Genetically Modified Organisms: Beyond the Limits of Care?

November 9, 2015

The Lord God took the Man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15

Can Christians in good conscience use GMOs to fulfill our original mandate “to work it (the Garden of Eden) and take care of it?”

Over the past seventeen years, an increasing number of people have questioned whether or not research into and the use of GMOs is ethical and whether Christians should be involved with this research. Increasingly, some would even go further in asking how an agricultural department in a Christian college hasn’t done more to oppose the use of GMOs. Yet for many agriculture students having grown up with the extensive adoption of genetically engineered crop varieties, the promised future benefits and continued usage of GMOs seem self-evident. Given the divergent views on using GMOs, such an evaluation requires understanding, reflection, discussion, and humility.

It might be helpful to first define both genetic engineering and biotechnology. Genetic engineering is defined as the techniques which alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes and which can result in the production of a GMO. Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA and RNA techniques, cell fusion, micro- and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing foreign genes, and changing the positions of genes. Biotechnology, a more encompassing term, is defined as “a distinct cultural activity in which human beings exercise freedom and are held accountable as they respond to God by transforming the biotic creation, with the aid of tools and procedures, for basic research and for practical ends and purposes.” 1

How have GMOs been evaluated? Not surprisingly, scientists have made many evaluations. As a representative illustration, consider the National Academics Press’ 2010 report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. This summary stressed that “(it) addresses just the scientific questions and adopts an evidentiary standard of using peer reviewed literature to form conclusions and recommendations.” Yet at the same time this report did draw “conclusions about the environmental, economic, and social effects, both favorable and unfavorable, associated with the use of GE crops for all farmers in the United States over the last 14 years.” 2

The farming community has also evaluated GMOs. This farm-level ‘evaluation’ has been at the heart of the rapid rate of GMO adoption since 1996 in three major crops. As of 2015, 92 % of corn acres, 94% of soybean acres and 94% of cotton acres were planted to GM varieties. Field and side-by-side trials, and university and industry trials have examined the yield and economic potential of traited crops. The primary traits that have been incorporated into these crops have been herbicide tolerance (HT) and insect tolerance using Bt genes isolated from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. While neither of these GMO traits increase yields, they have reduced yield losses, increased the ease of crop management, and increased profitability.

This farming sector economic evaluation has been heavily influenced by economic ideas present in society as a whole. In a society embracing Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” the following conclusion of the Biotechnology Working Group is not surprising:
“it is possible that certain categories of farmers (such as those with less access to credit, those with fewer social connections to university and private-sector researchers, or those who grow crops for smaller markets) might be less able to access or benefit from GE crops. The introduction of genetic-engineering technology in agriculture could also affect labor dynamics, farm structure, community viability, and farmers’ relationships with each other and with information and input suppliers. However, the extent of the social effects of the dissemination of GE crops is unknown because little research has been conducted.”

The admission that we don’t really have a good handle on societal and community effects of GMO technologies, supports the conclusion that industry, the research community and broader society did little to anticipate the impacts of these new biotechnologies. Using biotechnology and GMOs could be justified if the “net economic benefit from the radical innovation, in spite of the destruction of existing economic value, was greater than if the radical innovation had never been introduced.”

Fortunately the Christian community has developed a wide range of literature in reflecting on the use of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Dr. Charles Adams advocates a “relationship between the human and non-human creation that encourages careful biotechnological advance within the context of creation care, and that transcends the polarization between unbridled development and stagnating conservation.” In his paper, Galileo, Biotechnology, and Epistemological Humility: Moving stewardship beyond the development-conservation debate, Dr. Adams presented root and crucial difference in how Christians see their relationship with the rest of creation. He presented that crucial difference as follows:
“Some Christians have argued that we are called by God to respect and conserve the created order and that we do so by seeking ecological understanding and promoting actions that minimize human disruption of and/or intervention in those ecological patterns that we discover. Other Christians, hearing God’s call to “be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it,” understand stewardship more in terms of development. The former group raise many concerns with respect to biotechnology. The latter group are eager to promote biotechnological advancement.”
Dr. Charles Adams makes clear that he supports biotechnological development but within limits. From my perspective, I believe that the Genesis 1:28 “creation mandate” predominates among a broad cross-section of those in agriculture.

Dr. David Koetje examines the paradigms of both industrial and agrarian agriculture in his paper, Place-Based Agriculture: Christian Environmentalism Informing Collaborations in Agroecology & Biotechnology. He advocates a strong understanding of place in discerning appropriate technologies, considering the creation/fall/redemption/restoration arc of history and how that can drive our understanding of what truly ‘appropriate’ technologies are. The brokenness of our relationships with God, others, and the rest of creation are all too evident. But we live in the realm of grace and hope. “By God’s grace we can now participate in that work whose goal is shalom, liberating the creation from sin’s effects so that it can function as God first intended it.” Therefore Dr. Koetje sees the potential for biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology may be especially appropriate as a means of alleviating the effects of sin. Its role is to sustain, restore, and improve. The policies of agricultural biotechnology must conform to God’s restoration plan. Humans are accountable to the Creator for their relationship with the land. 3

In summary, much support exists for using biotechnology and GMOs. While some of the support is tentative and while the technologies are complex, technologies continue to evolve in ways that are shaped by society, by those working in the field, and by those that use the technologies. Possibly one of the greatest obstacles to further GMO development is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt sown by those opposed to various biotechnologies. In addition to GMOs that resist pests and are herbicide tolerant, successful GMOs have been created that resist newly introduced pests and diseases. Farmers are fearful of adopting these plants in the face of a potential market backlash. While legitimate critiques of modern technology are appropriate, recognize the difficulty of implementing change in a society pursuing values and policies antithetical to long term sustainability.

Perhaps concluding with a reflection on the potential for genetic engineering may be best accomplished by considering what it means to be made in God’s Image. The following summary comes from the Christian Reformed Church’s contemporary testimony, Our World Belongs to God.

Made in God’s image
To live in loving communion with our Maker,
we are appointed earthkeepers and caretakers
to tend the earth, enjoy it,
and love our neighbors.
God uses our skills
for the unfolding and well-being of his world
so that creation and all who live in it may flourish.

About the Author
  • Chris Goedhart, Professor Emeritus of Agriculture, taught agriculture courses at Dordt College from January 1986 through May 2015. He currently serves as an agronomic consultant for the Goedhart Group in High Plains and North Central states.

  1. Dordt College Biotechnology Working Group, 2004.  

  2. Key findings of the report, Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, included the following:

    “In general, the committee finds that genetic-engineering technology has produced substantial net environmental and economic benefits to U.S. farmers compared with non-GE crops in conventional agriculture. However, the benefits have not been universal; some may decline over time; and the potential benefits and risks associated with the future development of the technology are likely to become more numerous as it is applied to a greater variety of crops. The social effects of agricultural biotechnology have largely been unexplored, in part because of an absence of support for research on them.” 

  3. To further reflect on the opposition to biotechnology recognize that one critique of biotechnology and GMOs arises because of a belief that agriculture as it is currently practice is the problem. So using biotechnology would be as fruitful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Dr. David Doornbos in his paper, How Should Christians Promote Sustainable Agriculture in Agrarian Systems? A Normative Evaluation, provides a detailed critique of modern sustainable agriculture, especially as it applies to agriculture of the developing world. 

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