Posts tagged with: Genetic engineering

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.

Finding solutions for feeding the world’s poorest is about as non-controversial a mission as you could imagine for someone pursuing a religious vocation. Yet, the investors belonging to the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility put politicized science ahead of that mission in their opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The ICCR’s approach to GMOs leans more toward anti-business political activism than any concern for producing plentiful crops that are resilient against pests, diseases and extreme weather events such as drought or excessive precipitation, which, in turn, would benefit those endeavoring to provide inexpensive foodstuffs to the economically and ecologically disadvantaged.

Judging from ICCR proxy shareholder literature, feeding more people less expensively is secondary to a politicized agenda. This from the ICCR’s “The Right Solutions to Hunger:”

“In recent years, several weeds have built up resistance to the herbicides used on GE [genetically engineered] crops, driving the use of more, and multiple industrialized herbicides to kill them. Who is looking long-term, for the protection of the consumer and the food system and who will bear the risk?” asked Margaret Weber of the Congregation of St. Basil. “These issues are critical and it is apparent that the regulatory system is not adequately addressing them,” she continued.

And this: (more…)

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued his diktat against 20-ounce soft drinks earlier this year, the negative public outcry was tremendous.

Now comes the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility with proxy shareholder resolutions aimed at PepsiCo, the parent company of Pepsi Cola, Tropicana, Quaker Oats, Frito Lay and Gatorade. At issue is PepsiCo’s freely acknowledged use of genetically modified organisms in several of its products.

Apparently the ICCR takes umbrage with GMOs and, by extension, PepsiCo’s use thereof. The ICCR proxy resolution calls for PepsiCo to label all products containing GMOs.

Trouble is ICCR fails to make its case against the use of GMOs other than a list of studies offering inconclusive evidence. Additionally, ICCR doesn’t provide any theological underpinnings for its objections other than the shareholders’ respective religious affiliations.

The ICCR proxy resolution prompted Paul Boykas, PepsiCo vice president of Global Public Policy and Federal Government Affairs, to respond in a detailed letter on March 19. In his letter, Boykas states: (more…)

The Manhattan Institute’s Proxy Monitor project is aimed at “shedding light on the influence of shareholder proposals on corporations.” It provides a thorough analysis of proposals made from 2008 – 2011 by activist investors — and believe it or not, only 35 percent of those proposals were related to corporate governance. Most of the shareholder proposals that these companies deal with are attempts to direct the company in a more green or pacific or fair direction, and they come from small shareholders who do this to dozens of companies.

A new report from Manhattan summarizes the trends — the growing social proposals, and how Dodd-Frank has playing into activists’ activities — and the proxy monitor website allows you to look at any shareholder proposal from the last few years. The proposals are enlightening. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have submitted proposals to the stockholders of Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics stating,

WHEREAS: Space has served as a sanctuary where, over the years, nations cooperate rather than confront one another. Satellites save lives…

RESOLVED: Shareholders request that, within six months of the annual meeting, the Board of Directors provide a comprehensive report on Lockheed Martin’s involvement in the space-based weapons program, at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary and classified information.

The well-meaning Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, in a proposal to McDonald’s shareholders that made the news earlier this year, requested that,

WHEREAS,

The Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010, included federal menu-labeling legislation requiring the posting of calories on fast food menu boards….

RESOLVED: Shareholders ask the Board of Directors to issue a report, at reasonable expense and excluding proprietary information, within six months of the 2011 annual meeting, assessing the company’s policy responses to public concerns regarding linkages of fast food to childhood obesity, diet-related diseases and other impacts on children’s health.

Many other equally well-intentioned proposals have been filed, including repeated requests by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth that various pharmaceutical companies restrain their prices to “reasonable levels.” The Unitarian Universalists have requested that Pepsi Co. “create a comprehensive policy articulating our company’s respect for and commitment to the Human Right to Water.”

This is not to mention the numerous environmental proposals made by religious groups, requesting that the Rights of Humanity and of Mother Earth not be violated by carbon emissions and by the use of genetically engineered plants. Take, for instance, this statement from a proposal to Du Pont’s shareholders, concerning genetically engineered crops:

The right to food requires that we place the needs of the most marginalized groups, including in particular smallholders in developing countries, at the centre of our efforts

One might think the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth were unaware that it has been the genetic improvement of crops that has saved millions of the world’s poor from starvation.

We’ll keep you posted on further developments, and the effects these proposals may have on companies’ performance.

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.