Sponsorship and ethics
We read the reply of Brom, Staman, De Wit and Beekman to our letter about the sponsorship of the recent Wageningen conference on Food and Ethics with great interest. Clearly we touched a raw nerve! We had no intention to chase ethicists with accusations of wrong going. Rather, we were trying to focus on a larger point. Let us clarify
The first undersigned did not attend the conference because of the issue of sponsorship. We would be interested to know why Brom et al. think attendance would have changed his views on sponsorship?
Frans Brom et al. find the comparison between sponsorship of debates about land mines and food safety outrageous rhetoric. Clearly, they know nothing of the work of the TAO group in Wageningen, where we have contributed to, studied, and compare approaches in, both biotechnology consensus events and hot conflict resolution. The comparison is only outrageous if it is assumed that the morality inheres in the technology itself (that weapons are intrinsically bad and food intrinsically good). Our own perspective is that there is nothing moral about technology itself
Everything depends on the social context in which technology is used. When that social context includes one-sided patronage and powerful vested interests there is bound to be a crisis of confidence in the results of any debate about the validity of the technology in question. This is not rhetoric; it is a simple observation based on field experience
We are surprised to find ethicists believe environmental NGOs have got better things to do with their money than help establish a level playing field for a debate about deep differences concerning genetically-modified foods. Did the organisers of the conference ask the NGOs for such sponsorship? Were they refused? Was this the stated reason?
We never supposed the thinking of the organisers was in any way influenced by the source of their sponsorship. That was not our point. Our point was that partisan sponsorship is bound to affect public trust in the results of such an event. Also, attention has to be paid to the motivation of Unilever and Monsanto in sponsoring such events, and to the question of how such investment will be justified to shareholders. This point applies not only to ethics conferences but to any university project sponsored by industrial capital, and thus is of concern to the entire Wageningen University
But it is good that the organisers of the conference want to engage in public debate about these kinds of issues, and we hope it may be possible to arrange some suitable event shortly