Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU (2)

Nick Dinan talks to James Roberts from the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union about the role of Genetically Modified Organisms in a Christian world view.

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Nick Dinan: With regard to ‘not rushing things’, would it be right to frame your opinion as one that believes global issues such as global hunger are important, but if we want solutions we should take the slow route despite the urgency of these problems?

James Roberts: We could do a whole load of things other than GM crops to solve world hunger, such as better distributing the food we’ve got. There are perfectly adequate stopgap measures while we think about GM crops and evaluate them – whilst we make 100% sure that they’re all right. Doing that is a much better option than simply going ‘oh, GM crops are the answer here’ – it might not be.

ND: In May 2013 Monsanto sued, and won $85,000 from, a 75-year-old farmer for sowing the next generation seeds of the seeds that they had sold. Do you think there’s a major concern with the exploitation of GM crops by larger companies?

JR: You have situations where whole groups of people are dependent on the seeds of a genetically modified crop. Seeds are marked up in price and aren’t affordable, and the farmers end up in a worse position than before. We need to consider how to ensure that this technology isn’t manipulated simply for profit by big business. We need to think about how to regulate that.

ND: I assume that most people in the Christian community would agree with this?

JR: The Christian community I can say generally agrees on this, and I think this applies to a wider range of issues than GM crops as well; the issue of justice is one that hopefully would be close to home.

ND: So the ‘Christian value’ would be to help people, but in a way that conforms to what you’re taught in the Bible?

JR: I would say that the Christian moral standpoint should come from the Bible. That has to be our first authority on everything. So how we think through these issues should ultimately derive its reasoning back from the Bible.

ND: And finally – you said that your opinion came from studying biology in school, so it obviously was the result of some educational exposure. Do you think that members of the Christian community could do a lot more in educating themselves on the biology of GM crops before making an opinion?

JR: We need to make decisions based on the facts, based on what we’re presented with through the education system. I don’t think that’s our responsibility; the government has to give us the facts. Then, what we do with them has to conform with our reading of scripture. If someone’s honest view is that tampering with God’s creation is morally wrong, then I think no matter the biology that’s the conclusion they have to come to. However, if someone from scripture like myself has come to the conclusion that tampering with God’s work is not the problem, then the next step down in your reasoning has to be whether or not the biology says it’s the right thing to be doing. Have we got a full enough grasp of how it works to be able to do it in a way that isn’t going to cause damage? Can we do it as responsible stewards? If it’s yes to that, then I think the conclusion that we should come to is ‘yes, it’s fine’.

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU

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?

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Credit leyink

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 

Maize 1507: The crop of European fear and indecision

By Nick Dinan

Most of us know that maize is one of the four staple crops for human nutrition, rice, wheat and potatoes being the others. Considering global food insecurity, in what ways could we make this crop better? Perhaps the more urgent question is how have betterments to the crop been restricted, particularly within the ever-skeptical European Union.

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Credit: Australian Aid

1507 maize is a genetically modified version of maize produced by Pioneer DuPont with the aim of being cultivated within the EU. This variety of transgenic maize has the ability to produce an insecticide (Bt-toxin), derived from genes of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. 1507 maize is protected from pests such as the European corn borer – caterpillars of this species chew tunnels that compromise the structural integrity of Maize, destroying it in the process.

The crop was first presented in Spain in 2001. However, a chain of bureaucratic constraints, with repeated drafts of proposals for the crop being delayed due to the indecision of the European Commission, has delayed 1507 maize’s entry into the European market for 12 years. Ever most concerning is that 1507 maize meets all of the European Union’s regulatory requirements for genetically modified crops, such as safety compared to the original crop.

Reservations about 1507 maize are clear – can we ingest a toxin that has the capacity to kill insects? Maize is one of our staple crops; won’t the over-consumption of such a toxin have long-term adverse effects on our health? Who would want to feed their child toxic corn? Copious amounts of research refute these reservations.

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Credit: Les Haines

The proteins expressed in 1507 maize (Cry1F & Pat) that produce the Bt toxin are not toxic or allergenic to humans and animals. You might say we’re unsure of the long-term effects of the Bt toxin – how do we not know that there isn’t a network of dangerous pathways the toxin may ignite? Quite simply, there isn’t – creation of 1507 maize is not intertwined with the application of the Bt toxin. In fact, Bt sprays have had a history of controlling insect pests by spraying since the 1920s, where it is universally understood to be safe due to the specificity of the chemical for pests. Furthermore, 1507 maize and maize have nutritional equivalency, as well as identical risks of hybridization with wild populations (very low) and levels of environmental impact. It did not take 12 years to discover these facts; in 2005 the GMO Scientific Panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded 1507 Maize to be just as safe as ordinary maize.

Only on the 6th of November did the European Commission approve cultivation of the crop. The concerns of a GM-conservative government and populace was embodied in protests from environmental groups about safety, despite frustratingly manifest evidence that should have silenced their qualms.

This is the third GM crop to be approved for cultivation in the European Union. We could perceive this as a victory, but ultimately this huge delay represents the unwarranted skepticism of the developed world towards GM crops. Perhaps we don’t have the same degree of urgency, eradicated by the luxury of huge choice in what we eat. The organic, “gene-less” tide may be okay for now, but we’re at the risk of creating a culture not based on efficient cultivation that will be required in the future.