In the latest issue of Science & Spirit magazine, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg is interviewed about the ethical aspects of the genetic engineering of food. In “God and the New Foodstuffs,” author Trey Popp writes about the opposition to such endeavors:
Some scientists and environmentalists fear GM crops may have unforeseen consequences. Many organic and small-scale farmers see the new crops as an economic threat; there have been cases in which GM corn has contaminated nearby fields, ruining the market value of neighboring crops. Some social justice activists assert that a precious few wealthy companies reap the benefits of GM crops at the expense of farmers and consumers.
But Gregg offers a counter to the opposition from a variety of perspectives. “There’s an imperative in Christianity in particular, but also in Judaism and Islam, of helping the poor and dealing with questions about poverty and hunger. Hunger is something that afflicts the developing world in particular. Genetically modified food has the potential to radically transform that situation,” says Gregg.
I have written a theological/biblical exposition of the case for genetically modifying plant life with respect to crop yields, nutrition supplementation, and other aspects of improvement in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” My basic point is that the primary created purpose for plantlife was that of providing sustenance for beings with the breath of life. Having a primarily instrumental created purpose, therefore, I’m in agreement with Gregg that the use and “alteration” of plants on a genetic level can be a proper fulfillment of stewardship mandate.
What isn’t always made quite so clear in the article is the biblical distinction between plants on the one hand and beings with the “breath of life” (animals and humans) on the other. So, for example, Calvin DeWitt, president of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, opposes GM foods on the basis of his interpretation of the flood narrative. “There is not much concern for individuals when Noah is asked to put animals on the ark two by two. The emphasis is on lineage. And although, at the time that was written, there wasn’t the terminology to say that these are genetic lineages, they in fact are, of course. These lineages are creations of the Creator, and they are…gifts to the whole of creation,” he says.
But the relevance of his observation is not immediately apparent. The parts of the flood narrative that DeWitt is talking about concern animal life, not plant life (see my post here about ways in which the Noahic covenant is misinterpreted and applied to environmental issues).
I think there it is much tougher to make a theological case for the genetic modification of animals than it is for GM crops. For more on the genetic modification of animals, especially with regard to the creation of human-animal chimeras, see my forthcoming article in the premier issue of Salvo magazine.