2001| Biotechnology: Philosophical Perplexities, Ethical Enigmas

Corn in Hand Surrounded by DNA
The 2001-2002 IDEAS MATTER lecture series focused on "Biotechnology: Philosophical Perplexities, Ethical Enigmas." This page will introduce you to the important themes and institutional context of these lectures, and provide links to other pages that will provide the lecture schedule and lecture description, and to information about PHL 450/550, a course for OSU students that accompanies the lecture series.

Institutional Context

Oregon State University is in the middle of the biotechnology revolution. OSU researchers can engage in genetic modifications of plants and animals, do collaborative research with private-funded companies, and obtain patents on modified organisms. These research and commercial initiatives have not gone unchallenged, and some university researchers have been subject the subject of protests and vandalism by those opposed to genetic manipulations.



In sponsoring the IDEAS MATTER lecture series, "Biotechnology: Philosophical Perplexities, Ethical Enigmas," the Program for Ethics, Science, and the Environment (PESE) in the Department of Philosophy at OSU seeks to illuminate a variety of contemporary issues in biotechnology for the university and its community. These issues include:

  • corporate responsibility
  • ethical and religious considerations
  • food labeling, intellectual property
  • public understanding
  • risk assessment
  • science education
  • sustainable resource practices

The goal of PESE in coordinating these lectures is to enhance the understanding of citizens and the academic community on the nature of the questions at stake, and modes of their resolution, as we enter what will inevitably be a biotech century.


Several units at Oregon State University have contributed funding and expertise to bring about this year's series of lectures. They include the Department of Philosophy, Program for the Analysis of Biotechnology Issues, Program for Ethics, Science, the Hundere Endowment, and the Environment. Additional funding has been provided by The Whitaker Foundation.

Fall 2001




October 2

Gary Comstock

Vexing Nature:
On the Ethical Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology

This presentation examines the logic of the two types of ethical arguments against agricultural biotechnology: intrinsic and extrinsic. The extrinsic argument states that the potential harms of GMOs outweigh the potential benefits. The intrinsic argument states that GMOs are unnatural and ought not to be pursued, even if the benefits outweigh the harms. In examining the reasons for continuation of intrinsic arguments, we will consider the role of the Alarmist Response and the Endowment effect in relation to biotechnology. Logical conclusions of each argument will also be discussed.

Gary Comstock is the Coordinator of the Bioethics program and a professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University. He has published more than fifty articles and book chapters in his areas of interest: life science ethics and philosophy of religion. His most recent work is Vexing Nature? On the Ethical Case Against Agricultural Biotechnology. Professor Comstock also edited Life Science Ethics. He has served as principal investigator or project director on more than fifteen grants totaling more than a million dollars, including major awards from NSF and USDA. His Ph.D. was earned at University of Chicago. Comstock has held positions at Oregon State University, is a Member of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, past president of the Society for Agriculture and Human Values, and a popular speaker who has lectured in Asia, Europe, Central America, and Canada. In 1998 he won his College’s Award for Excellence in Outreach. 

October 9

Martin Lemon

The Monsanto Pledge

Monsanto is the world's leading developer of agriculture biotechnology products. What ethical concerns face Monsanto in connection with its place in the agricultural biotechnology market? What societal concerns can specific company pledges allay? The New Monsanto Pledge is a set of commitments that outline Monsanto's policy for the development, use and stewardship of what Monsanto believes are profoundly important agricultural technologies.

Specifically, the New Monsanto Pledge makes commitments in five key areas:

  1. Dialogue,
  2. Transparency
  3. Respect for others' views and concerns
  4. Sharing information and knowledge
  5. Delivering real benefits to farmers and consumers.

Martin Lemon is Environmental Operations Manager of the Western United States for Monsanto Agriculture Products. Lemon is currently responsible for biotech scientific outreach and education to the agricultural community, California food industry, community interest groups, and public forums. In these forums, he has spoken on such issues as risk perception and communication, toxicology, human health and safety, and the environmental behavior and fate of gylphosate. Lemon's research background is in the areas of water quality, product toxicology, and ecotoxiology.

October 16

Susanna Hornig Priest

Morality, Knowledge, Trust, and Public Responses to Biotechnology:  Convenient Mythology and Statistical Reality

Conventional wisdom asserts that the general public would be more supportive of biotechnology if only they understood the science better. While there is certainly some truth to this assertion, opinion data suggest there is more myth. In fact, the situation is far more complex than such a statement implies, presenting a challenge to our understanding that may be as great as the challenge of deciphering the functions of particular DNA sequences. U.S. citizens, like their European counterparts, seem to see biotechnology as a moral issue, one in which trust in relevant institutions appears more closely related to levels of support than does mastery of scientific knowledge.

