Caring for Life: Genetic Engineering and Agriculture

By Kneen, Brewster | The Ecumenical Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Caring for Life: Genetic Engineering and Agriculture


Kneen, Brewster, The Ecumenical Review


There is no life without context. In terms of agricultural biotechnology the context ranges from the gene, to the technician manipulating the gene, to the university employing the technician, to the corporation financing and directing the research, to the government subsidizing and approving the resulting genetically engineered products. And, of course, this is all within the context of globalization and corporate government. Within this setting, agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) has been developed and presents its "promises"--a word very frequently used--and practices. (1)

In light of the global promise put forward by the promoters of biotechnology--that is, that agbiotech offers the only hope to feed the growing world population and save the environment--we need to analyze both the practice and the ideology of genetic engineering, both the practicality of its promises and its real intent. The rubric of "food security" provides a good focus for this.

The promise of agbiotech, that it offers the only possible way to produce both more, and more nutritious, food while also reducing the use of pesticides (note here that the agbiotech companies are also the pesticide companies), can be appealing to good-hearted people; but it ought to be both troubling and challenging, particularly to Christians. To promise salvation through yet another technological fix--this time biotechnology--raises the issue of idolatry, as well as the more material question of whether biotechnology can conceivably deliver on its promises. (2) The promises are, moreover, a straightforward way to avoid the ethical and social issues of inequity between the acquisitors and the deprived in this world. The promises may appeal to our genuine concern but they do not, and are not intended to, challenge the structures that provide and promote the material privileges of the West and the elite.

Our acceptance of a technological fix for a social and political "problem" is based, I suggest, on our individual and, collective willingness to acknowledge food insecurity as a global problem, while however allowing it to be defined as a problem of inadequate production for which biotechnology may be the solution. This leaves intact the political and economic structures which are themselves a cause of inequity and consequent deficiency. The issue is further confused by the neo-liberal ideology that says that inequity (and thus hunger) is the "price" of Progress, progress being measured by productivity--whatever that might actually mean--and little else.

Fortunately, there is another view of global hunger and deprivation. Social justice activists, farmers, church communities and an increasingly aware public are all working on a wide variety of ways and means to create, from the ground up, what is being called "food security" for individuals and communities. Some of these efforts do have to be described as old-fashioned charity, but most seek to lay the foundations for institutional change and the building of local food systems based on ecological sustainability and social justice.

Transnational corporations (traders, processors and distributors, chemical, drug and biotech manufacturers) have their suggestions and programmes to address the issue of what they, too, call food security. But since it is highly unlikely that there is any significant congruence between the interests of corporate shareholders and subsistence farmers (and others whose primary concern is not with exporting commodities but feeding their families and communities), we need to consider carefully what is actually being offered, by whom, and to what end when "food security" is called for.

There are global corporations, such as the US-based Cargill (the legendary grain trader and the largest private corporation in the US, if not the world), that publicly and politically call for an "open" food system, built on the theory of comparative advantage. …

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