Plants and GM: How Should We Respond?
Plants in the Bible
Looking out the window, how often do we actually consider what we really see? How often do we take the time to reflect that our lives depend on plants? Inhabiting a huge variety of locations and climates ranging from alpine iciness, scorching dessert heat to tropical jungle humidity, plants are everywhere, and provide us with the essential building blocks of life. We live, eat and breathe plants.
Ever since the Garden of Eden humankind has enjoyed an intimate relationship with the plant kingdom. In Genesis 1:9-13 we read that the “land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit in it according to their kinds.” Earth was furbished to provide a perfect habitat for man, able to support him. Two main types of vegetation were distinguished; seed-bearing, low-lying plants or herbs and large trees bearing fruit. Man was assigned the green plants/herbs and fruit to eat, whereas the animals were assigned only the green plants/herbs. (Gen 1:29-30). Instead of mankind providing food for the gods (as in pagan religions), the continuance of man on earth was provided for by God. This loving action demonstrates his concern that life should continue with an adequate supply of high-quality food at minimum effort.
The Bible shows us many other truths about the plant kingdom. Plants are used by God as symbols for his actions, blessings and curses. One hundred and thirty plants are mentioned in Scripture. Some of these have generic names rather than specific names; the spiritual significance of certain others is repeatedly mentioned. Strong flourishing trees like cedars or pines were admired and righteousness was compared to them (Ps 1:3; 52:8; 92: 12-14). The vine, olive and fig are used to express God’s goodness, in terms of a fertile and bountiful land/ crop harvest. Furthermore, as God’s representative on earth, made in his image and likeness, mankind is called to act in a godlike way. Certain laws on man’s relation with plants are given throughout the Bible. Some are environmentally motivated, others based on property rights, and others giving to the Lord that which is rightfully his. A bountiful crop is seen as God’s reward for giving to him the first fruits, not an automatic result of good horticultural practice.
Mankind was created from the earth, and is maintained by it. Adam was told that he was able to eat freely of all trees except one. Rather than becoming humble and thankful for God’s bountiful provision, mankind’s decision to eat the one forbidden fruit changed not only man’s relation with God, but also changed man’s relation with the plant kingdom. No longer was a rich orchard of fruit available to men and women, but the ground was cursed because of them. By the toil and labour of their hands it would produce food (Gen 3:17-19). Adam’s rejection of God’s sovereign authority and disobedience to his command is therefore the root of all our human problems with food production and supply.
Just as the gospel looks forward to the day when the nations will once again enjoy God’s blessings, a time is coming when “the wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom, and like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly” (Is 35:1-2). “In the midst of the paradise of God” the Tree of Life – central to the Garden of Eden – will be planted again, so that all those who believe in him, and obey his commandments “will have the right to the tree of life” (Revelation 2:7; 22:14). Found in the New Jerusalem, it is a tree of remarkable character. Growing on both sides of the river there is not only one tree, but many such trees planted there with their fruits freely available to all those in the holy city. Their leaves will not only be therapeutic, but they always have fruit on them, yielding a different fruit every month. Besides being pleasant and wholesome, they will contain many nutrients for happy, vigorous service in God’s kingdom. Their exact nature has not been revealed. God is able to create as he sees fit to his honour and glory, and there we must leave it; eagerly anticipating the day when we too will enjoy the delicious, nourishing fruit of the Tree of Life in the holy city.
Our Role as Stewards
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”1 He is the rightful owner not only of what creation beholds, but also all within it. He has given us plants, but our question remains: what are we to do with them? Our world is tainted by sin, falling far short of the standards required by God. As we look forward to the New Jerusalem we are called to be God’s stewards of this world and of one another. It is our obligation to care for his creation, appreciating what he has given us. In its beauty, complexity, and intricate orderliness all creation gives continual praise to God, declaring his glory (Luke 19:40). Who are we as sinful mankind to try to improve it or try to make it better?
