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 (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013) is the President of the Davenant Trust and the author of "Richard Hooker: A Companion to His Life and Work," along with articles on historical theology and Christian ethics. He is also a member of Covenant Investment Advisors, LLC. You can see more of his work at bradlittlejohn.com.

  • Thanks, Brad, for this careful analysis of a complex issue. I’m glad you focused on the Fall as a theological critique against unbridled optimism about technological change as well as an imperative for taking action to preserver life in the face of fallen creation’s corruption. In this way I’ve thought previously about innovation with regard to food scarcity (including GM foods, although I think there is a difference between plants and animals in this regard) as a kind of responsibility that humans are morally bound in some sense to realize. I think you are correct when you conclude, “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.” Another way of saying this is that our technological reach has exceeded our moral grasp. As I understand it, though, isn’t the payoff really simply that we need to be more careful, prudent, and even cautious in employing technology that compresses time in this way and is so efficient and efficacious? I also wonder a bit about the nature of the inherent limits of things as O’Donovan describes it. I don’t disagree in principle, but isn’t it also the case that there might be purposes for things, intended by God for human utility, that we have not yet discovered? What if green beans are intended to be food as well as something else that we have not yet discovered, and yet was really there all along? It happens often that something that was seemingly useless and common is later discovered to be quite valuable and full of potential to improve prosperity and promote flourishing. It seems to me that technological progress in this sense provide at least the possibility of seeing the complexity and wonder of creation that we otherwise would remain unaware of. We can’t for certain know ahead of time what those inherent limits are, at least in every case and in every detail. So proper stewardship, we might say, is being responsibly open to new possibilities and discoveries.

    • Brad Littlejohn

      Thanks Jordan, great thoughts. Briefly:
      “As I understand it, though, isn’t the payoff really simply that we need to be more careful, prudent, and even cautious in employing technology that compresses time in this way and is so efficient and efficacious?”
      Well yes, that is the payoff. When you boil it down, the payoff of most of what I write these days is “let’s be more careful and prudent about this.” Few things are absolutely bad are good. But all things require prudence. Let’s call it the Hookerian method. One difficulty we face is that our economic systems and structures militate against this. Corporations structured for the maximization of short-term profit don’t have great incentives for this kind of long-term and holistic prudence. I know you’re much further to the economic right than me, so I’m curious if you would agree in seeing that as a problem for our society today. (I suppose one rebuttal would be that this is nothing unique to the modern corporation—when it comes to providing for ourselves and making an income, human beings have always been tempted to short-term thinking, and understandably so.)

      As far as your caveat to O’Donovan’s quote, I think that is a very good one, and one that he would probably accept. But it’s important to note that there is still quite a significant difference, which recognizes that there are God-given “inherent limits” of some kind, even though our grasp of them is imperfect, and much of the modern scientific worldview—I think particularly of Lewis’s argument in Abolition of Man, and his fictional rendition of that argument in That Hideous Strength.

      • Brad Littlejohn

        Typo in last paragraph: “still quite a significant difference *between this*, which recognizes…”

      • Short-termism is most definitely a problem, but this isn’t an insight confined to the economic “left” or “right.” Thus Henry Hazlitt: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” I do think that the variety of options for incorporation are positive, and that some reflection on the role of profit-maximization and the definition thereof is needed. I’m not sure it must amount to being structured “for the maximization of short-term profit.”

        • Thanks for this essay Brad. I’ve only recently entered the GMO debate and it’s hard to find good Christian reflections upon the issue.

          I did want to comment on your concern about our economic systems and short-term profit maximization: Let’s be careful to define what exactly our economic system is. It needs to be acknowledged that GMO companies like Monsanto have not succeeded in a free-market. Thus, while short-term or medium-term profit has driven them, it has been sought by means of lobbying power and the power of the state. A normal check against Monsanto short-term profits would be competing companies… but this competition has been eliminating in a number of non-free-market manners and regulatory bodies have become PR firms. (And it must be noted that many of the would-be fatal consequences for many of these near-sighted corporations have been hindered by corporate welfare and support… thus encouraging more near sightedness that would otherwise be naturally discouraged)

          Also, Jeffrey Smith has pointed out a great benefit of whatever remains we have of a free market economic system: the tipping point. It doesn’t take very many consumers changing their minds about GMOs for corporations to dump GMOs.


          I had a chance to read your older piece on GMOs and shared some concerns on my blog. I’d love to get your reaction if you have time/interest: http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2013/05/05/genetically-modified-organisms-reaction-to-ballor/

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  • 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.

    Oh, come on. It beggars even the low standards of theology to suggest that it’s breeding blight resistance in a potato, and not (for instance) heart-transplant surgery, nuclear reactors, or the airplane where we’ve crossed the line into the ultimate hubris. And it’s that – that so-called “Luddites” oppose only the new technologies, not the ones they’re used to – which is the proof that your “inner Luddite” isn’t a principled stand against innovation pursued without regard to cost, it’s just the blinkered fear of any sort of change.

