Acton Institute Powerblog

God and GM Foods

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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.

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.


  • Schiller Thurkettle

    Dear Mr./Dr. Ballor:

    I enjoyed immensely your article on GMO food and theology and circulated it to colleagues.

    I find it troubling that opponents of biotechnology are increasingly adverting to the story of Noah to press their point, while apparently missing what I consider to be one of the story’s central themes.

    That is, it was up to Noah to build the ark and take the animals along. And, had he not, all humans would have perished, and all animals with them. Without humans and their will to take care of creation, the animals (at least) are expendable. We’re expendable, too, just higher up the hierarchy of expendability.

    Does this reading work for you?

    Kindest regards,


  • Although [i]expendible[/i] is not the term I would use, I think I agree with your sentiments. The role of human beings as stewards has repercussions for the rest of creation, so that when Adam and Eve fall the animals and earth is negatively affected. So the key here is the concept of stewardship, which in the case of Noah seems to be closely related to his role as federal head of the covenant.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your discussion on the issue of where we should draw the line on genetic modification of plants and animals.

    Certainly the millenia of modification of plant and animal genes through selective breeding has been long accepted. Direct genetic modification of the same magnitude should not be troubling. Most modern genetic modification involves use of existing genetic material from one plant or animal species and placing it into another.

    Clearly one of the constraints on genetic modification should be whether it creates danger to humans or the environment, such as through modification of disease organisms, parasites, or plants or animals in a way that causes harm to humans or other species.

    A more subtle kind of harm would be genetic modification that interferes with the ability of the plant or (especially) animal to fulfill its normal role in life and the ecosystem. We should avoid modifications that cut short the subject’s normal life span, or make it painful, or that disables it from carrying out its normal, instinctual behavior. One of the particular dangers in such harmful modification is that, like general cruelty to animals, it causes the human modifier to lose sympathy with God’s creatures. It is well known that children who torture animals and learn to enjoy such torture are much more likely to be sociopaths similarly harming other humans.

    The placement of significant human genetic material into animals raises the question whether doing so will endow the creature with some of the intelligence and sensibility of human beings.

    If a pig receives genes that enable it to grow a kidney that will be a genetic match for a human being who is dependent on dialysis, and if this does not result in special pain to the animal, over and above what might occur with a pig raised for food, the slaughter of the pig for the kidney does not appear substantively to differ from slaughtering the pig for food and leather.

    If, on the other hand, implantation of human DNA were found to materially enhance the pig’s intelligence, it would raise the question whether the pig should be, out of simple human charity and condescension, allowed to live out its life, or be sacrificed in furtherance of research.

    I am disinclined to credit claims by doctors or scientists that animals do not experience pain, hunger, thirst or fatigue, nor claims that this is true for (a) fetuses in utero, (b) newborn babies, or (c) persons who are comatose or otherwise unable to communicate and articulate their distress. It seems to me that we should err on the side of preventing the infliction of pain whenever possible, even if we are uncertain whether the entity being considered can indeed perceive pain.

  • DJEB

    Schiller, to answer your question, no, it doesn’t.