Living organisms can be manipulated genetically so that they contain specific characteristics. Such modifications of organisms are obtained by inserting genetic material from other living organisms. Source: Marshall, S: Genetically Modified Organisms and Food. Nutrition & Food Science, 1994.94:1,4-7. (Link) A genetically modified organism (GMO) is associated with uncertainty by many. Source: Mehta, M.: Public perceptions of genetically engineered foods: “Playing God” or trusting science Risk. Health, Safety and Environment, 2001. 12,205–220. (Link) Consequently, many countries have strict regulations or laws against use of GMOs. The European Union in particular have strict regulations regarding GMOs. Source: Davison, J.: GM plants: Science, politics and EC regulations. Plant Science, 2010. 178,94–98. (Link)   Source: Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2003 concerning the traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms and the traceability of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms and amending Directive 2001/18/EC (Official Journal L 268, 18/10/2003 P. 0024 – 0028) (Link)

In Africa regulations of GMOs are also strict although GMOs have great potential for food and crops. Source: Paarlberg, R.: GMO foods and crops: Africa's choice. New Biotechnology, 2010.27:5,609–613. (Link) The regulations of GMOs in Africa are based on the consumer's perceptions, rather than on health and food safety. This is noteworthy because it could seem unethical that the health and security of people have a lower priority than the consumer's perceptions and it might indicate that populism and industrial interests have a large influence regarding political decisions. Source: Viljoen, C.D and Marx, G.M.: The implications for mandatory GM labelling under the Consumer Protection Act in South Africa. Food Control, 2013.31:2,387–391. (Link)

Manipulation of living organisms raises questions in the public. One of the central questions which has led to public debate is whether scientists pretend to be God by constructing GMOs.
The agricultural industry has benefited from selective breeding throught centuries, and although this has led to discussions as well, it is a standard procedure which is well-known in the society.
Whether selective breeding to some extent is equal to the manipulation of living organisms is difficult to determine. One might claim that both methods entails modification of genetic material. However, there is no doubt that genetically engineering is a complex field, which includes careful considerations concerning safety and regulations among others. Source: Mehta, M.: Public perceptions of genetically engineered foods: “Playing God” or trusting science Risk. Health, Safety and Environment, 2001. 12,205–220. (Link)

What role does the scientist play in the debate?

Studies suggests that individuals with lower levels of scientific knowledge are equivalently sceptical towards science. Source: Einsiedel, E.F.: Mental Maps of Science: Knowledge and attitude Among Canadian Adults. Int J Public Opin Res, 1994.6:1,35-44. (Link) Lack of scientific knowledge indicates a necessity of dissemination of research done by scientists. Especially research in genetically modified food is dependent on the applications in society. This is emphasized by the distinction between the uses of GMOs in agriculture compared to the production of pharmaceutical products, which has been described by C. Marris in her article about public views on GMOs. Source: Marris, C: Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths. EMBO reports, 2001.2:7,545-548. (Link) This means that people are more likely to accept GMOs if they recognize an effect of a product, which is a well-known property of pharmaceutical products. It is therefore important to include the public in the laboratory work in hope of preventing a link between synthetic engineering and insecurity. Therefore, it is important that a scientist does not become ignorant to this reality but rather aims at converting science.

What is our chances in an already established world?

Many people living in Sub-Saharan Africa remain poor and insecure as result of few employment possibilities and low productivity. Given that these populations depend on agricultural products as potato and maize, a solution to the low productivity seems essential. Source: Paarlberg, R.: GMO foods and crops: Africa's choice. New Biotechnology, 2010.27:5,609–613. (Link) Furthermore, their poor nutritional status remains low because maize does not cover the recommended diet of a human being. Source: FAO/WHO/UNU, expert consultation: Protein and amino acid requirements in human nutrition. World Health Organization,2007.935,1-265. (Link) Genetically engineering of living organisms offer infinite possibilities of reducing starvation in the world. Source: Marshall, S: Genetically Modified Organisms and Food. Nutrition & Food Science, 1994.94:1,4-7. (Link) Although the developed part of the world has the resources to help populations suffering from undernourishment, malnutrition or both, it is worth acknowledging how the help appears to others.
In relation to the strict GMO regulations in Europe, one might reflect upon the justice of offering GMOs as food supplement to the developing countries. In addition to this, it is worth considering how the regulations of GMO in developed countries influence governments of developing countries. Source: Paarlberg, R.: GMO foods and crops: Africa's choice. New Biotechnology, 2010.27:5,609–613. (Link)

Due to the above mentioned it might be worth considering improvements to legislations concerning the use of GMOs in relation to agriculture in European countries.

How will a controversial proposal be met by an established society?

Another consideration approaches the morals of offering GMOs to people who have limited access to food to begin with.

First of all the finances relies on investments from nongovernmental organizations, benefactors or both. The motive for this comes from the minimal output that is associated with relief aids, which is not beneficial from the perspectives of the industrial world. Secondly, there is a risk of violating the right of the individual to choose when the alternatives to GMOs are limited. The fact that the people in focus do not have alternatives to begin with could on the contrary support the application of GMOs.

