Discovering that I am gluten sensitive launched me into a whole new world of trying to study and understand nutrition and our food. A post summarizing my findings/opinions is forthcoming at some point, but I don’t know when.
One area of debate is GMOs: Genetically Modified Organisms. These are “transgenic” plants/foods that have been created by splicing DNA of different plants. For example, the DNA of a toxin found in one plant is isolated and then blasted into the a petri dish of corn DNA to create GMO-corn that produces it’s own insecticide. After reading a bit on it (certainly nowhere near all there is to read), my family and I have decided to do our best to avoid GMOs in our food. There is simply too much shadiness involved in the creation of GMOs to trust them.
Jordan Ballor, a reformed theologian who writes on economic issues for the Acton Institute has written a piece that the Cornwall Alliance published titled A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food. I appreciate much of what Ballor writes, and much that comes out of the Cornwall Alliance. However, I have some disagreements with Ballor’s article (please read it first, and note that it appears to have been written in 2005, so things may have changed a little since then… though the Cornwall Alliance sent this out in their newsletter last month).
I agree with Ballor that our work as image bearers is to exercise dominion and use nature to our advantage as stewards, so theoretically GMO’s are a valid biblical pursuit. However, I think Ballor runs into several problems:
- He claims he will only address the broader ethical framework behind GMO’s, rather than the pragmatic side. But he quickly enters the pragmatic argument when he claims GMO’s are necessary to feed the growing population. This is a debated point of pragmatic concern and regretfully his commentary on this issue leaves the reader with the impression that one side of that issue packs the force of a proper exegesis of Scripture while the other does not. He cites an article claiming GMO’s have saved money by reducing insecticide use (the link is dead), while other more recent sources actually show the opposite – that GMO’s have increased insecticide use. My point is simply that it’s a pragmatic question, not an ethical one.
- Ballor states “Genetic modification changes nature at a more minute level, but such changes aren’t materially different than any of the other various environmental or technological modifications that farmers have been making use of for millennia.” This is incorrect if he is speaking about GMOs. Careful opponents of GMOs clearly distinguish between modern hybridization efforts and transgenic gene splicing modification. Wheat is an example of genetic modification in a lab done on a more minute level of how wheat has been modified throughout the years – that is, combining various strains of wheat to produce more fruitful yield (and even here there is concern with what has been produced, see Chapter 2 in William Davis’ “Wheat Belly”). Corn is not in the same category. Monsanto GMO corn has taken a toxin from another plant species and very imprecisely blasted the DNA into corn using a gun. This is not what farmers have been doing for millennia and it is materially different. Transgenic gene modification is new and distinct from the long tradition of hybrid farming efforts.
- Ballor discusses the fall and how it has produced thorns, etc in man’s effort to cultivate. In this context he pays lip-service to depravity, but in my opinion only lip-service. He paints the creation of GMO’s under the umbrella of Romans 8:20-21, speaking of a Christian’s participation in redeeming creation. But this hardly addresses the reality of GMO’s. Monsanto is not a partnership of local churches or individual Christians endeavoring to share the love of Christ through grateful works of dominion. It is a fascist, fallen organization. There may be Christians within the organization who are working out of gratitude in an effort to help the world, but that does not characterize the company as a whole. Ballor concludes “What I’m arguing for instead is a dialogue informed by the theological realities of fallen creaturely existence”, but I don’t feel his essay is really a reflection of this. For instance, he quotes Luther saying “Add to these the poisons, the injurious vermin, and whatever else there is of this kind. All of these were brought in through sin” in an effort to show how GMO’s can reverse this fallen state. But a more accurate “dialogue informed by the theological realities of fallen creaturely existence” would also discuss how sin results in the creation of yet new poisons and injurious vermin through fallen men interacting with fallen nature (for example Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops). In this sense his dialogue is imbalanced. I understand he can’t address everything in a short essay, but I bring these things up because it’s one of the few essays I was able to find addressing the issue from a biblical standpoint, and therefore it needs to be fleshed out more, rather than leaving the reader with the impression that a theological informed Christian should not oppose GMOs.
- Ballor notes “The ICCR argues on a misuse of the precautionary principle that no genetically modified food should be made available until long-term independent safety testing shows that it is safe for health and the environment. Instead, the default position should be in favor of innovations which have a realistic possibility of substantively increasing the fruitfulness of the earth, and the burden of proof should be to prove that it is unsafe.” I’m not familiar with ICCR or with debate over the precautionary principle (how they are misusing it), but when it comes to me personally, I do now exercise a precautionary principle in my own food selection. I’m not interested in GMO’s or other new foods unless long-term independent safety testing has blessed them. Ballor’s “default position” has two problems: 1) as he has acknowledged on the Acton blog, there are incredibly difficult property rights laws involved with pollination and contamination of non-GMO crops, which if properly addressed might greatly limit the use of GMO crops, and 2) opponents cannot demonstrate the dangers of GMO’s through independent testing when independent testing is illegal (see Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research? in the Scientific American). It is here where some of my previously held notions have changed. Most of what I heard about organic and GMO foods came from “hippies” who don’t understand economics. I personally dismissed much of them because I reasoned like a good capitalist that it is in a company’s best interest to do no harm, otherwise competition will ruin them. But I turned a blind eye to the fact that a free market does not exist and thus competition does not keep food companies like Monsanto in check. They and others continually silence and strong arm critics and competition through an abuse of state power (for example, see HR 933, the “Monsanto Protection Act”). As Jonathan Latham has put it, Monsanto would not exist without the marketing job the FDA does for it and the laws that protect them. Consumers simply would not trust the company (or others like it).
In the end, I just think the GMO issue is more complex than Ballor’s essay implies and since the Cornwall Alliance is a valuable resource amidst all the noise out there, I would strongly encourage more to be written on the issue. Here are some of the resources that have been helpful to me: