In the previous article we considered the nature of the potential threat posed by genetically modified (GM) foods, both to health and to the environment. Since that article was written there has been an explosion of press and public comment on the subject, and not a little confusion. Government sources have been somewhat contradictory in their comments, ranging from outright denials that any problem exists to assurances that the problems are being carefully monitored! The chemical company Monsanto has been fined for breaking the strict security measures imposed on experiments with GM crops.
The first article also began to set out a biblical perspective, with comment on (1) the environmental issues (the threat to biodiversity and the dangers of genetic pollution and viral resistance); and (2) the potential threats to health. We now consider two further aspects.
Designed by God
The third matter of concern to Christians is that genetic engineers appear to give no weight to the fact that the organisms they manipulate were originally designed by God. The emphasis appears to be that organisms have their complement of genes via chance processes in their past evolutionary history. If chance reigns supreme, then the genetic content of plants and animals is a matter of contingency; there can be no fundamental reason why modification should not be undertaken. However, if the genetic content is a matter of design, then it can be predicted that while changes may introduce intended traits, they may also disrupt the balanced operation of existing genes.
This concern is not exclusive to Christians; it is shared by some evolutionary scientists who believe that Darwinian processes can achieve the appearance of exquisite design. One example of this is Richard Dawkins, whose credentials as an evolutionary biologist and secular humanist are well known.
Dawkins contributed to the GM foods debate in an article for the Evening Standard (19th August 1998). He distanced himself from the environmentalists and Prince Charles by drawing an analogy between artificial selection and genetic engineering, concluding that if the first is OK in principle, so is the second. Genetic modification can be good or bad: it must be evaluated on its merits.
Nevertheless, he went on to identify ‘a potential problem’, namely, upsetting the ‘balanced set of mutually compatible genes’ that normally exists in any organism or ecosystem. This problem broadly equates with the potential damage to the environment discussed earlier. ‘This is a danger we must think about’, says Dawkins. He postulates a scenario of an indiscriminate weedkiller (which he refers to as a poison) and a transgenic crop which is immune to the weedkiller. He comments:
‘If the same company patents both the poison and its genetic antidote, the monopolistic combination would be a nice little earner for the company, while … [others] would see it as a menace. On the other hand, enlightened genetic engineers might achieve an exactly opposite effect, positively benefiting the environment by reducing the quantity of weedkiller required. There is a choice’.
Thus, in Dawkins’ view, we must evaluate GM developments individually, on their merits.
Whatever common ground we share with Dawkins, however, does not extend to his optimistic perspective on genetic technology. He writes: ‘Part of what we have to fear from genetic engineering is a paradox – it is too good at what it does. As ever, science’s formidable power makes correspondingly formidable demands on society’s wisdom’.
Reference to ‘formidable power’ is misleading! The engineers are dabbling – not fully understanding the genetic systems they are modifying; not possessing gene-insertion tools which have any precision of operation; and not having rigorous routines for evaluating the results of their efforts.
Are they needed?
Finally, there is the issue of whether GM foods are actually needed. They are certainly not needed in developed countries, where populations are falling and existing farming practices are sufficiently productive to meet the needs. They are not needed in developing countries, since intensive farming practices have, in the past, had an adverse effect, leading to undue dependence on external agencies (seed and chemical suppliers) and also to environmental degradation.
GM foods promise to increase that dependence and to further aggravate the degradation. Indeed, there are strong indications that a major driver for the production of GM foods is the financial return that they offer. Monsanto’s GM soya can only be used in conjunction with their herbicide Roundup – or so they thought! Now it appears that the British company Zeneca has an existing product, Touchdown, which also kills everything except Monsanto’s GM soya! The two companies are reported to be locked in a bitter legal battle in the US (Kleiner, K. New Scientist, 12 September 1998, page 5).
The real problem: broken relationships
This is not an issue as to whether man has the right to engage in genetic engineering. The real question is whether he has sufficient wisdom to act as a designer; whether he has the competence to make genetic engineering changes that are wise and safe; and whether the practice is good stewardship – either in relation to the environment or to mankind.
Our authority for this statement comes from Genesis 3, which records the history of the entrance of sin into the world. The created harmony was broken up by Adam’s disobedience to God’s command. Alienation and feelings of guilt replaced man’s happy relationship with God. Adam’s partnership relationship with Eve was marred by a ‘blame culture’. The judgement of God was expressed by the Edenic curse. The ground over which man was given dominion would henceforth produce thorns and thistles, so that work would become arduous and wearisome.
The major themes of environmental damage, health risks, abuse of responsibility and exploitation implied or expressed in Genesis 3, can all be traced in the GM food programme. The whole programme reflects man’s alienation from God, from his fellow man, and from creation.
There is clearly a need for this issue to be rescued from the arena of ‘commercial exploitation of science’. Public discussion is needed, recognising that for many people, this issue is a highly emotional one. It is very important that Christians contribute to the debate, as nearly all the attention given to it in the media has neglected the spiritual dimension.
The genetic engineers have an economic agenda and the restraints normally found in the scientific world appear to be overridden by the pursuit of financial reward. What is society in its wisdom to do? In my view, it should conclude that now is the time for action! The limitations of GM technology, and the all-too-frequent reports of newly recognised GM hazards, are such that the door to commercial exploitation should be firmly closed (effectively confining GM techniques to the laboratory for the foreseeable future).
Prince Charles offers a far better analysis than most as to where we are as a society and what steps we should now be taking (Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1998, p.16). He asks: ‘Do we need to use GM techniques at all? Technology has brought massive benefits to mankind, but there is a danger … in putting all our efforts into establishing what is technically possible without first stopping to ask whether this is something we should be doing … Is it not better to examine first what we actually want from agriculture in terms of food supply and security, rural employment, environmental protection and landscape, before we go on to look at the part genetic modification might, perhaps, play in achieving those aims? … But … we cannot put our principles into practice until there is effective segregation of genetically modified products, backed up by a comprehensive labelling scheme based on progress through the food chain. When consumers can make an informed choice about whether or not they eat products containing genetically modified ingredients they will be able to send a direct and unmistakable message about their preferences. I hope that manufacturers, retailers and regulators will be ready to take on the responsibility to ensure that this can happen’.
I suggest that there are three ways in which Christians can respond.
1. Exercise informed choices in the purchase of foodstuffs, showing that consumer demand is discriminating (like the House of Commons catering committee – which has banned GM foods in restaurants serving Members of Parliament).
2. Promote biblical thinking, particularly regarding God’s exquisite design, man’s responsibilities as a steward of creation, and the real problem of broken relationships. This issue can only be properly addressed when we know why we are here and what our goals in life should be.
3. Contribute to public debate wherever practical. If we do not express our convictions, we cannot expect others to take our views into account.
David Tyler is Secretary of the Biblical Creation Society, P.O. Box 22, Rugby, CV22 7SY, Warwickshire, U.K.