Posts tagged with: Environmental issues

Today at First Things’ On the Square feature, I question the tone and timing of Patriarch Batholomew’s recent message on climate change. While I do not object to him making a statement about the subject in conjunction with the opening of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference, his initial reference, then silence, with regards to Typhoon Haiyan while other religious leaders offered their prayer, sympathy, and support to those affected, is disappointing. I write,

While other religious leaders offered prayer and tangible support, all that has come from the Phanar is an environmental statement. Hurting people need practical and pastoral help, not politics.

An additionally troubling aspect of the problem comes from his clear implication that the typhoon was caused, or at least intensified, by anthropogenic climate change, using this tragedy to advocate for a political cause through a disposition of fear: (more…)

Golden RiceA piece of news analysis over the weekend by Amy Harmon, a national correspondent for the New York Times, captures well the dynamics of the current debates about the merits of genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s).

Harmon writes specifically about the case of Golden Rice, which has some attributes that should inoculate it against common concerns about GMO’s. Golden Rice is not monopolized by a corporate entity, and has been developed specifically to address urgent health concerns in the developing world:

Not owned by any company, Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.

Harmon also observes that “beyond the fear of corporate control of agriculture, perhaps the most cited objection to G.M.O.’s is that they may hold risks that may not be understood. The decision to grow or eat them relies, like many other decisions, on a cost-benefit analysis.”

Get_Your_Hands_DirtyAs I argue in my latest book, Get Your Hands Dirty, there is a theological basis for the development of genetically-modified foods. The cost-benefit sorts of reasoning has its place, but as I argue, “The limits of all these arguments about GM food are essentially the same: they argue primarily, if not solely on the basis of pragmatic concerns. While these arguments are attractive, especially to American common sense, they are neither comprehensive nor adequate in and of themselves.”

A Christian examination of GMO’s cannot be limited simply to arguments about expediency. It is necessary to first establish that a moral basis exists for this type of human activity. As I examine the case of GM foods through the lens of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, I conclude that such a “biblical-theological framework provides some important general affirmations of the genetic engineering movement with regard to food. This reality is in some respect directly related to the truth of human exceptionalism, the priority of human life over and against that of animals and particularly plants.”

So while expediency cannot be the sole arbiter validating GMO’s, the human cost associated with either acceptance or rejection of such foods are relevant. There are some legitimate concerns about GM foods, at both the level of principle and practice. There are no perfect solutions. But even so, as I put it, our “default position should be in favor of innovations which have a realistic possibility of substantively increasing the fruitfulness of the earth.”

Monsanto PlantWriting over at the Live58 blog, Catherine Sinclair describes her transition from uncertainty regarding GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) to outright opposition: “After doing some more research, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should avoid GMO as much as possible.” This a conclusion that we might think is counter-intuitive, to say the least, for an organization committed to ending the scourge of global hunger and poverty.

Sinclair’s main indictment of GMOs comes down to the agribusiness giant Monsanto: “Because they are companies seeking profit, seed developers like Monsanto do whatever they can to control the agricultural industry.”

It’s important to distinguish the theoretical and ethical basis for genetic modification from the actual behavior and practice of corporations like Monsanto. Too often the two are conflated. In my new book, Get Your Hands Dirty, I have an updated discussion of a theological framework for evaluating GM foods. As I caution at the conclusion of my examination of GM foods, “nothing in this framework presumes any particular policy outcome in the realm of law, and so, for instance, concerns about the use of property rights as a means to tyrannize or monopolize particular industries ought to be considered.”

Making such a distinction allows an approach that is more nuanced and responsible than simply identifying Monsanto with GMOs in general. So, for instance, a self-identified “hippie” writes in Slate:

I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops (like Roundup Ready Soybeans) lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.

But I’m also not going to let my anti-corporate sentiments get in the way of a diverse and promising field of research. (emphasis added)

Genetic modification and the cronyism that is so endemic to big agribusiness simply aren’t identical. That distinction strikes me as a helpful starting point for responsible discussion of GMOs.

For a critical but balanced examination of GMOs in theological context, check out Brad Littlejohn’s treatment of his “inner Luddite” at Mere Orthodoxy.

It often comes to light over matters of disagreement that one side attempts to shut down the debate by emulating Ring Lardner’s father in The Young Immigrants: “’Shut up,’ he explained.” Of course, this isn’t at all a real explanation, but it sure does slam the door on any further discussion.

This disingenuous tactic is witnessed again and again in the climate-change debate. Most notably it appears in the tactics of those who believe the science is settled, a scientific consensus exists and global warming indeed poses a serious catastrophic threat to our planet – as evidenced by a March 7, 2013, webinar conducted by As You Sow for proxy shareholder resolutions.

As You Sow – which says 18 percent of its members are faith-based organizations – seeks to prompt corporate boards in which it owns stock to adopt its view of climate change. One method to achieve this goal is shutting down the debate completely. As noted in its 2013 “Proxy Preview,” AYS and a “very broad coalition of investors is continuing a vigorous initiative to make companies be more transparent about how they spend corporate treasury money on political campaigns and lobbying.” (more…)

Our friends at the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE) in Bozeman, Mont., have put together another strong slate of summer programs for clergy, seminary professors and other religious leaders with the aim of deepening their understanding of environmental policy. In its description of the program, FREE notes that many in faith communities “see an inherent conflict between a market economy and environmental stewardship.”

Major religious groups assert that pollution, deforestation, endangered species, and climate change demonstrate a failure of stewardship that requires reform. And of course they are correct—what, however, are the incentives and information generated by alternative reform policies? Some policies can have profoundly negative impacts on social well-being.

FREE’s goal is to help increase the understanding of religious leaders as they approach environmental policy. These leaders are influential nodes in a network of congregations, providing a conduit to disseminate market-based environmental ideas, potentially to millions of Americans.

FREE will help religious leaders understand the political economy dimensions of environmental policy reform. We will explain how basic economic principles can help achieve green goals with minimum sacrifice to social welfare. Together we will explore how a culture that values America’s founding ideals, secure property rights, and responsible prosperity, can also foster a healthy environment and promote social justice.

I’ve been to a number of these FREE events and have been impressed with the content — and that’s from someone who has grown “seminar averse” over the years. At FREE, faith leaders get the economic insights that are necessary for a deeper understanding of environmental stewardship. On the other side, policy analysts — including some of the FREE lecturers — get the faith insights that they do not ordinarily have access to in their own specialized fields. Yes, it is possible to bring together economic and moral thinking.

In a Bozeman Daily Chronicle piece titled “Environmental Stewardship and Social Justice,” FREE Chairman John Baden writes: (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.