Genetically Modified Food: Mark Lynas and Your Inner Luddite

Earlier this month, Mark Lynas, a leading environmental campaigner and erstwhile anti-GM food crusader, delivered a lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference that brazenly combined penitence and pugnacity, offering a public recantation of his own views on GM food while challenging those not so enlightened to “get out of the way and let the rest of us get on with feeding the world sustainably.”

Although sure to offend or dismay the localist and Luddite that resides deep within so many of us, there was much to admire about Lynas’s address: his honest admission of his own faults, and willingness to re-examine high-profile commitments in light of the evidence; his willingness to point out that a commitment to both environmentalism and humanitarianism requires trade-offs (we cannot feed the hungry, prevent overfishing, and oppose fish-farming simultaneously); his indictment of the self-satisfied aestheticism that lies at the heart of much of the organic food movement; his willingness to take human dominion seriously as part of the solution to, not merely the source of, environmental problems.  There was also much to complain about: his occasionally bullying tone; his declaration that “the only facts that mattered were the ones published in the most distinguished scholarly journals”; his careless lumping together of all “organic” farming under one heading and declaring that whatever it was, it had no health benefits; his enthusiasm for short-term solutions and inattention to possible long-term consequences.

Any of these points merit thoughtful consideration or critique, but I will confine myself in what follows to examining the last point of admiration and, more briefly, the last point of complaint, for these get to the heart of why so many people, perhaps especially the theologically-inclined among us, have a gut distrust of genetically-modified food.  If given a soapbox on which to pontificate for a few moments, my theologically-sophisticated inner Luddite might proceed as follows:

It is essential that we remember that we are creatures, and not gods, that God alone has established the course of nature and tasked us merely with tending, preserving, and overseeing it.  We have not been given the Promethean freedom to take nature into our own hands and refashion it into our own image.  Nature is not “raw material,” but material that has already been given form and structure by God, and we must respect this God-given form; this is particularly the case with living things.  If we do not, two things will happen.  First, we will harm ourselves physically, for God has created the world good; he has given us the fruits of the earth as food to eat, and he knew what was good for us, so if we try and improve upon it, we are trying to outsmart God and find that we have only decreased malnutrition at the cost of increasing cancer incidence, or whatever.  Second, we will harm ourselves spiritually, for we will lose all sense of our created limits, and of the inherent teleology within nature; we will conceive of ourselves and the world around us as mere products of our own will, human nature itself as clay to be shaped into whatever form we might desire.  At this rhetorical climax, I might quote liberally from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and would perhaps conclude by dolefully reciting some lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”

Chastened by Mark Lynas’s address, what might we say in response to this pontification?

OGM - ADN

OGM – ADN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, first, we might point out that it seems to be oddly silent on the subject of the Fall, a matter of no small theological significance.  If God’s good creation has been disordered by sin and the curse, we might well expect that simply “doing things naturally” would get us into some trouble.  Fact is, a lot of the things we try and eat can do us harm, or at any rate, can’t do us enough good to protect us all from disease and malnutrition.  To deny that we might need to take measures to avoid these evils of life under the sun would be tantamount to rejecting civil government because, as naturally created, we could live in harmony without it.  The fact of sin means that we cannot always have our cake and eat it too; maybe it would be nice to eat all-natural fruits and vegetables, but this might conflict with the imperative to feed the starving.

More fundamentally, though, this pontification distorts the Christian tradition’s understanding of nature and humans’ role in it.  God created the world with room to grow and mature, and the task of humans is not to curate a museum, but to enrich and perfect the garden we’ve been given to tend.  And simplistic attempts to dichotomize between “helping something grow to its natural perfection” and “intervening so as to force it in an unnatural direction of our own choosing” won’t help us much.  Humans have been intervening and imposing their will on creation since the beginning, to the point that much of what we would today think of as “natural” is actually our own creation.  Roses, potatoes, corn, dogs—all of these wear man’s smudge and share man’s smell, and are, most all of us would agree, very much the better for it.  Not merely “better for us,” mind you (though we might say this for the potatoes and corn, and given God’s desire for a well-fed human race, this is nothing to be scoffed at), but objectively better, better in themselves.  God rejoices in the wild dog, yes, but I would submit that he rejoices still more in the Golden Retriever and the Great Dane (though not, mind you, in the pit bull or the poodle).  When we decided that some plants qualified as weeds, to be removed rather than left alone, and that other plants were beautiful, worthy of being cultivated and bred, rather than left alone, we made determinations about what the “natural perfection” of creation was, and what it wasn’t, and “intervened” accordingly.  In many cases, such interventions have helped ensure or preserve, rather than distort and destroy, balanced ecosystems.

