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GMOs: Religion and biotech share a common cause

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God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” Genesis 1:29

My mother had the above embroidered and framed as a reminder — not only of her farm upbringing, but the ag covenant we all reap.

Yet for some, it’s a stretch to reconcile faith with new developments in agriculture, especially when it involves (perceived) meddling with creation. For a case study, look no further than old faithful: GMOs.

Since their rollout over 20 years ago, I’m unaware of any technology that has received such a Jekyll and Hyde reception. Some proclaimed GMOs the game changing equivalent of a “killer app.” Others disapproved, portraying them as an untested menace.

Many of the early discussions focused on the extrinsic costs and benefits, like health and environmental impacts. From a scientific standpoint, these are easy to debate. The body of data is robust, and (despite what critics insist) the conclusions straightforward. It’s an open and shut case.

But how do you argue religiosity? To consider the nuts and bolts of faith (and how that shapes bioethics), we have to take a reflective look inward — an intrinsic analysis. If we need interventions and genetic mods to the original bounty chronicled in Genesis 1:29 to “do the job,” does that call the perfection of creation into question? According to Genesis, everything should seemingly be ready to go, unassisted.

Additionally, are GMOs the epitome of hubris — a presumption that we know “better” than the creator? When we redesign and patent the fabric of life with our figurative John Hancock, who then are we ultimately celebrating? Him, or us? Is it a stealthy form of self-idolatry? A further distancing of ourselves from the metaphorical Eden? If natural is the base state of being (pre-fall innocence), does that render our “improvements” unnatural — just validating our further descent into that rabbithole of original sin?

This is deep. Metaphysical deep. I’m no theologian (a back-pew dwelling Lutheran thank you), but I’ll attempt to address: No, no, Him, no, no, no.

I often imagine God (stereotypically) seated aloft on a billowing cloud peering down mercifully on creation. All ag products, of course, are monogrammed with the Almighty’s initials. That’s not to say that we can’t make changes. It’s like the homebrew scene, it pays homage to the originator.

Scientists (wrongly) tend to be dismissive of religion. I believe that GMOs are not only infinitely compatible with the tenets of religion — but affirming. Ironically, extrinsic arguments can be leveraged to support appeals for intrinsic acceptance.

There’s no doubt that the human species, blessed with a gargantuan frontal lobe, has the capacity to be ingenuous. That’s reflected in a number of seminal events in agricultural history.

Nothing we grow or consume is remotely natural. It’s all the result of some form of modification. Cereal grains like wheat would historically shatter — drop their seeds prior to harvest. Not too useful if the seedhead is bare by the time you’re ready to harvest. Enterprising farmers would select individuals that went against the grain (bad pun) and didn’t shatter. Ultimately, all wheat became shatter resistant. Mind you, this was well before we could appreciate plant genetics, where we call the shots trying to get the best mix of characteristics.

The next step was hybridization, where we breached species boundaries. There was some pushback at the time (we’ve come 360 degrees, haven’t we?). Eventually, it became the norm. Other technologies like fusing plant embryos and making wide (distant but compatible species) crosses came down the pike. Sometimes we had to put the resulting embryos in a kind of plant neonatal care unit for them to mature. Certainly not natural.

We have recently advanced our knowledge of genetics to the point where we can manipulate life in a way never intended by nature. We must proceed with utmost caution in the application of this newfound knowledge.” Luther Burbank (Botanist and Pioneer in Ag Science, 1906)

Then came GMOs. This broadened our definitions and heightened our sensibilities. We’ve been browbeaten with this idea that life is insufferably and immutably static. But we know that organisms laterally swap DNA (the signature of the creator) — sometimes between wildly different kingdoms! Sweet potato has bacterial gene leftovers. Agrobacterium force feeds its plant host stretches of DNA, rewriting it in the process. The tools and precedent already exist in creation. We used that model as inspiration with a functional and humanistic goal of enhancing ag production and limiting our ecofootprint!

Certainly, one of the benefits of religion is that it satisfies an innate need to participate in ritual with a community of believers. One daily ritual I’m thankful to not contend with is wondering where my next meal comes from. There’s no doubt that human ingenuity is responsible for many success stories in ag. We can feed more mouths than at any time in history, and we’re poised for the peak population countdown to 2050.

The Bible — or any religious text — is rife with implied meaning. I believe we have wide license to use the resources bestowed upon us — including the sensible use of genetic modification to improve the human condition. It’s our divine prerogative to evangelize through action. I find it doubly ironic that 1) something so entrenched in the earthly realm can so poignantly affirm a heavenly cause, and 2) a theistic motivation can drive a race, creed, and religion agnostic application.

“Christianity and science are opposed … but only in the same sense as my thumb and forefinger are opposed — and between them I can grasp everything.” Sir William Bragg (Nobel Prize for Physics, 1915)

 

Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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