By Nick Dinan
As a scientist and atheist, a perspective of genetically modified (GM) crops rooted in religion is one that is naturally foreign to me. I sat down with James Roberts, representing the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), to explore the moral conflicts of GM foods – are they rebelling against scripture or are they acceptable within the standards of the Bible?
Nick Dinan: What are your personal views on GM crops?
James Roberts: Personally, I think they’re a bad idea, but not from a Christian perspective. I don’t think that the technology is good enough to ensure that something bad doesn’t happen.
ND: Do you think that your particular views are representative of the Christian church, or at least the Christian Society within Cambridge?
JR: I think there’s a broad spectrum of viewpoints. There’ll certainly be some people who are against it, because quite stereotypically you’re ‘playing God’. However I don’t particularly think it’s an issue. The Bible in Genesis calls for us to be stewards of the world, care for God’s creation and to look after it under his ultimate rule. So I don’t think GM crops are particularly different from what we’ve been doing for thousands of years through selective breeding – it’s just skipping out a couple of steps.
ND: You point out that we help the plants skip a couple of steps ahead. Technology is progressing to the stage where we may take a few steps further than that. Where do you think the line will be drawn for GM crops to still fall under God’s natural order of things?
JR: It’s a very grey area. It depends what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve. If there is some kind of beneficial goal at the end then I think that probably justifies what you’re doing. For example, if you’re going to end up with a plant that produces something beneficial, you can probably justify it. However, if you’re just fiddling around with genes out of curiosity then that’s not such a great thing.
ND: Developing these techniques to eventually reach a positive goal is often the result of ‘fiddling around’ without knowledge of what future benefits may be. In that respect, how would you distinguish between fiddling around and aiming towards a positive goal?
JR: It comes down to your motivations – are you being a good steward? Are you keeping in mind the risks and what could potentially go wrong? Are you taking precautions? Basically, we want good scientific practice. Thinking through those things is what differentiates between carelessness and actually doing something that can benefit the scientific community and humanity.
ND: From your own perspective, do you believe that someone who disagrees with GM foods for religious reasons should then logically be against gene therapy in humans?
JR: I think the underlying question is that there’s a difference between humanity and the rest of creation; humanity is made under God’s image as a special creation. However gene therapy and GM crops seems to me almost as one in the same thing, you just need to be more careful with humans. I don’t think that if you’ve decided to be against GM crops you could say that gene therapy is okay, but I’d add a pinch of salt to that as I don’t know the ins and outs of gene therapy.
ND: So in terms of a being a steward to these resources, surely we should be doing the best to help those around us. For example, golden rice provides a precursor to vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency is something that kills 675,000 children a year – GM crops can really help people. Is there a moral dichotomy between tampering with God’s work and helping these people?
JR: So I think being a good steward involves not only making the best use of resources, but also being responsible with what we’re using. If the risks involved in creating golden rice were too great, then no matter what the potential gain of the end goal is, it’s not right. The ends don’t justify the means if your means are full of hazards. But I don’t think that you’re tampering with God’s creation if you’re manipulating crops.
ND: I know that you’re very much focused on the risks of GM food, but putting yourself in the shoes of a someone who is against GM crops from a Christian moral context, is there a conflict between the potential gains of GM crops and the fact that GM crops could be a moral injustice?
JR: I think if their conscience is telling them that ‘to do this would be to go against God’s rule’, then for them to sanction it is wrong no matter what the potential gain is. If they see it as rebelling against God, then it is not something they should do.
ND: I want to return to your concerns that you mentioned in your first answer about the risks of accidentally putting toxins in. A wheat crop undergoing testing in the UK has been engineered for Aphid resistance using naturally occurring, non-toxic proteins existing in the food chain. Toxins are therefore highly regulated and the risk is low. Do you think that despite the chance of toxicity being very small, we shouldn’t support GM foods?
JR: I think it’s something you’d need to think very carefully through. You need to think about the long term as you could have something that could build up in the ecosystem and be toxic at higher concentrations. It’s just about caution, really. I think we should be against GM crops as a whole as it’s just not something we should rush into. We need to make sure we’ve thought of all the hazards and risks. If it’s fine, then why not, but we always need to bear in mind that we don’t think about these things properly a lot of the time. The scientific process is riddled with potential biases and errors and things that we don’t spot like thalidomide and that kind of thing. We often have an under appreciation of the hazards involved
Part 2 of this interview will appear on the 4th of February