Once we recognize that genetic modification is simply a technologically-accelerated way of doing things that already happen naturally (in cross-pollination and random mutation), or that have already happened through human ingenuity (conventional breeding methods), the prima facie theological objection to it should fall to the ground.   Continue reading

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The Gospel According to Trees: Animal Kingdom

I’ve always been a sucker for animals. I have a long-standing (and well-deserved) reputation for adopting every stray dog that comes into my line of vision. I am currently spending my free time with a cat that showed up at my house a few weeks ago, acting like he was starving. I have a strong suspicion that he is actually a two-timing little schemer with a perfectly nice home somewhere else, but still I buy him cat food and let him sit on my lap while I read. I’ve always kept birds, am deeply devoted to my rescued bulldog Deacon, and am constantly trying to figure out a way to house sheep and a few chickens in my little corner of Los Angeles. Despite all these many affections, it is horses that first captured my heart and soul and maintain the preeminent place in my heart.

When I was eight years old I feel madly and irreversibly in love with all things equine. There appeared to be very little provocation towards this devotion; it was as if I just woke up one day with an undivided passion. My family was living in a lovely but decidedly suburban home in the middle of a young, developing community. We had some friends with two ancient ponies, but all other contact with the equestrian world was out of my reach.

I did what I could to get in touch with a realm well beyond my grasp. I bought Equus magazines with my tiny allowance, chopped up out-of-date horse calendars bought from the drug store for pennies, wall-papering my room with the pictures. I begged and begged for riding lessons, and, being a salesman at heart, soon convinced all my friends that they should be in love with horses too, thus developing a more powerful coalition to convince mothers to drive us to horse shows and tack stores. My parents obliged me, slowly, and my passion grew.

My love for horses was the first impetus in my life towards earnest prayer. At nine years old there was really nothing I could do to actually get a horse. I had no power to make my dream come true, so I prayed. I prayed every night and every morning that God would somehow fulfill the desires of my heart.

He did. One day I was at a friend’s house and my parents called me. They told me not to get too excited, but that they’d been on a bike ride in the countryside outside our town and a horse was for sale that they were considering buying for me. A family friend offered to keep the horse on their property, and I just about fainted. Within a few days, I had my very own little horse and I felt the personal and extravagant love of God in ways I never had before.

After that my dedication grew, as did my herd. We eventually moved out to the country and had five horses at the height of it all. My sister and I became avid competitors, and my dad even got himself a trail horse in order to take us camping in the Sierras, where we would ride deep into the mountains with only what our horses could carry.

My history with horses has served to demonstrate to me the significant roles animals have to play in God’s kingdom. God uses them to teach us to love those that need care, those that are different from us, those we don’t understand. They are also here to give us joy (I know some people don’t experience animals that way, but I sure do). I have felt God’s care and love through the joy of caring for animals and the affection they so willingly give back. Animals have been given a much more significant role in the created order than just that of biological necessity in the natural economy. They have been imbued with relational capacity, a capacity that is both their own and reveals God’s. Like the rest of the natural world, they have impact, sometimes significant impact, on our souls.

Some of the most significant spiritual developments in my life happened because of horses. I learned compassion and gentleness through rehabilitating an abused Quarter Horse who became my last competition horse. I experienced immense awe of God while riding into remote and beautiful places I would not have seen otherwise. I learned the value of hard work and dedication, and that losing a competition doesn’t damage one’s value. Most importantly, I learned that God cared about me as a person, and was willing to fulfill the ardent desires of a little girl who needed nothing but wanted something so, so much.

The Gospel According to Trees: Foundations of Creation Care

Your responses to my original question were as diverse and interesting as I had hoped for, but they did increase my awareness of just how big this topic is. Though a few book reviews and subsequent editorializing will organize future posts, I thought it might be helpful to begin by trying to think about the natural world in a distinctly Christian way. In no particular order, here are some of my ideas on how to understand it.

The natural world isn’t human. It’s different than you or me, so we shouldn’t treat it like an extension of us.

Nature doesn’t belong to us, though we have responsibility for it. Several of the commenters mentioned stewardship. The word stewardship implies caring for something that does not belong to us. My mother pointed out that caring for nature isn’t that different from caring for children. Children are given one for a time to care for, but ultimately they are God’s. So too, nature is God’s, but we have responsibility to care for it for a time.

We are part of the natural world. I think it would be right to say that nature is almost a pseudonym for creation in it’s entirety. We are natural, the universe is natural, God’s created order is nature.

Nature is bigger than us. Obviously.

Nature isn’t only natural. I’ve often, and I mean often, thought about the rocks and the trees crying out and I don’t think it’s just rhetorical. I’m going to spend some time writing about nature as a spiritual entity, but for now, let’s just say that if it can talk to God when we fail to, perhaps our definition of nature needs to include something supernatural.