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GM crops - Outside God's Will?

Excerpts of talk delivered by Prof. Joe Perry of the Rothamsted Experiment Station in UK at the XVth 'Christ and the Cosmos' Conference on Genetic Engineering.

Published in Genetic Engineering, Volume XV in the 'Christ and the Cosmos' series. Edited by Brenda Beamond; Proceedings of the 15th Christ and the Cosmos Conference, London Colney, Herts., 20 - 22 April 2001. 2001 Conference Co-ordinator: Professor Alec Garner, 33 Rosslyn Road, Billericay, Essex CM12 9JN

1. Introduction

But, my son, be warned: there is no end of opinions ready to be expressed. Studying them can go on forever, and become very exhausting. (Ecclesiastes 12: 12)

My spoken talk focuses on a description of the Government's Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) of genetically-modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) crops, begun in 1999 and now about halfway through their planned duration. In this much longer written version I shall cover the FSE in the second section. In the third section I try to shed some light on the way that the scientific world works and how this interacts with the intense public debate on GM issues. In the next section I address briefly a previous paper in this Christ & the Cosmos series from the 1999 Oxford Conference by Dr Glyn Jones. In the fifth section I try to discuss some of the theological, ethical and socio-economic aspects, always bearing in mind the overarching question of whether the creation of GM crops is, or is not in line with God's will. Finally, in section six, I look to the future. Throughout, I base my arguments on published evidence, and hope that those coming to the subject fresh will find the reference list a useful source of further information. However, although the material from section three onwards contains my personal views on wider aspects concerning GM crops. I should stress that these personal opinions do not represent the views of my employing institute or the Research Council that funds it and in a few cases may depart significantly. Biblical references are usually from the Living Bible Edition.

I am struck often by how many facts in the GM debate are either unexpected, or are capable of a dual interpretation which both sides in the argument, both pro- and anti-, may marshal in their defence. In science, the particle physicist and priest John Polkinghorne (1998) has characterised such a situation as marking periods where old and new ideas stand in unresolved tension prior to a breakthrough. In life, they remind us that our knowledge is always imperfect, of our need for humility, of the foolishness of dogmatic stances, and that neither side has all the answers. In theology, Jesus spoke so many of his truths in the form of parables, and we are told that to understand these most fully we should look in them for that which is unexpected, upon which the meaning of the parable often hinges. I have not indicated these dualities explicitly, but you will find many in the text.

"Theological, Ethical and Socio-Economic issues Wisdom shouts in the streets for a hearing" You simpletons!? she cries. How long will you go on being fools? How long will you scoff at wisdom and fight the facts??" (Proverbs 1: 20-22)

GM crops - outside God's will?

In this section I address the most important issue raised by GM crops: can we discern whether their development is or is not in accordance with God's will? The verses above from Proverbs, while true, do not help us; both sides of the argument would claim to have true wisdom on their side. Prince Charles (2000), in his response to the year 2000 Reith Lectures, claimed that discernment in this area could be achieved by using our hearts and our minds, that the instinctive, heart-felt awareness buried deep within each one of us would provide the most reliable guide. Although this phraseology is deliberately inclusive of many faiths, for the Christian the sentiment is especially attractive because of its allusion to the need to be guided by the Holy Spirit. While it is important to pray for guidance, I believe that with such a complex issue, we need to base our judgement on a full knowledge of the evidence for and against. I give a greater weight than does the Prince to the measured, rational approach.

The Prince's article ignored much of the extensive and balanced work done by Christian organizations to meet the challenge of GMOs. There is no need to restate all that here, but readers are encouraged to look at the output of bodies such as the Environmental Information Network of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, Dr Donald Bruce's Science, Religion & Technology Project of the Church of Scotland (and see Bruce & Bruce, 1998), the John Ray Initiative, the Eco-Congregation Project (launched September 2000 at St Pauls's Cathedral) and Christian Ecology Link. Christian ecologists such as the Rev. Dr Michael Reiss have written extensively on the issue (see e.g. Straughan & Reiss, 1996). Other Christian bodies who have considered the problem are the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group and Christian Aid. The report of the Nuffield Council for Bioethics (Ryan, 1999), while not explicitly Christian in standpoint, is highly relevant. Of course, in this volume readers will also find Professor Derek Burke's lecture The Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Indeed, so much has already been written that I will try to focus on new aspects of the debate.

For me, there are three main arguments. Are the processes of manufacture of GM crops explicitly forbidden in the Bible? If not, is the whole concept tainted through the unwarranted usurping of the Creator's function in having created life? Thirdly, if neither of these apply, do GM crops have consequences that must of necessity be outside God's will.

Regarding explicit commandments, this is one of many challenges that could not have been conceived at the time the Bible was written. Perhaps the closest the issue is to being addressed specifically is in Leviticus 19: 19: Do not mate your cattle with a different kind; don't sow your field with two kinds of seed?? Such laws in Leviticus, addressing the need to avoid "boundary-crossing" and to keep things separate, often for reasons of health, purity or cleanliness, are not kept by Christians but are stringently observed by Jews. Yet the issue of GM crops seems not to present a problem for the Office of the Chief Rabbi (Ryan, 1999, section 1.38). An article during Autumn 2000 by Rabbi Rashi Simon and Professor Edward Simon in the Jewish Chronicle, gives considerable detail as to why GM food is considered kosher. (One interesting point raised is that even if the act of genetic modification of the original DNA were forbidden, which they argue it is not, the resulting plants would still be kosher because, as is often unappreciated, the genetic transformation event happens only once. After the initial GM plant is generated, all subsequent seed used is manufactured through the perfectly standard crossing techniques of plant breeding.)

