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 (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.  There is bad intervention in nature, that degrades creation, or that shamelessly exploits it for human benefit without any regard for its intrinsic value, and there is good intervention, that meets human needs in a sustainable way and enriches creation as a whole at the same time (an example from Lynas’s address: a potato whose genome has been modified to resist fungal blights), and we need to be careful to try and tell the difference. But we must not simply reject something on the basis that it is “intervention” and thereby “unnatural.”

But even if that prima facie objection falls to the ground, we may still have the suspicion that there is always a cost/benefit tradeoff, and that the blight-resistant potato cannot come without a cost to human health.  Surely there may be undesirable consequences?  Indeed, surely there may be, but we cannot automatically assume there will be.  Lynas confidently declares, “We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three trillion GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm. You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food.”  Even if we want to quibble with his level of certainty, or suggest that a decade and a half might not be long enough for all ill effects to be seen, nonetheless, responsible science (upon which we must be willing to depend on such questions) provides no basis for attributing intrinsic health-risks to GM crops.  (Of course, Lynas does oversimplify here, since to date, most genetic modifications have been to make crops pesticide-resistant, so that they may be sprayed more liberally than ever before; as there is good reason to believe that many pesticides constitute substantial health risks, we may have good cause for preferring “organic” to GM.)

So is there anything that may still be said in warning against GM technology, any shred of my pontification that still stands?  Well yes, I think.  I mentioned above Lynas’s inattention to possible long-term consequences.  By that, I did not primarily mean practical concerns, such as that GM crops may before long crowd out all alternatives, with resulting loss to biodiversity, although such discussions are worth having.  Rather, I want to close by highlighting again the more “spiritual” concern articulated above, that by  embracing wholesale the technological manipulation of nature, we might come to imagine that we are without limits, that we are as gods.  (That this is no idle concern should be clear from the title of Lynas’s most recent book, The God Species.)  In an electrifying passage of Resurrection and Moral Order, Oliver O’Donovan diagnoses the problem:

“All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. . . . Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things” (p. 52; the entire passage is well worth reading and may be found here).

O’Donovan warns us that, while human dominion involves a real engagement with and “intervention” with the natural world, it cannot safely dispense with a notion of intrinsic teleology that can help adjudicate between perfecting and perverting nature.

Such adjudication is a very delicate and difficult business (particularly when it comes to intervening in human nature), and it is for this reason that O’Donovan has pointed out that it is not merely the nature of technological change that matters, but the pace.  We said above that genetic modification is simply a technologically-accelerated way of doing things we’ve done for thousands of years.  So where’s the rub?  Well, to some extent in that acceleration.  The fact that we can impose our will upon creation far more efficiently and efficaciously than in ages past constitutes a powerful seduction, a powerful force on the imagination that can cause us to lose sight of creaturely limits.  It also means that we have less time to thoughtfully evaluate the meaning and consequences of a technological change.  We are perpetually reacting to the next new development, with no time to assimilate it into our ethical thinking or our social and political structures.  It is for these reasons that I would contend that we must not be too hasty to silence our inner Luddite, however loud and passionate the calls to feed the hungry millions or end infant mortality.

Note: I need to thank to my far more agriculturally scientifically knowledgeable friend Brad Belschner for helping to ferment many of these thoughts.  For a wonderfully-balanced and readable perspective on technology and agriculture, see his essay “Towards a New Agriculture.”

Posted by Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.