands at the forefront of scientific innovation, offering transformative possibilities for our world. By pushing the boundaries of molecular biology, scientists demonstrate the capacity to manipulate the genetic code of organisms, including plants, animals, and humans. The recent advancements in CRISPR/Cas genome editing tools elevate precision (Cong et al., 2013; Chen et al., 2019), opening new avenues to combat diseases, hunger, and malnutrition. However, beneath the surface of these promising developments lies a complex ethical dilemma, prompting us to question the appropriateness of exercising such power—raising concerns akin to playing God. 


Early Success in Plant Genetic Engineering 

Human history is replete with instances of genetic modification through traditional breeding, where beneficial traits were selectively enhanced over generations. Genetic engineering, specifically with genetically modified (GM) crops, represents a more targeted and expedited approach. The first generation of GM crops, resistant to weed killers, emerged in the 1990s, fostering increased crop yields (Duke and Powles, 2008). Another group of GM crops incorporates genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) (Bates et al., 2005), providing resistance to specific insect pests without harm to humans. Success stories include crops like soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, potatoes, tomatoes, and rice, as well as transgenic papaya and eggplant, which have addressed agricultural challenges in various regions. 


Innovations and Controversies 

To prevent unwanted gene flow, terminator seeds (or Genetic Use Restriction Technology – GURT) were introduced, producing sterile plants but necessitating annual seed repurchase (Lombardo, 2014). These seeds generate sterile plants, reducing the risk of unintended cross-pollination and the spread of modified genes. However, this innovation comes with the trade-off of necessitating annual seed repurchase, a practice that has sparked debates regarding agricultural sustainability and farmers’ autonomy. Despite their benefits, controversies surrounding GM crops persist. The dominance of herbicide-resistant crops, especially to glyphosate, raises concerns about the concentration of power in the seed and pesticide industries. Critics argue that world hunger is not solely due to a lack of global food production but rather to issues of accessibility and uneven distribution. Modern agricultural practices, unfortunately, do not address the real problem but instead exacerbate issues of inequality. Understanding genetic engineering entails not just appreciating breakthroughs but also closely analyzing their wider ramifications and the intricate web of controversies that surround them. Fostering a responsible and ethical approach to the advancement of plant genetic engineering requires an understanding of these complex interactions. 


Challenges and Unknowns 

The widespread adoption of GM crops prompts additional questions about potential risks, such as direct health effects, allergic reactions, transgene stability, and unintended impacts on non-targeted organisms. Rigorous safety assessments precede commercialization, yet incidents of allergic reactions and outcrossing underscore public apprehension (Bakshi, 2003; Qiu, 2013). Striking a balance between economic gains and ethical considerations remains a persistent challenge that might take the following into consideration: 

  1. To what extent have GM crops effectively alleviated world hunger thus far?
  2. Does the adoption of GM crops genuinely lead to a reduction in pesticide usage?
  3. Can GM crops effectively address multiple nutrient deficiencies, even though they are typically engineered to enrich a single nutrient?
  4. Do farmers derive benefits, or is it primarily advantageous for seed companies?
  5. What measures can be taken to minimize potential health risks associated with GM crops?
  6. Developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of nature.
  7. Enhancing the conservation of the environment and the ecosystem.
  8. Ensuring the disclosure of information and protecting consumers’ rights.
  9. Examining issues of inequality arising from monopolies.
  10. Evaluating conflicts of interest between public research and private enterprise.
  11. Considering the social and financial effects on small-scale farmers in developing countries that have limited access to GM technology.
  12. Assessing the long-term impacts of GM crops on symbiotic relationships, microbial communities, and soil health.
  13. Focusing on control and ownership of plant genetic resources.
  14. Evaluating the possible effects of genetically modified crops on traditional and native farming methods, conserving crop varieties and knowledge that hold cultural significance.


Perspectives on Genetic Engineering 

Despite drawbacks and ethical concerns, genetic engineering holds vast economic potential and the promise of improving human life. The pivotal question centers on our readiness—both within the scientific community and the public. Adequate understanding and control of the subject matter are imperative to minimize the risk of irreversible harm to the environment and human health. Transparent communication is essential to dispel public fears and foster broader acceptance of genetically modified organisms. Only through a comprehensive grasp of technology can the power of genetic engineering be harnessed for real-life benefits, paving the way for responsible and ethical innovation in the field. 



  1. Bakshi A. 2003. Potential adverse health effects of genetically modified crops. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health 6, 211-225. 
  2. Bates SL, Zhao JZ, Roush RT, Shelton AM. 2005. Insect resistance management in GM crops: Past, present and future. Nature Biotechnology 23, 57-62.
  3. Chen K, Wang Y, Zhang R, Zhang H, Gao C. 2019. CRISPR/Cas Genome Editing and Precision Plant Breeding in Agriculture. Annual Review of Plant Biology 70, 667-697.
  4. Cong L, Ran FA, Cox D, Lin S, Barretto R, Habib N, Hsu PD, Wu X, Jiang W, Marraffini LA, Zhang F. 2013. Multiplex genome engineering using CRISPR/Cas systems. Science 339, 819-823. 
  5. Duke SO, Powles SB. 2008. Glyphosate: A once-in-a-century herbicide. In Pest Management Science, pp. 319-325.
  6. Lombardo L. 2014. Genetic use restriction technologies: a review. Plant Biotechnol Journal 12, 995-1005.
  7. Qiu J. 2013. Genetically modified crops pass benefits to weeds. Nature 



About the Authors

Muhammad Aamir Khan is a 2024 Plantae Fellow, and is on a quest to create a healthier and more sustainable future. You will often find him exploring the realm of plant genetics and cereal mysteries. You can find him on X: @MAKNature1998.

Ching Chan is a 2024 Plantae Fellow. Ching’s group is broadly interested in plant-microbe interactions under different environmental conditions and the application of this knowledge to crop improvement. You can find him on X: @ntnuchanlab.