Susanna PriestSusanna Hornig Priest is an associate professor of journalism and graduate advisor for the science and technology journalism program at Texas A&M University. She has also served as both Acting Director and Interim Director for the Center for Science and Technology Policy and Ethics at Texas A&M University. Priest also recently served on a National Science Foundation panel charged with reevaluating the indicators used to assess public understanding of science. She has also served on a panel for Division of Science Resource Studies and is the associate editor of Public Understanding of Science. Her current research involves comparative analysis of media, survey, and public opinion data from the U.S., Canada, and Europe, in cooperation with colleagues from each participating country; their new book, Biotechnology 1996-2000: The Years of Controversy, will be available soon from Michigan State University Press. Priest received a Ph.D. in communications from University of Washington. She has recently published A Grain of Truth: The Media, The Public, and Biotechnology.

October 23

Carolyn Raffensperger

The Precautionary Principle:
Making Wise Decisions in a Complex World

The precautionary principle states that if a technology or activity poses a threat of harm, measures to anticipate and prevent that harm are warranted even when there is uncertainty about the nature and extent of adverse impacts.

What is a precautionary approach to agricultural biotechnology? Under the principle, how do we evaluate competing claims that biotechnology is both environmentally damaging and necessary to feed the world?

Carolyn Raffensperger, J.D., is executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. SEHN is an "organization without walls" that is comprised of 42 organizational members and hundreds of volunteer scientists across North America. Founded in 1994, SEHN is concerned with the wise application of science to the protection of the environment and public health. It is a leading proponent of the precautionary principle as the basis for environmental and public health policy. It seeks to ensure that public policy is informed by science that is grounded in ethics and logic.

October 30

Scott Exo

Do GMOs Have a Place in a Sustainable Model for Agriculture?

The Food Alliance, a Portland-based nonprofit, operates a farm certification and marketing program to promote sustainable agricultural practices. In 1999, the board of directors of The Food Alliance grappled with the formulation of an organizational position on the use of GMOs: Should those farms using GMOs be eligible for Food Alliance approval? Should the Food Alliance endorse or condemn the use of GMOs? What factors should a public interest non-profit consider when analyzing this technology? Is there enough information known in order to make such decisions? This presentation will outline how the Food Alliance board ultimately decided to forbid GMO use by approved farmers, and how it arrived at an organizational policy in the face of these difficult questions.

Scott ExoScott Exo is the program director for The Food Alliance. He has over fifteen years experience in non-profit and program management. Prior to joining The Food Alliance, Scott served as director from 1991-1997 of the Grassroots Leadership Project at 1000 Friends of Oregon, where he brought diverse environmental and agricultural interests together to create a statewide network of grassroots groups to advocate for farm and forest land protection. As a graduate fellow of the East-West Center, Scott earned an MA in Geography and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Scott has also worked as an organizational consultant and has managed planning, rural development, and education programs in Hawaii, Asia, and Africa.

November 6

Katherine Anne Power

Does World Hunger Require that We Risk Transgenic Agriculture?

Transgenic agriculture presents environmental and health risks that are impossible to calculate. Proponents of transgenic agriculture argue that the benefit of relieving world hunger should count heavily in the decision to go forward with the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the food supply. I will discuss the role of technology as well as social and economic factors in the problem of hunger, with particular emphasis on food security development programs in use in poor rural areas.

Katherine Anne Power


Katherine Power holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Ethics and Writing from Oregon State University.

As a poet, essayist and chef, she attempts to bring clarity and new vision to social conflicts.


November 13

Don Wolf

Animal Biotechnology

Nuclear transfer technology now supports the possibility of reproductive and therapeutic cloning in mammals and this presentation will focus on the question of whether cloning can be used responsibly in humans, and if so, under what conditions. I will review the technology along with the progress realized in these fields in the past 5 years. Arguments for and against the application of these technologies in humans will then be presented.

Don Wolf

Don P. Wolf is senior scientist at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center in Beaverton, Oregon, and Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology. He received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Washington. He is the primary or co-author on numerous professional articles, most recently focusing on the science and biology of reproductive techniques. He currently serves on the editorial board of BIOLOGY of REPRODUCTION.

Winter 2002
Location: Withycombe 217 - Time: 4 p.m.




