Posts tagged with: gm food

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 3, 2006

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.