Unlike starving populations, the ethical concern of offering GMOs to malnourished societies is not whether it is unfair to offer this without alternative nutritional choices. In this context, it is decisive to aim at integrating the GMOs in the gastronomy that already exists, as the two nutrition experts also states in an expert opnion. But, will the population of developing countries necessarily have a positive view on an initiative such as this coming from the developed countries?

Is it an ethical issue to eat genetically modified bacteria?

One question in our questionnaire was: Would you eat GMO or food produced by GMOs? The optional answers given were yes, no, maybe, I don’t think so, and I don’t know. We received a total number of 259 completed questionnaires where the answers were as follow; 43.66 % yes, 8.11 % no, 33.98 % maybe, 8.11 % I don’t think so and 6.18 % I don’t know.
As mentioned above, GMOs are organisms where the DNA has been modified; some people might even claim that it has been tampered with. It is important to note, that many people are unfamiliar with the procedure of genetical modification. This perhaps leads to skepticism or the development of fear for the unknown. The distribution of answers to the question Would it be an ethical issue to offer GMO as relief aid for hunger-stricken countries? showed that 16.22% of all participants answered yes or maybe. But is it only the ignorance, which means that people are hostile towards GMOs?
Or could it be the opposite case, namely that people with knowledge of GMOs are afraid of the risks and hazards that genetically modification brings? Furthermore, could those people be brought to change their minds if they were guaranteed a safe system for humans and the environment?

Life is full of daily risks, which have to be counterbalanced against each other and against potential benefits. Studies have shown that policies continue to be based on false believes about the public opinion in Europe. Source: Marris, C: Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths.EMBO reports, 2001.2:7,545-548. (Link) A well-known term that describes this tendency is “zero risk”, which indicates prospects without risks. Demands of “zero risk” are not realistic and although these opinions does not necessarily belong to the general population, it has become increasingly important to communicate the risks to the public about risks. Source: Bartsch, D: GMO regulatory challenges and science: a European perspective. Journal of Consumer Protection and Food Safety,2014. 9:1,51–S58. (Link) So saying, the regulations of GMO primarily should focus on preventing danger to people and to the environment rather than accommodating zero tolerance. Source: Peters, HP., et al. Culture and Technological Innovation: Impact of Institutional Trust and Appreciation of Nature on Attitudes towards Food Biotechnology in the USA and Germany. Int J Public Opin Res,2007.19:2,191-220. (Link)

Furthermore, it might be important to consider which genes to use in the development of GMOs. As synthetic biologists we know that genes consists of four bases, Thymine, Guanine, Adenine and Cytosine, and we know that the difference between genes lies in the sequence of these four bases alone. Nevertheless specific genes, like genes from animals, might be unethical to use in GMO’s as it would be disrespectful towards vegans, vegetarians, religious groups etc.
Would people, who for various reasons does not eat meat, accept to eat a product containing genes from an animal? Is the use of animal genes in GMOs a real ethical issue, or is this exclusively an example of lack of knowledge? These questions are important for the continued research.

Would the use of GMOs in the agricultural industries have an impact on the job market or cultural traditions?
As mentioned above, genetically modified organisms can bring pivotal advantages to the agriculture and food industry. The production may expand with larger quantities and more uniform breeding, which has worked as an encouragement of approving GMOs in the agricultural industry. Source: Select USA: The Biotechnology Industry in the United States. (Link) But what would happen if GMOs were approved for all industries? Would it result in the optimal exploitation of our resources and would it lead to the best and largest quantities of the food production? Maybe it would. But maybe it would also lead to loss of jobs, as the breeding is easier and more successful. Furthermore smaller companies and private farmers might be forced to produce larger quantities and better products, as they otherwise could not keep up with the rapid growth and development of the food producing industry.

In other respects, the permission of GMOs in agricultural industry might lead to the creation of more new jobs, for example within the research industry. GMOs also require environmental safeguards that must be performed by educated experts. In that way, it could encourage to higher educational levels in some countries, and thereby high probability of getting a job afterwards.

It has been valuable for our iGEM team to work on constructing an edible coli where so many ethical considerations come into play. To begin with the idea of creating a nutrition source based on non-digestible materials for human beings seemed as the good deed of the day, but it did not take long before this viewpoint changed due to reflections.
It came to our attention that scientists play a major role in the dissemination of new scientific proposals. The reason for this is the importance of a good integration of the proposal, but also because of the impact it can have on peoples lives.
On our ethics course in Copenhagen and through the trip to Ghana, we began to reflect upon how our targeted consumers would welcome our proposal. Whether they would see it as much-needed help or as a deamination of their needs and we realized that maybe not all people would welcome the idea with open arms.
Our ethical considerations have made us look at our project from several new angles and opened our eyes to both the good and the more problematic aspects of our project.