January 22

Courtney Campbell

The Fear of God and Frankenstein:
Religious Perspectives on Biotechnology

Courtney CampbellCourtney Campbell is currently a professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Program for Ethics, Science and the Environment (PESE) at Oregon State University. Involvement in PESE includes development of new courses, invitation of guest scholars to OSU and the Corvallis community, publishing a newsletter, coordinating faculty forums, and organizing public conferences. Campbell received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia and his B.A. from Yale University. He has previously served as research associate for the Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report, the leading professional journal in the field of bioethics. Campbell has written numerous articles and papers on the topic of bioethics, and includes information and case studies on issues of biotechnology in many of his classes.

January 29

Terri Lomax

Educating the Public About Biotechnology

First introduced in 1996, genetically engineered crops have been adopted by growers faster than any other new agricultural technology, including the tractor. Since the first crops to be introduced included corn, soybean, and canola, GE components quickly became part of the food chain without much consumer awareness. Who can the public turn to for accurate information about this often misrepresented topic? Why haven't they been better informed? This presentation will cover real and perceived public concerns and the role public institutions can play in providing not only their students, but also growers and consumers with the resources necessary to make informed decisions.

Dr. Terri L. Lomax is Professor of Botany & Plant Pathology and the Center for Gene Research & Biotechnology at Oregon State University where she teaches Cell & Molecular Biology and Issues in Agricultural & Natural Resources Biotechnology. Since 2000, she has directed the OSU Program for the Analysis of Biotechnology Issues (PABI), which provides balanced information about genetically engineered crops to the public, press, and policy makers. In addition to PABI, her outreach efforts include the Science Connections program (K-12 science outreach for the Portland Public Schools), which she initiated and currently directs.

Dr. Lomax’s research interests are in the area of plant developmental biology, especially understanding how multiple hormones interact to regulate plant growth and responses to the environment. Her research group is currently investigating the mechanism of action of the plant hormone auxin, using the gravitropic response of tomatoes as a model system. She received her, B.S. in Botany from the University of Washington (1975), her M.S. in Botany/Biology from San Diego State University (1978) and her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from Stanford University in 1983. She was an NSF Plant Biology Postdoctoral Fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford, CA from 1983-1986.

February 5

Steven Strauss

Biotechnology and Trees:
An Enigma of Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable forestry systems vary widely in their goals, management methods, and products. Some are managed as intensively as any agricultural system with wood output as the dominant product, while for others, natural values and services are the primary outputs. Genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM), as it is commonly called around the world, is under consideration only for highly intensive applications with trees such as short-rotation wood plantations, horticultural orchards, and to rescue species threatened by exotic pests. Nonetheless, social forces are pushing forestry systems toward “green” certification, some of which exclude all kinds of GM trees from all possible uses. Terrorism against research is also impeding open discussion and research into novel applications, estimates of benefits, and studies of ecological safety.

Although domestication of plants via intensive breeding, including for trees, has long-standing and broad social support, GM as a directed, highly conscious manipulation of nature appears to generate vociferous biopolitical opposition from a small minority of citizens. Because GM traits vary widely in benefit and safety depending on their nature, I argue that this excessively broad perception of GM - which attempts to define it as inappropriate ethical behavior when directed toward trees of any kind - may preclude substantial environmental and social benefits. Most notably, it may result in pressure to exploit more land or alternative management methods, at higher cost and environmental impact, then otherwise would be needed for meeting human demands for renewable materials and energy.

Steve StraussSteve Strauss is a professor of molecular and cellular biology, and genetics in the Department of Forestry and director of the Tree Genetic Engineering Research Cooperative at Oregon State University. He was also recently a visiting professor in the Department of Plant Science at the Oxford Forestry Institute. He has also served as visiting professor or scientist in France, Australia, and Norway. Strauss received his Ph.D. in Genetics from University of California at Berkeley and his Masters in Forest Biology from Yale University. He has served on numerous grant review panels, including the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Science Foundation.

February 12

Paul Jepson

Environmental Risk Assessment for GMOs

How does public concern about the risks posed by biotechnology affect the assessment, interpretation and management of risks? The recent history of risk assessment in GM crops suggests for example, that industry, government regulators and the public respond very differently to questions concerning the toxicity of insecticides, depending on whether the method of delivery is via novel gene insertion, or via a conventional sprayer. The high level of concern may reflect a complex interplay between many issues including environmental risks, health risks, consumer rights and labeling, basic ethical questions (i.e. is it 'natural'), exclusion of the poor and politically under-represented, the influence of large corporations and concerns about intensive agriculture and its unforeseen side-effects. Given that such concern exists, scientists and regulators must learn to operate within a new environment.

