God and the New Foodstuffs: Genetically Modified Organisms Are Generating a Good Deal of Scientific and Economic Debate. How Organized Religion Values This Technology Is Anyone's Guess

By Popp, Trey | Science & Spirit, March-April 2006 | Go to article overview
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God and the New Foodstuffs: Genetically Modified Organisms Are Generating a Good Deal of Scientific and Economic Debate. How Organized Religion Values This Technology Is Anyone's Guess


Popp, Trey, Science & Spirit


it's hard to think anything would be less controversial than a proposal to plant 150 acres of rice in the rich soil of southeastern Missouri. But last year, when a company called Ventria Bioscience won approval from the Department of Agriculture to sow a genetically engineered strain of rice containing human genes, winds of protest began to swirl. Objections sprouted up from a variety of sources--local farmers, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the brewing giant Anheuser-Busch--making allies of groups that otherwise have little in common. The prospect of a crop rejiggered to produce a protein found in human breast milk was enough to make a lot of people very uneasy.

Over the past decade, agribusiness companies have been investing heavily in recombinant DNA, or rDNA, technology, which enables them to transplant genes from one species into another. They've used this technique to make plants grow faster, produce their own pesticides, and synthesize vitamins they otherwise wouldn't. Proponents of genetically modified, or GM, organisms are aiming even higher--and some of the species combinations can seem outlandish and somehow unnatural. Arctic flounder genes, for instance, have been spliced into tomatoes to allow them to flourish in colder climes. Corn has been engineered to produce compounds that can be used in pharmaceuticals.

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. Opposition to GM rice has, for the moment, thwarted Ventria's plans in Missouri, as well as California--and the onset of winter postponed further arguments--but GM food remains an issue that is complicated and hotly contested, qualities that make the relative silence emanating from religious organizations all the more peculiar.

From the Vatican to the National Association of Evangelicals, mum seems to be the word on what many observers consider to be one of the most pressing ethical and spiritual questions of the day, leaving those looking for guidance on the issue at a bit of a loss. For the most part, the debate is currently limited to theologians and ethicists in the academic world, who have yet to reach a consensus on what criteria should be used to judge the appropriateness of using this rapidly advancing technology. There is a considerable diversity of approaches to be found among these thinkers, but two major fault lines separate them. Curiously, the fault lines do not reflect the intellectual border separating liberals from conservatives, or even the divide between judgements based on Scripture and those informed by pragmatism. Instead, what's emerging is a faith-based fissure separating people who generally trust technology from those who express skepticism, as well as a divide separating the interests of industrialized countries from the concerns of developing ones.

Sam Gregg, whose perspective is shared by many others who look to the Bible for counsel on ethical issues, finds a mandate for the agricultural application of rDNA technology in the book of Genesis and believes it may be a powerful tool to help the least fortunate among us.

"Using and altering things of the world for use by human beings, be it food or animals or minerals or whatever, is, in principle, what humans are supposed to be doing," says Gregg, who has written extensively about the intersection of theology and economics and is currently research director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a think tank that promotes individual liberty and limited government. "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.

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