I don’t like food; I love it!
— Anton Ego in Ratatouille
We all like food. Some of us like food more than others. Food is more popular today than it was 20 years ago. There are even several TV channels devoted to food and a full-length animated film about food. Unfortunately, our love of food goes to many unhealthy extremes. So we have organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help oversee our food supply. The FDA is supposed to make sure our food is safe to eat, even providing guidelines on what to eat or what not to eat. Even with FDA approval, we have an abundance of “safe” food products. Occasionally, the FDA has to move things from the safe list to the unsafe list.
About ten years ago, the food battle waged against artificial sweeteners like those found in Sweet’N’Low (i.e., the chemical aspartame). In addition to tasting bad, some claim that Sweet’N’Low causes cancer. More recently, the FDA has appropriately recalled foods like beef tainted with deadly E. coli. Warnings have been placed on cigarettes, which cause lung cancer. In those instances, the FDA has acted responsibly by removing food products and labeling foods that are dangerous to eat. But there has been a shift in food battles lately. Today’s food battle typically wages against seemingly wholesome foods containing “corn, soybean, cotton, wheat, canola, sorghum, and sugar cane seeds.”1 What is common to all these seemingly wholesome foods is that they typically are genetically modified in the US—their DNA has been changed. Currently, the FDA has no requirement to label foods made with these ingredients, and there have been no recalls. But have they acted in a safe and responsible fashion? Or is there anything really wrong with these common “all natural” products? Are GMOs ethical?
Let me give you some background. In the old days, farmers used to breed plants together and make “hybrids”—think of a corn hybridized from crossing two different varieties of corn. This was done to enhance the corn to make it bigger or healthier and so on. They would do this with other farm commodities like breeding various cattle together as well. But corn is a great example. Corn is found in the American food supply in the form of high fructose corn syrup. We find this high fructose corn syrup in many household products as a general additive. To understand how much high fructose corn syrup you are consuming, just check the ingredients label in your pantry. (Really, if you’re reading this and haven’t ever looked, quickly carry your book to the pantry and look for yourself.) The ingredients are listed in the order of abundance, so the first ingredient is most abundant in the food you eat. You may be surprised to find all the products that have high fructose corn syrup in them (let alone how much of it) — especially soft drinks. Even the ethanol additive in our gasoline at the gas pump was produced from corn products! You may begin wondering: what doesn’t have corn in it?
The biggest surprise for most people is that most Americans have consumed a vegetable product, including corn, that has been genetically altered . . . without even knowing it. This brings us to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).2 They are any organism (like plants—specifically here, corn) that has been modified with DNA from another organism. Instead of cross-pollinating corn to make it better, like the old days, they are now taking genes from one organism and forcing them into the DNA (or genome) of a different organism to make it better. Essentially, scientists have added some genes from something else to improve the crop (e.g., to make food grow bigger, taste better, etc.). For the sake of this chapter, I will focus on the GMOs in the American food supply.
There are large lobbies interested in whether GMOs should be in the food supply or not.3
- The first lobby interested in GMOs is for the use of GMOs and includes major corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto is one of the largest agricultural companies that sells “seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.” They have been at the center of some recent US Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Bowman v. Monsanto Company).4
- The second lobby interested in GMOs is against the use of GMOs and includes the Non-GMO Project. “The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices.”5
- The third lobby that should be interested in GMOs is the unaware majority of Americans having already consumed a GMO without knowing it.
But is ignorance bliss? As a trained scientist who has done the research and also as a dad, let me first scrutinize these GMOs using the Scriptures then scientifically evaluate GMOs to determine if there is anything wrong with using them.
Do Scriptures Teach against GMOs?
Since the structure of the DNA double helix was discovered only recently (1953), the human authors of the Bible could not use the term “genetically engineered” like we use it today. The lack of GMOs in Scripture does not invalidate Scripture, nor does it mean that these genetic engineering concepts are not addressed in Scripture, leaving us without a guide through the 21st century. (Keep in mind that the word dinosaur was not invented until the 1800s, and so it, too, is not found in Scripture even though God created dinosaurs.)
