Non-Native Bugs, Biotech, and Environmental Ethics

From The Guardian: Bug brings hope for fight against Japanese knotweed

It arrived quietly nearly 200 years ago and now threatens numerous British plants, allotments, gardens, pavements, buildings, railways and water courses.

Japanese knotweed – capable of growing 3 metres in as many months – costs a fortune to control and has so far resisted attempts to stem its relentless progress.

Now researchers are sending for help to Japan, the knotweed’s homeland, for a tiny bug that depends on the plant for its lifecycle. They work for Cabi, an international agricultural research body, which has been studying how Aphalara itadori, named after its host plant, might provide a solution….

According to the Guardian, “Authorities in England and Wales are consulting the public” on whether the plan should go ahead. Clearly, introducing an alien species of bug is not a trivial matter…no one can say for sure just what the net ecological impact would be, though presumably the relevant scientists would have some idea, for example, whether there are other local plants that are likely to fall prey to this new bug. But still, caution is warranted.

Question: would it make a difference if this bug, rather than being introduced from Japan, were instead a genetically modified bug introduced from a British laboratory? That is, what if the solution were a biotech solution. Now, by some definitions, this already is a biotech solution. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity:

“Biotechnology” means any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.

That’s pretty broad, but it’s not exactly a loony definition either. So this project could easily count as biotech. But what if this were more, shall we say, hardcore biotech? Would there be more, or less, reason to be worried about a GM version of a native British bug, than a “natural” version of a Japanese bug?


About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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