This week’s Ethics and Religion Talk column probes the issue of genetically modified organisms, which are used in food and are a point of contention as to their perceived threats to public health.
By Rabbi David Krishef
“Dennis” writes: I’m wondering about what religions think about Genetically Modified Organisms, particularly for food, when the modification makes it “unnatural” but it also holds out some promise of helping alleviate hunger in the world.
Sandra Nikkel, Ministry Coordinator of the Grand Rapids East Classis and Pastor of the multicultural Ministry at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, responds:
“Even though there are a lot of benefits that have come to us from genetically modifying organisms, specifically food, I believe that there are great risks involved. No matter how much we have advanced, our knowledge is partial. We do not know all the ways in which this ‘new food’ will affect our bodies. We take something out and put something, we twist and tweak, the quicker the better, and it might take us years to discover how it’s affecting us. The other problem I see is that often it is not any kind of ethical code that rules this practice but the desire to make money—at any cost.”
Sister Mary Timothy Prokes, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, responds:
“Obviously, Sacred Scripture and Tradition do not address “genetically modified organisms” as such. They do, however, provide principles for evaluating them. Among these principles are justice, truthfulness, reverence for creation, and charity. The genetic modification of foods is complex and calls for the application of each of these principles.
In justice, human persons have the right to know that what is presented/sold as food is eatable and if dangers or risks accompany their consumption. In the US, there are no requirements to label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. Milk, bacon, beef, chicken, cereals, and many processed foods already contain genetically modified ingredients.
“Major seed companies (who hold patents on modifications developed and employed by them) need to be truthful concerning the impact their products have on farmers, consumers, the seeds of the world, and the environment. Sadly, a major portion of the world’s foods has already been penetrated by GMOs without determining their long term effects on humanity or the earth. Eliminating so-called ‘superweeds’ and ‘superbugs’ that result from the use of pesticides and herbicides containing GMOs requires an increased use of toxic poisons. Reverence for creation requires careful determination of the long term consequences of artificially-contrived seeds and foods, a responsibility that is often dismissed in the struggle for commercial dominance.
“Charitable concern for farmers who want to protect organically grown crops is lost when there is insufficient distance between their fields and GMO-penetrated land, causing cross-pollination. Although commercial firms seek fruits and vegetables of ideal size and color, the natural tastes and textures of GMO-produced foods are altered. In sum, the ethical issues surrounding GMO’s and food are immense.”
Aly Mageed, a physician and Shura member (roughly equivalent to an elder or a member of the Board of Trustees) of the Islamic Mosque and Religious Institute of Grand Rapids, responds:
“[Regarding] GMO’s, I believe that the field is very vast and very rapidly growing and therefore would be difficult to have a general statement. It is also growing faster than bioethicists can have a chance to study all its implications. Without systematically studying all the potential harms and benefits, an opinion will not be truly objective. I would like to see it regulated at least with demanding specific labeling so that the issue can begin to be appropriately studied.”
Fred Wooden, the senior pastor of Fountain Street Church, responds:
“Long before modern science we had genetically modified species. Corn and wheat and other natural plants were once inedible. They were slowly modified by cross breeding and selective fertilization to be the staples we now enjoy. Animals from the horses to the chickens have been bred by humans to suit our needs more than theirs. If we were to be perfectly natural, meaning not interfering with nature in any way, we would have to abandon vaccinations, most drugs, most manufacturing mining and even farming. Clearly, we all ok with modifying nature.
“As saying an absolute no is not possible, we should ask if there is a moral or ethical principle that can prevent us from making a terrible mistake? No, sadly, but there are several principles that can help. One is the principle of stewardship, articulated in Genesis as the responsibility to ’till the garden and keep it.’ Another would be compassion, making choices that avoid causing suffering or permitting it when we can alleviate it. Your question reveals how ethical rules can come into conflict as stewardship would say no to GMO and compassion would say yes.
“What makes us uneasy is not deliberate evil, but unwitting evil. What if some of these changes bring about unknowable horrors in the future? Robert Oppenheimer thought that exact thought when watching the first atomic bomb. And I expect that GMO could be like that – a tremendous blessing and a terrible risk.”