To the contrary, some important words that also define biblical Christianity and yet do not appear in Scripture include (but are not limited to) the Trinity and the hypostatic union. Significant words always discussed in the GMO debate like “drought-resistant crops” and the active herbicide found in RoundUp™ (the chemical glyphosate) are hardly found in normal people’s vocabulary and were not in our vocabulary until recently. But even though drought-resistant crops and the herbicide glyphosate are certainly not biblical, they are directly related to the biblical subject of man’s dominion over the earth.
Both the image of God and man’s dominion are first mentioned in Scripture simultaneously. When God creates the first humans on day 6, Scripture tells us:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26–28).
It is abundantly clear that these verses teach what is traditionally referred to as the dominion mandate. God gave the dominion responsibility to those who bear His image and to nothing else. Since we bear His image, we must understand the responsibility of dominion over organisms, their seeds, and their DNA so that we act according to God’s desires. Furthermore, we must guard against the abuse and misuse of God’s creation.
The works of the Lord are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them (Psalm 111:2).
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet (Psalm 8:6).
When using any part of God’s creation, we must be found good stewards. Our dominion should be taken seriously, but also not neglected (cf. Luke 19:11– 27). Since we are entrusted with creation, we have the God-given responsibility to care for it. Some people have taken Leviticus 19:19, “You shall not sow your field with mixed seed,” out of context to interpret seed to mean the genetic material of one organism should not be mixed with that of another organism. The text says mixing seeds (kil’ayim, which also appears in Deuteronomy 22:9 in the same context) is wrong, not the mixing of kinds (miyn) (where the biblical term kind is usually synonymous with the family level in modern classification schemes). While the word “seeds” falls in the semantic range encompassed by the word “kinds,” the converse is not true (i.e., “kinds” are not “seeds”).
In today’s modern technological world, we often find ourselves enjoying God’s creation because of different technologies. But as any technology changes new challenges arise. When Noah built the ark, the technology included tools made of stone, bronze, and/or iron. When Moses was writing the Law, the Egyptians were repairing devastation. Nebuchadnezzar finished his hanging gardens during the lifetime of Daniel. All roads were headed to Rome while Jesus walked this planet. Everyone should realize that using technology is not wrong in and of itself, but can be problematic when someone uses the technology in a wrong way (e.g., Nazis’ inventions for the destructions of Jews, Poles, Slavs, and others). Building pyramids, hanging gardens, and road construction are technologies in their own right, but can this be true for scientists today genetically modifying our food?
Since technological innovations are developed by real-world, problem-solving scientists, then Christians should not be afraid of properly using technology (e.g., cell phones, spaceships, or the computer I used to write this chapter). GMOs are intended, like any technology, to potentially improve humanity when used properly, but they may also bring harm.
So picking on GMOs because they are new technology is a bad argument because there have been new technologies since the beginning of time. In fact, is it any wonder that it has taken us this long since Adam to invent GMOs? Of all people, today’s Christians live with more information available, have the complete Word of God, and so should “have an answer” (1 Peter 3:15) for GMOs because they directly relate to the dominion mandate. Essentially, GMOs are like any technology that should be used consistent with what the Scriptures teach. While there is no specific verse teaching against GMOs, is there a scriptural principle that teaches GMOs violate the dominion mandate?
Do Scriptural Principles Teach against GMOs?