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  • ByronSmith

    Here’s another mea culpa from a former GM uprooter, though one who hasn’t turned to capitalist techno-optimism as a result of re-evaluating his position.

    This guy is a regular commenter on Guardian eco-stories and I nearly always appreciate his perspective.

  • ByronSmith

    I’ve also had a longish discussion with Brad on Facebook about these matters (and listed more than a dozen points at which I disagree with Lynas’s lecture). At Brad’s suggestion, I’m going to cut and paste an edited version of my comments. Apologies for length.
    Lynas was hardly “a leading campaigner against GM food”. He was an activist, but others have questioned his claims to have been a co-founder of the movement. And his repentance is hardly recent. By his own admission he’s been pro-GM since 2008. But these are details. I only mention them because they fit a pattern of autobiographical inflation in the “conversion” stories of more than a few prominent “bright green” techno-optimist environmentalists.

    Having said that, there is plenty of scope for Christian ethics to get its teeth stuck into GM technologies. My own interests are far more on the political and economic consequences of GM than any concern about public health (in this I agree with Lynas that we don’t have sufficient evidence of harm to justify many of the wild claims made by some environmentalists). I am in support of government-funded GM research that is conducted rigorously, transparently, free from corporate funding or bias, and where the knowledge gained (including both benefits and potential risks) is freely shared with farmers everywhere.

    An introduction to some of these issues is contained in this doco: http://wideeyecinema.com/?p=26

    In short, GM tech + corrupt US politics + US imperial power = the overzealous and destructive us of intellectual property laws to destroy small farmers. In this mix, GM is not itself primarily to blame; it is merely the instrument used by corporate forces to oppress and bully.

    A more directly ecological concern is that current GM strains have clearly lead to *increasing* use of pesticides and thus have accelerated the development of superbugs:

    Moving onto a more detailed look at Lynas’ lecture:

    1. “And I would challenge anyone in a rich country to say that this GDP growth in poor countries is a bad thing.”

    I would take up the challenge. He’s measuring the wrong thing. The improvements in human flourishing associated with this GDP growth are a good thing, but GDP doesn’t only measure those. It also measures increases in human ills. And it entirely fails to measure non-human goods. So there is no straightforward way in which GDP growth is a good thing, even if in many cases, it may turn out to be.

    2. “artificial fertiliser is essential to feed humanity”

    I’m sure Brad Belschner would have plenty to say against that! This claim is dubious and begs the question by assuming a certain form of agricultural practice.

    3. “Humans are a tool-making species – from clothes to ploughs, technology is primarily what distinguishes us from other apes.”

    Here is a claim with which theological anthropology might have one or two slight quibbles. And yet it is actually pivotal to his whole argument. He sets up the problem (more food needed without more land) and then suggests that technology is the only solution. He doesn’t even consider food distribution systems (which is where most of today’s hunger comes from, since we easily grow enough to provide nutrition for seven billion) or alternative farming practices. He just reaches straight for one particular form of technology.

    4. “It now costs tens of millions to get a crop through the regulatory systems in different countries. In fact the latest figures I’ve just seen from CropLife suggest it costs $139 million to move from discovering a new crop trait to full commercialisation, so open-source or public sector biotech really does not stand a chance.”

    Again, he assumes that only the present model (corporate-funded research to develop patented biotech for private profit) is possible/desirable. Why not public sector research? Why does the profit motive have to rule here? In effect, he is saying that *only* big ag can save us (using figures provided by – no surprise – big ag).

    5. “There is a depressing irony here that the anti-biotech campaigners complain about GM crops only being marketed by big corporations when this is a situation they have done more than anyone to help bring about.”

    Blame the victim. Regulations of food are, on the whole, tilted very significantly towards Big Ag. See Food Inc or plenty of other sources showing just how dodgy much of the food in the US is. If we’re going to have huge companies with massive political clout running the show, then why would we expect that the regulative framework would be oppressive to their ongoing growth? There is plenty of evidence that precisely the opposite is the case: through regulative capture, they pass regulations that make it impossible for small farmers to compete. So there is a case for regulative reform, but this ought not mean any *less* responsible oversight of massive corporations with a track record of being willing to poison consumers for profit if they can get away with it.

    6. “But at the same time the growth of yields worldwide has stagnated for many major food crops, as research published only last month by Jonathan Foley and others in the journal Nature Communications showed. If we don’t get yield growth back on track we are indeed going to have trouble keeping up with population growth and resulting demand, and prices will rise as well as more land being converted from nature to agriculture.”

    This is *just as true* in countries using GM as not using GM. The plateau is not because of over-regulation, but is a basic function of declining marginal returns on investment in complexity. We’ve already picked the low-hanging productivity “fruit”.

