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Genetically Engineered Foods and Earth Stewardship

January 2017: Motive may be the key to what is right

Lately, food crops have acquired new traits — not by traditional plant breeding, but by the technical addition of genes. This creates crops known as genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE). Large portions of American-grown corn, cotton, soybeans and canola now come from GE plants.

Europeans are very skeptical of GE foods, often using the pejorative term “Frankenfood” to describe them. In contrast, the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine recently concluded, after a review of mounds of research, that there was “no higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts” (see “Genetically Altered Food is Safe..,” May 18, 2016, Winston-Salem Journal).

However, if all that can be said is that GE foods are safe, then what’s the point of GE? After all, ordinary crops are already safe.

One response to this question is that GE crops yield more per acre. A major trait of the first GE crops is that they tolerate herbicides used against weeds; with fewer weeds, such crops should yield more. Crops may also be engineered to resist insects, which also should increase yield.

That’s the argument. But the evidence is not so clear. Some case studies do find yield increases with GE crops. But overall outputs in GE-producing regions do not appear larger than in non-GE regions or larger than their own past rates of increase. Critics of GE also argue that heavy herbicide use may cause development of resistant weeds (just as some bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics).  

Another response is that waste in food distribution and marketing is reduced by GE produce that spoils more slowly. For example, some GE tomatoes have long shelf-lives. But many feel such tomatoes lack the taste and texture of traditional tomatoes. 

At present, it appears that GE crops are safe to eat, but otherwise may provide small or transitory benefits to humanity.

Conceding this, however, is not a reason to give up on GE research, which is in its infancy and may soon be far more precise than traditional plant breeding. One technology, known as CRISPR, allows the addition of tiny, precise DNA sequences. By contrast, traditional plant breeding often moves large sequences of DNA, including undesired ones, into the offspring of parent plants.

Far better than GE crops made tolerant of herbicides would be GE crops that are more nutritious than traditional crops. Vitamin deficiency diseases in many parts of the world could be greatly reduced by such crops. Similarly, salt-tolerance could be added to crops; this would allow agricultural use of somewhat salty soil or brackish water for irrigation. Fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce on the earth as is good-quality farm land. Salt-tolerant plants could be a genuine blessing to large parts of humanity. 

In short, there are real concerns about early, commercial development of GE plants. However, these are not sufficient to rule out GE research. Clearly, results should be carefully evaluated.

Traditional and Religious Attitudes toward GE research

Genetic engineering, in most cases, is similar to traditional plant and livestock breeding. Each introduces new genes into a population of plants or animals. The methods are different, but the results are the same. Based on ancient practice, humans clearly accept traditional livestock and plant breeding. Why would we accept one technique, and not another that reaches the same result? (The exception to this similarity of results is “transgenic” GE— that is, the introduction of DNA from one species into plants of a completely different species. The acceptance of traditional plant breeding cannot so easily be transferred to transgenic GE. )

One intriguing ancient story actually addresses radical innovations in livestock breeding. Genesis relates the tale of the patriarch Jacob’s use of astonishing breeding techniques and results (see Genesis 30-31). The scripture does not express disapproval of Jacob’s distinctly pre-scientific innovation, nor even of Jacob’s dubious motives in doing so (self-enrichment). However, only poor interpretation of scripture would find “proof-texts” supporting GE in ancient stories that clearly were meant for other purposes. 

A better starting point might be the biblical view that God gave humanity “dominion” over the plants. This gives humanity a lot of latitude in dealing with plant life. Yet, this does not equate to absolute power. God remains creator of all things, including plants. As such, any human interactions with our fellow creatures (even plants), ought to be respectful of the relationship of those creatures to God. 

This biblical starting point is hardly a precise formula for determining whether, or what kind of, GE research is ethical. But it does suggest that respect should be the hallmark of such research without arbitrarily forbidding it. Respect would suggest special ethical scrutiny of GE research driven solely by commercial motives, as well as ethical scrutiny of transgenic research. And it would also suggest keeping seed banks to preserve plant DNA as it existed before introduction of GE crops. 

—Donald Frey, for HMC Earth Stewards

Sources used:

Summary of National Academies report at https://www.nap.edu/read/23395/chapter/2

Stephen Hall, “Editing the Mushroom: A powerful new gene-editing tool is sweeping agriculture.” Scientific American (March 2016), 57-63

Mark Harris, “Saltwater Solution: Farmland is being ruined by salty water.” Scientific American (July 2016).69-71.