The Bible contains several very interesting examples of biotechnology without using the words DNA or GMOs. Genesis 30 records an exchange between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban. The exchange includes Jacob negotiating Laban’s daughter to be his wife for an unusual price. The unusual price was for taking care of Laban’s livestock; in exchange, Jacob would marry one of Laban’s daughters. At the same time, Jacob was cunning enough to secure some livestock to provide for his future wife. All newlyweds start off with very little wealth, and so Jacob asked for Laban’s undesirable livestock to provide for his future wife. In exchange for those undesirable livestock, Jacob also promised to take care of Laban’s desirable livestock. Specifically, the undesirable livestock that Jacob requested were “speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the lambs” (Genesis 30:33). Even though Jacob was deceived, he made the best of the situation by performing an odd technique that we still do not understand today: “Jacob took for himself rods of green poplar and of the almond and chestnut trees, peeled white strips in them, and exposed the white which was in the rods” (Genesis 30:37). This passage about using “rods of green poplar” (among others) implies that Jacob was artificially selecting (i.e., breeding) desirable traits from his newly acquired undesired animals. While Jacob worked with animals, the techniques he used are based on the same principles used to make GMOs.6 So Jacob used the biotechnology of his day to artificially select certain desirable traits among his livestock (similar to dog breeding today). Not exactly a GMO by today’s definition, but Jacob never compromised the dominion mandate in what he did.
Later in the New Testament, Paul writes to the Romans to describe important heavenly truths using an earthly example from the science of plant cultivation. Paul uses the term graft six times in Romans 11 to describe the spiritual truth that the Gentiles were to spiritually flourish essentially because God did so with the nation Israel. When Paul was writing in the first century, the term “graft” was often used to describe taking a slice of an olive branch and placing the cut branch into a fresh olive tree. GMOs and grafting are similar because they combine two separate sources of DNA. Grafting was a common practice in the ancient world and still used today to cultivate particular foods like seedless grapes. Paul used common language about grafting biotechnology (GMOs) to convey a spiritual truth.7 Since olive trees do not bear the image of God and cutting a tree branch does not cause them to go extinct, then Paul’s point did not suggest an abuse of the dominion mandate.
These two biblical examples of common practices when the Scriptures were written demonstrate that the concepts of genetic engineering and biotechnology do not necessarily violate any biblical principles. Modern genetic engineering principles and biotechnology practices are modified forms of ancient animal breeding and plant grafting (as described in Scripture), which are simply a form of artificial selection. Scripture never says artificial selection is wrong, but actually uses examples of artificial selection to convey spiritual truths. No one can point to any verse or idea to suggest that artificial selection is wrong, let alone GMOs. Therefore, nothing is wrong with the process of genetically modifying any organism, even in a “very good” creation, so long as it glorifies God (all the more so now that we live in a fallen world). Whether Noah or Adam “artificially selected” anything is purely conjecture because Scripture is silent, but it is interesting to speculate nonetheless. In one sense, the animals were brought on Noah’s ark due to a form of supernatural selection that gave us variation in the original gene pool necessary for all species existing today (cf. Genesis 7:16). So there is no specific verse teaching against GMOs, nor is there a biblical principle being violated. But is producing GMOs a valid scientific endeavor?
Is the Science Supporting GMOs Flawed?
Making a GMO is a long process that begins by identifying a feature of an organism to improve. Knowing which feature to improve then simplifies finding another organism with the desirable feature. Before we go further, let’s hypothetically consider faster-growing crops as the feature we desire in our slower-growing crops. Let’s continue, hypothetically, saying that we know certain weeds grow fast because of a faster-growing gene, and farmers could potentially benefit from placing the faster-growing weed gene into corn seeds to produce faster-growing corn (see figure 1 for a general overview of the process to make a GMO). To make this hypothetical situation happen, we first need to make copies of the faster-growing weed gene before introducing it into the slower-growing corn. Once the faster-growing weed gene is introduced into the slower-growing corn, we officially have our genetically modified corn and the corn is then tested in a controlled situation. Simply because the hypothetically faster-growing corn has a weed gene does not make it a weed and vice versa (see the previous comment about Leviticus 19:19). No one selling a GMO is going to under-deliver on the benefits claimed for their new product (in this case, faster growth of the corn). So the hypothetical company tests their product in controlled conditions until they feel it is safe. But when the faster-growing corn is sold, will it overtake all the traditional corn (not genetically modified) in the world?