The second question cannot be considered without consideration of whether God created plant species as some immutable set. Such a view would be challenged immediately by evolution, which I regard as fact not theory. On the other hand, the divisions between species, which in general do not interbreed, appear sharp but are they really? Biologists would contend that species boundaries are actually indistinct and difficult to define easily (e.g. Straughan & Reiss, 1996, and see section 2 above on horizontal gene transfer). Davies (2000, 2001) explains in detail how Darwin's concept of a population stresses the uniqueness of every living thing in the world (something no Christian would challenge, at least in the human context) and how Darwin viewed the species as a statistical abstraction. By contrast, Davies traces back the view of a species as an unchangeable type with a "defining essence" to Plato and Aristotle. He believes the Platonic view of "eternal and ideal forms", doctrinal for over 2000 years, is deeply ingrained within our collective psyche. He argues that because of this "it is not surprising that many people today find the mere thought of taking a gene from one species and placing it another as abhorrent". Perhaps Christians have another inner battle to fight before being able to resolve this further implication of Darwinian evolution for our theology? Antisthenes' response to Plato that "I can see a horse, but I cannot see horseness" is perhaps too flippant, but Popper's question "why cannot there be as many 'essences' in things as there are things" challenges us to extend further our belief in human uniqueness, towards animals, plants and all life forms. Note again that the contrast is between the reductionist and individualistic (Darwinian) and the holistic (Platonic).

Often, this argument is restated in GM debates in terms of whether the technology is "natural" or not (Ryan et al. 1999, sections 1.32-1.40). Of course, some of the most telling ripostes to Prince Charles' (2000) lecture was to point out that the landscape over which he loves to hunt is completely unnatural and that we have been 'tampering with nature' by practising agriculture for over 5,000 years. Examples abound from within 'conventional' plant breeding of successive techniques being developed that have pulled at the boundaries of species and forced reproduction to occur between two usually separate species. Chronologically they include: the first cereal hybrid, formed in 1799; the creation in 1876 of the Triticale hybrid between wheat and rye, now the world's principal cereal variety, grown on over 2m hectares; protoplast fusion in 1906; mutagenesis via X-rays in 1927, which has yielded the UK's favourite barley variety for brewing; and embryo hybrid rescue in 1960. Additionally, many very similar genes are shared in common between unrelated species, such as those that promote resistance to fungal infection (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/HomoloGene/ for similarities between the zebrafish, human and rodent genomes). When we realise to what extent this applies to humans (e.g. Lander et al., 2001) we can perhaps begin to understand why some biologists are puzzled as to why we place so much emphasis on these questions of ethics, morals and theology. I refute any suggestion that these questions should be avoided, but I note that Beringer (2000b) and Ryan et al. (1999) have reported scientists as being 'genuinely baffled' why GM crops are deemed intrinsically more likely to cause more environmental problems or be more damaging to health than those bred traditionally. The argument is often offered that GM technology moves a single gene with confidence in the outcome, whereas conventional breeding shuffles tens of thousands of genes with little idea, pre-screening, of possible results.

The third question, to some degree linked to the second, concerns to what degree we are permitted or encouraged to use our creative and intellectual gifts to alter our environment and to intervene to affect life and enhance its quality. Very many commentators in both the Judaic and Christian tradition point to Genesis 1: 28-30, and Psalm 8: 6-8, as providing God's blessing for intervention, with the strict proviso that 'to have dominion' should be properly interpreted as to be custodian or steward, not master. Many remark on Genesis 2: 15, where God places Adam in the Garden of Eden as gardener, to tend, care and work. Again the image often quoted (e.g. Berry et al., 2000) is of God giving freedom to humans to help to actively mould the Creation to their needs, so long as the Creation is respected by not harming the environment unduly. Given this, permission to grow GM crops would seem to receive plenty of biblical support from both traditions, so long as they are used to help feed the hungry (e.g. Isaiah 3:14-15, Amos 2:6, all of Matthew 5 & 6, Matthew 25:14-25, etc.). Arguments against such use of GMOs in agriculture is not helped by the fact that neither the public at large nor even most activist organisations seem to be against the use of GM technology in medicine. To take an example from within this Diocese, a debate at Christ Church, Chorleywood, on 3 November 2000, 'that we believe that Genetic Modification represents a positive step forward for humanity' was passed overwhelmingly, mainly on grounds of the benefits of medical research (McLeish, 2000).

To summarize the above, I have answered my own question by concluding that, for me, GM crops are not, of necessity, outside God's will. However there are three important provisos. Firstly, GM issues for humans are completely different from GM issues in animals and those in plants. Our belief in the human soul and that we are created in God's image rule out, for me, human cloning and certain related technologies. Secondly, the only GM crops considered in depth in this article are GMHT. As is repeated often above, each separate construct must be considered separately. Thirdly, I have not dwelt on the socio-economic aspects of GM crops. I have focused on the technology itself because that is what I am best qualified to do, but that does not mean that we should not be equally thorough in questioning the socio-economic aspects, i.e. the use to which that technology is put.