The use of biotechnology requires careful consideration

New biotechnologies constantly allow us to do things we could not do before. But just because something is possible, is it also ethical? Christine Nellemann, Director of Institute at the National Food Institute, along with other members of the Danish Council on Ethics grapple with such dilemmas in an attempt to nuance the debate on how best to exploit the opportunities offered by technology.

Christine Nellemann has been appointed a member of the Danish Council on Ethics from 2023-2026. Photo: Marie Bentzon

Is everything up for debate—or are there sacred cows?

In the Danish Council on Ethics, everything is up for debate, and I think our chairperson makes sure to create an environment that encourages discussion of all issues. Because having the courage to ask some of the more controversial or provocative questions is inextricably linked to the prevailing mood.

These are also the kinds of forums we should be able to have at our universities and in society in general, where we find the time to listen and discuss complicated topics together.

I’ve been a member of an EU expert group tasked with looking at the green transition of the food system in the EU. Here, some of the researchers said, ‘well, we think that we’ve now been raising our voices for so long, and the politicians aren’t listening’, so they wanted to take a more agitating approach instead of relying purely on scientific knowledge in the hope of getting the politicians to act.

But that isn’t the way we should go because it isn’t conducive to an open debate. However, the open debate can be difficult to conduct on the big scene, and that’s why we need places like the Danish Council on Ethics, which has been set up to discuss and reflect on such issues and to have a dialogue over an extended period.

I think it could be exciting if we could get that debate going at different levels, but this first and foremost requires a safe space from which to roll out the debate.

How do you balance facts and feelings?

As members of the Danish Council on Ethics, we are actually asked to present arguments and assessments—and not opinions as such—at our meetings. You then end up making your position clear in conclusion, when the Council makes an official statement and the members decide what their personal position on it is—and the members’ views are presented in the published statement. The goal is to include all possible facts and aspects of the issue and consider them in the dialogue.

My experience is that your view can change during the process. So, you may have a gut feeling about a topic at the outset. But when you have heard all the presentations, read the reports, and discussed it, some of the members’ positions have actually changed from what they originally intuitively thought.

Good things take time—but does the Danish Council on Ethics take too long?

We’re actually discussing whether we could become a little more up to date, be a little more on the ball, so that we can report on various topics more quickly. Having said that, it’s a privilege that we can look at things for six months or a whole year and discuss and receive input from many sides and develop and mature our assessments—unlike, for example, politicians, who can be asked by a radio journalist in the morning to comment on what they think about abortion limits or something completely different.

The fact is that the technology develops very quickly in many different fields. And I think that the Danish Council on Ethics personally gives me the opportunity to stop and reflect more and be curious about what others think. I think that’s very valuable and something that I personally also get a lot out of.


  • Master’s degree in human biology and a PhD in medicine from the University of Copenhagen and an Executive MBA from DTU 
  • Research focus: harmful effects of toxins on humans and alternatives to animal testing
  • Employed at the National Food Institute in 1999 (the then Danish Veterinary and Food Administration)
  • Appointed Director of the National Food Institute in 2014
  • Appointed by the Minister for Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries to sit on the Danish Council of Ethics from 2023 to 2026
  • Board member of the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NFA), among others, and member of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR).


The Act on the Danish Council on Ethics describes the Council’s area of activity as the ethical issues related to research into and use of biotechnologies and genetic technologies that affect people, nature, environment, and food products. It also covers other ethical issues relating to the health service and to biomedical research regarding humans.

The Council consists of 17 members appointed for a three-year term. The members are a mix of experts and laypeople. They may be reappointed for a further term of maximum three years.

The Danish Council on Ethics is an independent and autonomous council and therefore does not receive instructions or the like from ministers, the Danish Parliament, or others—either on topics to be discussed by the Council or regarding the specific contents of opinions, advice, public debates, or the like.

However, regarding the Committee on the Danish Council on Ethics in the Danish Parliament—which usually meets once a year—ministers and politicians can ask questions that they would like answered or suggest topics that the Council can address. It is Council’s sovereign decision whether to answer the questions or take up the suggested topics for discussion.

The Danish Council on Ethics was formed in the wake of the birth of the first Danish test-tube baby in 1984, which clearly showed how the technological development can push the boundaries of what is possible. Since 2004, new food technologies have been part of the Council’s activities. 

Source: The Council on Ethics' website


DTU has a strong focus on the use of biotechnology within pharma and health, where biology and technology are utilized for early diagnosis of diseases as well as the development of new medicines and treatment methods.

Biotechnology is part of the life science area and research into this area is so extensive that it alone accounts for a third of the university's scientific publications. The latest national figures show that the biotech industry's total annual growth in this area is 6 %. This is three times higher than the average growth in the private business community.

Statistics Denmark's latest figures show a 30 % increase in the number of graduates with a long scientific education within technical sciences who are employed in the sector.

Read more in our special topic on biotechnology.