To understand whether faster-growing corn is bad science depends on our understanding of natural selection and artificial selection. Natural selection is the process designed by God that preserves the genetic makeup of a created kind. (Regrettably, many people incorrectly think that natural selection is equivalent to molecules-to-man evolution. Natural selection and evolution are not the same thing; they are very different.8)
Artificial selection is the process humans use to choose certain desirable features within created kinds. Natural selection helps explain the diversity of Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos, while artificial selection explains diversity among dog breeds. We have Great Danes, Doberman pinschers, dachshunds, and (yes) poodles as a result of artificial selection by humans from the original dog kind on Noah’s ark. Whether talking about the artificial selection of dogs or plants, it is best to understand artificial selection as simply selective breeding. Ultimately, GMOs are a really sophisticated form of selective breeding. GMOs are slightly different from traditional selective breeding because we artificially introduce the desirable features from another organism in a single generation using technology. Even though certain features have moved between organisms, we are still involved in the selection process (i.e., this is still artificial selection). So the scientific methods of making GMOs do not violate biblical principles, but are GMOs safe for the environment and for human consumption?
If Nothing Is Wrong with GMOs Scripturally or Scientifically, Then What Is Holding Us Back?
The immediate benefits of GMOs include “increased pest and disease resistance, drought tolerance, and increased food supply.”9 Even with all those potential benefits, many countries have already banned the production and sale of GMOs. The Non-GMO Project is staunchly against GMOs and quite politically active against them. According to the Non-GMO Project:
Most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. In nearly 50 countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, and all of the countries in the European Union, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. In the US, the government has approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale. Increasingly, Americans are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the GMO experiment.10
Many people within the Non-GMO Project and its supporters want to educate the public and raise awareness about GMOs, and I couldn’t agree more that education is important. So what does the actual research show about GMOs? All indications suggest that GMOs released in the United States are approved by the FDA, meeting significant scrutiny by multiple rounds of testing. Contrary to the claims that GMOs are unhealthy, the number of actual scientific reports in the scientific literature is very small that say GMOs cause cancer or other disease. The study titled “Long Term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant Genetically Modified Maize”11 has significant flaws and should not be considered authoritative. The flaws of the research include facts like the rodents fed increasing amounts of GMOs had better survival rates than those fed a smaller amount of GMOs. Additionally, their research mice that were fed non-GMO foods died at an alarming rate. According to the non-GMO lobby, the rodents fed non-GMO food should not have died under the same conditions as the rodents fed the GMOs; however, the non-GMO lobby’s hypothesis was not supported by their own data and the mice fed non- GMO food also died. All this goes without mention that their sample size was extremely small and unrealistic to represent the 7 billion people of the world.
“Over three trillion servings of foods with [GMO] ingredients have been consumed, and in almost 20 years of experience with [GMO] crops, there has not been a single confirmed instance of harm to human health or disruption of an ecosystem.”12 There are no obvious warning signs that we should neither mass produce nor completely ban GMOs, contrary to the extreme positions of Monsanto supporters or the Non-GMO Project, respectively. More experimentation must happen to determine long-term consequences of GMOs in nature before we prematurely conclude that all GMOs are either greatly beneficial or extremely harmful in our food supply. We must remember that the science developing GMOs is the same science behind modern medical marvels such as antibiotics, vaccines, chemotherapy, pain relievers, antiseptics, blood transfusions, and many more. Those arguing wholeheartedly against GMOs must consider their logic and take care that they are not arguing against all forms of modern medicine at the same time.
Along those same lines, many accuse GMOs of being unhealthy foods that should not be sold without warning labels. Often, these accusations are unfounded. In reality, the real problem is not usually the GMO itself, but the actual food product. For instance, the high fructose corn syrup previously mentioned is unhealthy for you regardless of whether it comes from a natural/organic source or a GMO.13 For every other food that includes a GMO, there are no legitimate reports of the GMOs damaging human health. Americans consume too much of everything and need to cut back on everything in general. We were never made to worship the material creation (i.e., our food) like an idol and overindulge.
