Acton Institute Powerblog

The Science of Stewardship

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In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine some of the issues surrounding concern for our planet’s growing human population. In “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods,” I argue that increased food production, augmented by advances in genetic modification, has a key role to play in meeting the needs of future generations. And in this way companies like Monsanto have contributed greatly to our ability to address the need for increased yields.

They have done so in great measure by combining tech with technique, or as the Forbes piece puts it, “marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering.” Just as important as getting seeds that have the right genetic “tech” is mastering all the variables and skills needed to make plants grow properly, from soil makeup, to cultivation techniques, to timing. On the question of timing, for instance, there’s always more research being done on the best time to plant different kinds of crops.

A recent Popular Science feature, for instance, labeled the “bean counter” one of “The 10 Worst Jobs In Science” for being “most tedious.” So that even “after 10,000 years of intensive agriculture, we still don’t understand key things, like the best moment to plant soybeans.” And that’s why graduate students like Andrew Robinson at Purdue will “spend the next few years hand-counting beans from about 750 plots.”

But the question of increased population isn’t as innocent as might first appear. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that concern about the increase of the world’s human population often masks latent or not-so-latent misanthropy.

And on the other hand, as many have pointed out, it’s not the number of people in itself that largely determines global environmental impact, but rather the lifestyle of those people, their consumption habits, as well as the underlying economic structures, that function as determinative factors.

But even so, increased yields might help alleviate some of the difficulties with realizing large-scale urban farming, for instance. And while “complete self-reliance” of cities on local food sources “is not currently sensible,” and perhaps really shouldn’t be pursued, the prospects of getting significant produce from smaller plots looms large as an economic possibility given advances in both biotech and technique. There is real hope here economically and environmentally for places like Detroit.

As I also note in the piece, there are certainly moral limits that provide us space within which to pursue scientific advances and progress, but beyond which we “run the risk of aggravating our offense against God.” And it is not only up to scientists themselves, no matter how concerned, to recognize and articulate those limits.

On this the Bible has much to say. I made an attempt about 5 years ago to come to grips with these limits within which responsible stewardship occurs in the form of “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” I followed up that framework, which articulates a view largely affirming the instrumental use of plants, with a series denying a similarly instrumental use of animals.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.