    7. “We also know from many studies that organic is much less productive, with up to 40-50% lower yields in terms of land area.”

    Or higher yields, depending on the crop in question. On average, current widespread organic practices do produce lower annual yields per unit of land than current forms of intensive agriculture (though the average is no where near 40-50% lower – this is cherry-picking), but this looks only at the short term (yields this year), without considering the long term effects detrimental of conventional practices on soil fertility, biodiversity, and climate, which serve to undermine productivity over the long term.

    8. “Nor did it mention that overall, if you take into account land displacement effects, organic is also likely worse for biodiversity. Instead they talk about an ideal world where people in the west eat less meat and fewer calories overall so that people in developing countries can have more. This is simplistic nonsense.”

    And here we reach the heart of his denial. Social change is simply not possible (despite having been evident throughout history and especially recently).

    9. “If you think about it, the organic movement is at its heart a rejectionist one. It doesn’t accept many modern technologies on principle. ”

    His vision of organic farming is simplistic and outdated. Again, just read Brad B’s piece (or look at the permaculture movement) and see that smart, modern organic farming is *more* knowledge intensive than monocultural industrial farming. Having made the equation that “organic” means pre-green revolution, he then creates a straw man of the extra land needed.

    10. “with the same number of deaths and injuries as were caused by Chernobyl”

    Which just goes to show that he’s swallowed the pro-nuclear spin. There is not a scientific organisation in the world that accepts that only 53 people died due to Chernobyl. The lowest estimates (from an organisation over which the IAEA has veto power) are 4,000 and the highest exceed 100,000. He’s referring only to those who died immediately after the event, not to the total toll, which is quite disingenuous.

    11. “This is not to say that organic farming has nothing to offer – there are many good techniques which have been developed, such as intercropping and companion planting, which can be environmentally very effective, even it they do tend to be highly labour-intensive”

    Exactly. This is the point. Permaculture organic can easily be higher yield per unit of land than monoculture industrial ag (even with GM), but it requires more human labour. The question is then: are we willing as a society to reverse the trend of a declining number of farmers per capita and return some of the way to more people doing farm work? If we want to avoid serfdom and slavery (which I take it we do!), then this will also mean paying a larger portion of our income for food again. I think that part of the idolatry of our present consumerism comes from believing we have a right to spend merely 10-15% of our income on food. This is a historical anomaly. But we’ve already left the realm of technology and entered politics. The only way of staying in technology is to assume that politics cannot (and therefore should not) change.

    12. “many third-generation GM crops allow us not to use environmentally-damaging chemicals because the genome of the crop in question has been altered so the plant can protect itself from pests. Why is that not organic?”

    Because already pests have shown that they can adapt and the arms race continues. Instead, let’s build ecosystems that include predators to suppress pest numbers and have a more robust biodiversity to boot.

    13. “So the rights of a well-heeled minority, which come down ultimately to a consumer preference based on aesthetics, trump the rights of everyone else to use improved crops which would benefit the environment.”

    He again de-politicises the issue by claiming that opposition to GM is aesthetic. In some cases, it may be. But few of the most active ecologically conscious people I know have merely aesthetic opposition to the current uses of GM. The most compelling opposition is based on political considerations. Note that such critiques can accept GM techniques pe se, while raising questions about their current functions in maintaining and expanding injustices.

    14. “I am all for a world of diversity, but that means one farming system cannot claim to have a monopoly of virtue and aim at excluding all other options. Why can’t we have peaceful co-existence?”

    This is either ignorant or utterly disingenuous. We can’t have peaceful co-existence precisely because the owners of GM-patented strains aggressively pursue organic farmers when wind-pollinated crops contain genetic material that they “own”.

    15. “Greenpeace is a $100-million a year multinational, and as such it has moral responsibilities just like any other large company.”

    I am not defending Greenpeace’s actions and in general am opposed to the destruction of GM crops (especially publicly-funded research). Nor am I denying that large NGOs have moral responsibilities. But if he imagines that there is no difference between a not-for-profit NGO and a multinational, then once more, he’s either ignorant or disingenuous.

    16. “no-one has died from eating GM”

    But millions have died from industrial agriculture. Indeed, thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide with Round-Up as a result of oppression and injustice at the hands of multinationals who control GM food.

    17. “But most important of all, farmers should be free to choose what kind of technologies they want to adopt.”

    Brad, you yourself have offered some of the most articulate critiques I’ve read of precisely this corporatist-consumerist dream of “freedom of choice”. The “level playing field” is a myth when huge multinational corporations set most of the terms. Lynas’ occlusion of the politics of this issue muddies the waters and makes his final ethical appeals dangerously misleading.

    (Brad’s responses to these comments are also available on FB: https://www.facebook.com/brad.littlejohn.9/posts/203085763169208)

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