As different world powers discuss GMOs, well-respected individuals are on both sides of this debate for a variety of legitimate reasons. All the biblical creationists are not on one side or the other; neither are the evolutionists. Creationists and evolutionists are on both sides of the argument, which is expected when some recently developed GMOs (like corn, soy, and rice) have not clearly violated either Scripture or secular principles. Ironically, the famed atheist Richard Dawkins offers advice based on biblical principles about GMOs. Dawkins says,
I am undecided about the politics of GM foods, torn between the potential benefits to agriculture on the one hand and precautionary instincts on the other. But one argument I haven’t heard before is worth a brief mention. The American grey squirrel was introduced to Britain by a former Duke of Bedford: a frivolous whim that we now see as disastrously irresponsible. It is interesting to wonder whether taxonomists of the future may regret the way our generation messed around with genomes. . . . The whole point of the precautionary principle, after all, is to avoid future repercussions of choices and actions that may not be obviously dangerous now.14
While Dawkins is a vehement atheist, his point about GMOs ultimately makes sense because he is unknowingly using biblical principles. The paraphrase of Proverbs 25:8 in The Message captures what to do with situations where there is no clear biblical direction: “Don’t jump to conclusions — there may be a perfectly good explanation for what you just saw.” Dawkins’ argument is essentially what Solomon wrote thousands of years ago. In this instance, Dawkins acknowledges that we do not fully understand potential problems with GMOs in nature. He knows of no problem with GMOs in the lab. So he suggests some precautionary actions taken to not jump to a hasty decision. Public perception of GMOs is much worse than they deserve. It would be prudent to occasionally experiment with GMOs, collect the data, and then decide what to legislate before losing what we have on a global scale. GMOs are not problematic scientifically; the potential problem with GMOs is whether they harm God’s creation in a way that cannot be fixed. If anyone should conclusively demonstrate a problem with a GMO, then that GMO should not be given to the public. Until potential harmful effects of GMOs are clearly documented scientifically, they should be used within reason and tested accordingly.
|1||Jacob and the flocks (e.g., Genesis 30)0||Separating out the DNA0|
|2||Grafting branches (e.g., Romans 11)0||Mixing DNA0|
|3||Hybridizing crops0||Bringing DNA together0|
|4||Artificial selection and breeds (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:14 with ram breeds)0||Separating out DNA[a]0|
|5||Natural variation0||Separating out DNA0|
|6||GMOs0||Separating, mixing, bringing together DNA at a genomic level instead of an organismal level0|
The question for this chapter remains: are GMOs wrong? I cannot give a biblical or scientific reason to wholeheartedly support or completely reject GMOs. Imaginary problems with GMOs arise when people take extreme positions on GMOs without using a biblical worldview. Too many Christians get too involved with picking sides on this debate when there is no clear violation of Scripture. Please stop the name-calling, develop a biblical worldview, and let’s do good science to figure out the long-term effects of GMOs before picking an extreme (unbiblical) position.
In the meantime, if big business monopolizes the common farmer, then let the political process rectify the plight of the common farmer. If people are hungry because countries ban the sale of GMOs, then let the political process rectify the plight of the hungry people. Christians should obey the law of the land, work hard within their local church to help people, and be involved in the political process by making an informed vote. Ultimately, the Lord will rectify all injustice (Revelation 14:7) and redeem His creation (Revelation 21:1). In the meantime, the world will watch how America handles GMOs . . . and so should Christians.
We should do more research on GMOs to fully see their strengths or weaknesses. The intent of this chapter is to honestly examine our current knowledge of GMOs. At the end of the day, some people are opposed to eating GMOs and others are fine with GMOs. Regardless of whether we eat GMOs, we must keep a Christian attitude among the brethren and recall what Paul wrote while waiting for the research to finish: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16–17).