Design for values in agricultural biotechnology

Henk van den Belt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Agricultural biotechnology dates from the last two decades of the twentieth century. It involves the creation of plants and animals with new useful traits by inserting one or more genes taken from other species. New legal possibilities for patenting transgenic organisms and isolated genes have been provided to promote the development of this new technology. The applications of biotechnology raise a whole range of value issues, like consumer and farmer autonomy, respect for intellectual property, environmental sustainability, food security, social justice, and economic growth. Hitherto the field has not yet witnessed any deliberate attempt at value-sensitive design or design for values. The reason is that under the influence of strong commercial motivations, applications have been developed first and foremost with simple agronomic aims in view, such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, traits which are based on single genes. The opportunities for value-sensitive design appear to be constrained by the special character of the biological domain. Many desirable traits like drought tolerance are genetically complex traits that cannot be built into organisms by the insertion of one or a few genes. Another problem is that nature tends to fight back, so that insects become immune to insect-resistant crops and weeds become invulnerable to herbicides. This leads to the phenomenon of perishable knowledge, which also calls the so-called patent bargain into question. The possibilities for value-sensitive design will likely increase with synthetic biology, a more advanced form of biotechnology that aims at making biology (more) “easy to engineer.” Practitioners of this new field are acutely aware of the need to proceed in a socially responsible way so as to ensure sufficient societal support. Yet synthetic biologists are currently also engaged in a fundamental debate on whether they will ultimately succeed in tackling biological complexity.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHandbook of Ethics, Values, and Technological Design: Sources, Theory, Values and Application Domains
ISBN (Print)9789400769700, 9789400769694
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • Complex traits
  • Intellectual property
  • Perishable knowledge
  • Sustainability
  • Synthetic biology
  • Trade-offs


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