How can ethically appropriate scientific and regulatory procedures be developed that permit the risks and benefits of this new technology to be evaluated, within an environment where the pressure to commercialize is so intense, and where the need to regulate the technology is constantly questioned? This lecture will explore this dilemma by analyzing the recent history of the introduction of transgenic crops.

Paul Jepson is a professor and the Associate Director of the Integrated Plant Protection Center at Oregon State University and was the former Department Head of Entomology. He received a B.Sc. from Imperial College in London, and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. Jepson worked at Southampton University in the UK, before coming to OSU in 1995. His research interests focus on integrated pest management, ecotoxicology and ecological risk assessment for agricultural practices including pesticide use and genetically modified crops. Jepson has worked in Europe, Africa and Asia, and is currently a member of a number of national and international working groups, evaluating risks associated with GM technology.

February 19

Carol Mallory-Smith

Crop-Weed Introgression

Carol Mallory-Smith the George R. Hyslop Professor, has been at Oregon State University since 1994. She is a member of the Department of Crop and Soil Science and the Department of Horticulture with a teaching and research appointment. Mallory-Smith received her Ph.D. from the Universityh of Idaho and was a Research Scientist there for four years before accepting the position at Oregon State University. Areas of research emphasis are weed biology and ecology, herbicide resistance, and weed management. Research is being conducted on hybridization between wheat and jointed goatgrass with an emphasis on gene movement and introgression.

February 26

Kori Haddix

Fear, Facts, & Food:
Public Education Issues in Ag Biotechnology

Stories about ecoterrorist strikes, corn that kills Monarch butterflies, and the possibility of superweeds embody the public controversy over genetically modified foods. Some researchers state that food biotechnology is the safest technology man has ever created, while Greenpeace activists stage protests against the development of genetically modified crops. What are the reasons behind this controversy? This presentation will examine the health and ethical aspects of the debate as well as a theory to explain the public outrage.

Kori Haddix is a student in the University Honors College and a senior in Health Promotion and Education at Oregon State University. She has completed a significant amount of research on the topic of food biotechnology, including her honors thesis.

March 5

Joel Corcoran

Has Patenting Cloned Mammals Become Passé?

While much public discussion has focused on whether humans should be cloned, we seem to pass over the significant philosophical, moral, and ethical issues surrounding the cloning of animals generally, particularly concerning patenting of cloned mammals. What are the reasons behind this lack of public interest and attention when the issues presented are, in many ways, simpler than issues raised by the prospect of cloning people?

Joel Corcoran is an associate with Klarquist Sparkman Campbell, LLP, where he is involved in intellectual property practice focusing on patent prosecution and appeals, primarily regarding biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and other biological inventions. He received his J.D. from University of Oregon School of Law and a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Genetics from Oregon State University.

March 13

Phil Bereano

Responsible Use of Biotechnology 

Spring 2002
Location: Ag & Life Sciences 4001 * - Time: 4 p.m.




April 9

Craig Winters

The Controversy Over Biotech Foods:
Is Labeling the Answer?

Many scientists from around the world are questioning the safety of genetically engineered foods. New proteins never before consumed by humans are being fed to millions of people without pre-market safety testing. People with special dietary concerns are worried that they may be eating genes from foods they do not want to consume. Consumers in the U.S. and worldwide are demanding labeling. Are biotech foods “substantially equivalent” to other foods? Or should the “precautionary principle” be the appropriate way to deal with these new foods?

Craig Winters is the founder and executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods and was founding president of Citizens For Health. Craig has been working in the natural products industry for 23 years and served as an instructor at Bastyr University from 1996-1999 where he taught nutrition students a course called “Nutrition in the Natural Products Industry.” He has given dozens of lectures and radio interviews on the issues surrounding genetically engineered foods.

* April 16

J. Knapp

Manipulating Natural Products and Processes in Crops:
Accelerating and Redirecting Evolution for Social Benefit

Plants are veritable chemical factories: they produce an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 secondary chemical compounds that have been used by humans for fuels, foods, medicines, clothing, and a wide range of industrial products (e.g., rubber, lubricants, and soaps). Many useful compounds are produced by endangered or threatened species and non-crop plants or are present in concentrations below economic thresholds. Genetic engineering has been proposed as the ideal way to exploit much of the chemical diversity found in nature by up- or down-regulating native or foreign genes by genetic engineering. I will present ethical dilemmas raised by manipulating natural plant products and processes for social benefit.

