Dilemma grows for citizenship;Letter

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Joanna Blythman detects "a new strain of ethical dilemma" behind the destruction of genetically-modified crops (TES, August 6). What does this imply for citizenship education?

The article points to conflicting convictions. The clear recognition that GM crops will affect plants and animals in the vicinity (for example plants, other than the crop itself, destroyed by the accompanying herbicide, or "super-weeds" and "super-bugs" created by gene transfer) conflicts with the insistence that only quantitative assessment in field trials - even if the effects are by then irreversible - can form the basis for an evaluation.

The concern for long-term ecological sustainability is pitted against the drive for high yields and commercial profit. The advocacy of a precautionary approach, made more urgent by risks to human health such as transfer of allergenic qualities and increased resistance to antibiotics, is countered by reliance on a risk analysis that takes only financial gains and liabilities into account.

Seen in global terms, the dilemma becomes yet more complex. Competition for market advantage has led transnational corporations to demand patent laws, trading regulations and monopoly rights that have left national Governments unable to protect their biological resources or the livelihoods and health of their people.

In India, biopiracy and patenting are turning Basmati rice and medicines derived from the Neem tree into brand products that can no longer be afforded by the people who have bred, developed and relied on them for centuries. South Africa is being prohibited from manufacturing its own Aids drugs for sale at a price that those in desperate need can pay.

Handling these complexities is a test case for citizenship education. How do we prepare young people to deal with such ethical dilemmas? Whatever their jobs and expectations, they will all be citizens in a highly interdependent world in danger of tearing itself apart. How do we arrive at the relevant learning outcomes envisaged by the Panel of Education for Sustainable Development?

The new subject of citizenship cannot carry the whole weight: each subject teacher needs to consider the knowledge, skills and values that their subject conveys - and how these contribute to the evidence and sensitivities needed for ethical judgements of the kind so dramatically illustrated in the violent destruction of GM crops.

Ruth Conway Member of VALIDATE (Values in Design and Technology Education) 303 Cowley Road, Oxford

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