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“Non-Safety Dimensions of Gene Editing: How Philosophers Could Help”

Presented by Dr. Paul B. Thompson

A minor social movement against the previous generation of agricultural biotechnologies was propelled by objections that had little to nothing to do with the human health and environmental safety concerns that are regulated under the Coordinated Framework. Advocates for the humane treatment of livestock, resisting change in the socioeconomic structure of agriculture, and opposing the growth of capital-intensive agriculture in the less industrialized world united with activists concerned that advances in gene technology would reignite the eugenics or fuel racist notions of genetic determinism. None of these concerns are actionable under the existing mandate of the three regulatory agencies that oversee biotechnology, yet all of them have standing as political issues that are, to varying degrees, addressed by federal and state government. Advocates motivated by these non-safety concerns have pursued their aims by attacking the adequacy of the regulatory framework. There is also no reason to think that the additional precision of gene editing will alleviate the issues. In fact, the revival of human gene therapy discussions suggests it will reinvigorate this non-safety alliance.  Although similar issues arise in medical applications of gene technology, they have seldom been disruptive. We should take note of the way that medical bioethcs has created a forum for deliberation on these concerns that is parallel to governmental activity, but that provides opportunities for robust discussion and debate.


Professor Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University, where he serves on the faculty in the departments of Philosophy, Community Sustainability and Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and has held posts at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. Thompson’s research and teaching has focused on ethical and philosophical topics in food and agriculture. He is the author or co-author of over two hundred articles in refereed journals or scholarly books. His book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. It won the “Book of the Year” award for 2015 from the North American Society for Social Philosophy.  His book The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics was released in a revised and updated second edition in 2017.

Thompson has served on advisory boards at the U.S. National Research Council, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, Genome Canada and for numerous academic journals, including Environmental Ethics and Agriculture and Human Values. His honors include fellowships from the Council on Foreign Relations, the Hastings Center and Yale University, and he is a two-time winner of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association’s Award for Professional Excellence in Communication. He was a founding member and second President of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society, which honored him with its award for Distinguished Career Contribution in Research in 2013. In 2017, Thompson was the recipient of the William J. Beal Award for Outstanding Faculty from Michigan State University, and the Don Ihde Prize for distinguished achievement by a philosophy Ph.D. graduate of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.