Steven KnappSteven Knapp is a professor and researcher in the Department of Crop & Soil Science at Oregon State University. His research focuses on the development of crops, such as sunflower and flax, to produce novel seed oils for consumption and industrial use. In addition, Knapp is involved in DNA fingerprinting, genetic mapping, and marker-assisted selection, as well as the development of genetic maps and the use of molecular breeding methods in new crops. Knapp received his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in 1983.

April 24

Greg Fowler

Barry Anderson

Geneforum: Creating Informed Citizens for the Gene Age

Can citizens understand what they need to know to participate in dialogue about the new genetic technologies? Does the Internet have a role to play? In what ways might citizen’s values be considered in the development of public policy about genome science? These questions will be discussed in the context of recent efforts by Geneforum - a Portland-based educational organization - to involve citizens in Oregon’s genetic privacy legislation.

Greg Fowler
Greg Fowler is the Executive Director and Member of the Founding Board of Geneforum. He is also and Associate Professor of (Clinical) Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.

Barry F. Anderson is a decision psychologist with special interests in the application of decision-analytic principles to ethical decision making and conflict resolution. He teaches, consults, and publishes in these areas and is known for his work on designing the original prioritizing system for the Oregon Health Plan. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Portland State University.

April 30

Paul Thompson

Unraveling the Riddle of Risk:
Risk Comparisons of Transgenic and Conventional Plants

Comparing the environmental risks of transgenic crops and trees with risks from non-transgenic commercial varieties is an important part of attempts to understand nature of environmental hazards associated with transgenic plants, the degree of risk and ultimately the acceptability of environmental risks from transgenic plants. Such comparisons are surprisingly difficult both for technical and philosophical reasons. A key part of the philosophical difficulty lies in a tendency to blur judgments about the probability that hazards will materialize with judgments about when it is important to undertake a deliberative or quantitative review of environmental risks.

May 7

Stephen Jones

“Corporate Biotech will feed the world”
and other excuses for plundering public research

Public breeding programs, many of which are over a century old, are transforming themselves at an alarming rate towards a business model. The value in these programs is being mined for immediate profit by, among others, corporations, universities and public researchers. Dangers in moving to a business model include the destruction of the very thing that produced the value in the first place: long term free ranging research efforts chosen for their scientific merit with ultimate success usually based on the free exchange of ideas and materials.

Stephen Jones is the winter wheat breeder at Washington State University. The winter wheat breeding program has been in existence since 1894, and Jones is only the 5th breeder to head the program. He has a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of California, Davis and has been involved in wheat breeding since 1981. In 1997 Jones was elected as, and continues to serve as, the chair of the National Wheat Germplasm Committee.

May 14

Andrew Lustig

Is Human Nature “Natural”?: Reflections on Normative Appeals
to ‘Nature’ in Biotechnology Debates

Much of the recent environmental movement views technological progress as having occurred at tremendous cost, namely, the destruction of “nature.” Whether such harm is understood as instrumentally deleterious to human values or as an intrinsic wrong done to nature itself, the contrast is usually posed as one of a conflict between human technology and natural patterns. Yet human technology is itself an activity “natural” to our species; indeed, given evolutionary understandings, “remaking” the world may have been a central causative factor in the emergence of human consciousness. Hence, biotechnological interventions, rather than being a violation of natural boundaries, may be considered a characteristic and appropriate human behavior.

This presentation will explore how normative appeals to nature serve to illuminate, and sometimes obfuscate, discussions and ethical assessments of five general areas in biotechnology. It will suggest an approach that finds biotechnology a natural extension of human creativity but limits that capacity according to ethical constraints that are equally natural to us as responsible moral agents.

Andrew Lustig, Ph.D., is Director of the Program on Biotechnology, Religion, and Ethics, which is cosponsored by Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Lustig received his Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from the University of Virginia and also holds advanced degrees in the History of Science from Princeton University and in Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Before his current appointments, Lustig served as Academic Director at the Institute of Religion in the Texas Medical Center, as Research Fellow at the Baylor Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy, and as staff ethicist for Governor Mario Cuomo’s New York State Task Force on Life and the Law. Lustig is co-author, editor, or co-editor of eight books in medical and public policy ethics, and the author of more than one hundred other publications. He is a founding co-editor of the journal Christian Bioethics, and served as senior editor of the Bioethics Yearbook series for Kluwer Academic Publishers. He is currently a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy.

May 21

Mike Burke
Jim Peterson

Profit, Pitfalls, and the ‘Business’ of
Public Breeding with Private Technologies

Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson
Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Science
Oregon State Univ.

Mike Burke

Mike Burke (right)
Associate Director,
Oregon Ag.
Experiment Station
Associate Dean,
College of
Agricultural Sciences
Oregon State Univ.