And yet we have. Over the decades man has bred and cross-bred plants with desired traits in order to produce offspring illustrating that desired trait. While this breeding requires careful levels of accuracy, and many generations to produce the desired results, the changes are considered ‘natural’. Our grapes were made seedless, and tomatoes given a longer shelf life. Is this natural or has man ‘bettered’ God’s creation? Today scientists can use Genetic-Modification (GM) techniques to incorporate genetic material into an organism’s genome in order to develop plants that demonstrate a particular characteristic. It raises questions as to whether this is so very different to what plant breeding has been done over thousands of years, and whether Genetic Modification (GM) might possibly fit into God’s creation plan. Or, does it “take mankind to realms that belong to God?”2
The world is rapidly heading towards a global crisis: how to feed a booming world population while the available arable land decreases at a rate of 5ha (50 house sections) a minute? The answer could potentially lie in the efficiency of agriculture through GM crops. It is unquestionably the largest biological experiment that man has ever entered into, but does that make it ethically correct? Depending on the origin of the DNA incorporated, there are two types of GM; transferring genes between related species, and those that are entirely unrelated. Transferring genes of “caterpillar” resistance from wheat to barley is one thing: transferring a poison gene in scorpion tails into a cabbage to create a venomous cabbage is quite another. Both wheat and barley belong to the wider grass family, thus through selective breeding could potentially produce caterpillar-resistant barley, but a scorpion and cabbage would never be able to interbreed naturally.
The desired traits are produced highly accurately, taking much less time than traditional methods. GM crops can be modified to be pest/disease resistant, and to grow under various conditions including cold, drought, acidity and salinity. New opportunities are provided for plant breeders to produce crops informerly inhospitable areas, with greater yield. Creating a crop resistant to certain pests, the sheer quantity of pesticides sprayed is reduced, decreasing the ecological impact, as well as improving soil, water and energy conservation. Crops may also be engineered to be tastier, and/or to contain additional nutrients. Aspiring to prevent malnutrition, GM foods contribute a vital role in the provision of vitamins or minerals; providing people with essential nutrients within their staple crop.
A great deal of controversy is raised about GM. Ethical and long-term health apprehensions for both people and the environment are raised when organisms are altered from how they were naturally created. Criticisms of GM include environmental and economic concerns, as aspects of the long-term impacts are unknown. The risk of a GM ‘super weed’ population that is impossible to kill with herbicide, or which outcompetes ‘natural’ plants is among the fears raised. Corporatization of food crops is one of the scariest and most concerning GM issues.3 Corporations are amoral; likely making the decisions that most enhance their profit. GM research costs millions and consequently is heavily patented; the technology remains in the hands of only a few companies. This means that the technology which was originally invented to prevent world hunger might not be accessible to those who need it most.
Is GM technology a black and white issue? Both viewpoints have strengths and downfalls. God created the world in seven days and when he “saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). As stewards of this world our obligation is to care for his creation, appreciating what he has given to help us. In Genesis 1:12-25 we read of God giving man every kind of plant bearing fruit “each according to its kind”. All things were created perfectly by him and for his glory (Colossians 1:16). As stewards of this world, and of one another, living in a land of plenty, it’s our responsibility to do what is within our power to help our fellow human beings, created in the image of God, who are dying of starvation and malnutrition (James 2:16). Creating GM crops that are capable of growing well where previously crops were not possible may hold the solution. This may hold the answers to the food crisis problems seen in our world, but it also has a huge potential to be misused and abused.
It is no straightforward issue. For thousands of years we have been playing God through selective breeding, though altering genes in one year in a laboratory is much more significant. In drawing conclusions we need to be ever-mindful of the fall of man into sin. The world we live in today is no longer the perfect creation found in Genesis 1. Our motives are so often not for the glory of God, or the edification of others, but merely the elevation of ourselves. In Romans 1:18-32 we have a warning – those who are enamored with the creation and not with the glory of God spiral into destruction. Ultimately, it comes down to how the technology is used – to the enrichment of one man, or the wellbeing of a generation? Much research and capital has already been spent on developments, is still being spent, and will continue to be spent in years to come. The answer has not yet been found: moreover, the era of genetically modified foods has only just begun.
Science and Christianity are so often at war, yet shying away from issues like these is not an option. In studying Plant Science I will no doubt at some point be asked where I stand. The origin of the transferred gene and its relation to the host need to be kept distinct. Aspects of GM are undoubtedly in complete contradiction to what we read in the Bible about creation and our relationship to it, yet other aspects are not so very different to what mankind has been doing over thousands of years and is considered natural. We live in a land of privilege and plenty: nevertheless, it’s our responsibility to do what is within our power to help our fellow human beings, created in the image of God dying of starvation, and malnutrition – GM crops potentially hold the answer. For this reason I have not yet come to a clear-cut, definite opinion in favour of or against GM outright, and doubt if I ever will.
As the era of genetically modified foods develops, the challenge that I give myself and extend to you is this: on the day that our viewpoint is called for, do not answer with an opinion formed in ignorance, but with an educated, knowledgeable opinion that takes into consideration what God has called us to as humans, and his relationship with his creation; yet not forgetting the vital role played by science.