Genetically Modified Crops: An Assessment from a Christian Ethical Perspective

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 3 »Genetically Modified Crops An Assessment From A Christian Ethical Perspective

Daniel Kroger, O.F.M.

Dan Kroger, O.F.M. earned his PhD at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He is chair of the Religious Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila where he holds the Ariston Estrada Chair in Theology. His most recent article is “Retrieving an Ethic of the Common Good in Post-Edsa II, Philippines,” in Philosophia: International Journal of Philosophy, Vol 31, no 2, 2002.

Public debates and growing political activism concerning genetically modified crops have aroused international concern about labeling, food safety, environmental impact and the economic power of transnational corporations. Produced with the aid of recombinant DNA techniques perfected in the last two decades, genetically modified organisms—GMOs or transgenics—are the focal point of “food fights” occurring around the world (Paarlberg 2000:24-38).

Concerned consumers are questioning whether governments are doing enough to protect them from harmful foods. They are demanding labeling of food products containing GMOs so that they can exercise their right to choose what they eat (Laget & Cantley 2001:37-42). As a result, farmers in the USA, the leading planters of GMOs, are having second thoughts about planting GMO crops. Being “GMO Free” makes their products readily marketable. In the face of growing consumer and environmental concerns, farmers anticipate (Barboza 2000:A6) that GMO crops will fetch lower prices on the world’s commodity markets. So, despite heavy investment in agro-biotech between 1995-1999, the American financiers have had second thoughts (Mitchell and Mitsch 1999) and some analysts like Eichenwald (2001:A1-A2) are calling biotechnology food a debacle, though others, like Brody (2000), are still convinced that there is no reason for consumers to panic, as governments still debate (Pollack 2000) about how to control GMO foods and concerned citizens (Cabuday 2000:A10) raise their concerns.

Scientists worry about GMOs because of their potential for longterm environment impact, including the possibility of “genetic accidents” that could have catastrophic effects upon agriculture and the quality of human life by creating super weeds or super viruses difficult to control. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists USA ("Bt Crop Renewals" 2001) made several interventions in the Environmental Protection Agency's renewal of Bt crops beginning in late 2000 and extending into late 2001. At the same time, feeding the world's burgeoning population, expected to reach 8 billion by 2025, worries world leaders pressured to find equitable systems for distributing the world's resources and encouraging sustainable economic growth. Some scientists, like Prakash (2001) and Komberg (2001:A19) are disturbed by all the GMO controversy. They point out that the food fights in the developed world should not prevent underdeveloped countries from doing all they can to feed the hungry. Some scientists and government officials in developing countries like China feel that Bt crops must be used now, for there is no time for a long, thorough evaluation. That is why China has been rushing ahead into genetically engineered crops since Deng Xiaoping started the 863 Project in March 1986 (Smith 2000:A3). That is why the Philippine government's research scientists have been very enthusiastic about GMOs (Manila Bulletin 2002).

The danger, however, as Paarlberg (2000:24-38) pointed out, is that the leading players in the global food fight—U.S. based agro-business, consumer advocates and environmentalists—do not reliably represent the interests of farmers or consumers in poor countries. Perhaps, as Acosta (14-15) argued, "It is in the realm of politics that transgenics pose the biggest challenges."

Paarlberg and a host of others are concerned about involving more people, especially farmers in the developing world, in decisions about biotech crops. Indeed, social and political issues are frequently set aside and questions about GMO crops are reduced to scientific study and free market acceptability. In the growing disputes over transgenic food crops, some biotech scientists argue that GMO issues center around environmental risks and consequences; therefore, they tend to give the impression that only scientific research can lead to the right decisions and proper education of the public (Prakash 2001). The Union of Concerned Scientists (2001), on the other hand, questions the objectivity and thoroughness of scientific tests conducted by the same agricultural firms whose research funds produced the new GMO food crops. The organization advocates tighter governmental control and independently funded scientific testing with "substantial citizen participation."

Meanwhile, management and stakeholders in agro-business claim that the development, testing and commercial marketing of GMOs are a matter for the "free market" to handle and ultimately decide; therefore, they want minimal governmental interference and maximum return on investments. Critics of GMOs rejoin that transnational agro-business is first concerned with earning profits, not feeding the world's poor; thus, the biotech industry and the global system of capitalism tend to increase the power of the few at the expense of the many (Trudge 2000). As one Australian organic farmer (Meadows 1999) argues:

Biotech companies love to talk about feeding the world, but their products must pay off in a market that measures dollar demand, not human need. By far, the greatest effort has gone into the potato that makes fast-food fries, not the yam grown by folks with no cash. The corn that feeds America's pigs and chickens, not the dryland millet that feeds Africa's children. The diseases of the rich, not the plagues of the poor.

Meadows' point is that the free-market that drives biotech research can easily miss the social and economic needs which underlie the GMO food fights. The picture is terribly complex and the scientific assessments will continue, for environmental ecosystems are terribly complex and vary with climate and regional conditions.

Thus, the present state of the question is unsettled. There are divergent views about whether it is right to market and plant GMOs. Scientific assessment of GMO crops is incomplete and will be continuing, perhaps for decades. The social and political issues surrounding GMO food crops are also complex, if not simply unexplored. Despite the uncertainties, this essay argues that Christian ethics can make some valuable contributions as people continue to argue the issues surrounding the development, testing and commercial marketing of GMO foods.

What is Happening?

The first task of any ethicist is to discover what is happening in each particular case. However, as postmodernity has ably shown, no one's perception of the "facts" is purely objective. Every observer has her/his cultural, religious, economic and social biases that affect perception and judgment, whether the observer is aware of those limitations or not. For example, how objective are the results of safety testing conducted by companies that produce GMOs in the hope of eventually earning profits on their sale and production? On the other hand, how objective are the opponents of particular technologies who seem to be ideological warriors of causes for which they fight?

The ethicist's task is also complicated by the fact that scientists and biotechnologists have divergent views about the benefits and risks involved in the development, production and planting of GMO food crops. For example, some technologists, like Martina McGloughlin (1999:7), director of this biotechnology program at the University of California Davis, argues that without biotechnology mass starvation will plague the planet. Other scientists are cautious because they comprehend the great complexity involved in assessing the potential benefits of plant biotechnology. Already in a 1993 report "Perils Amidst the Promise," the Union of Concerned Scientists (Shannon 1997:130) identified four areas where potential impacts must be assessed. First, GMOs could add more genes with harmful potential than can traditional hybridizing of plants. Second, plants containing such novel gene combinations may be less predictable in their behaviors than those produced by traditional breeding. Third, transferred genes could make GMO plants so very biologically successful that they would increase uncontrollably. Fourth, the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out that "we simply have no experience with the use and behavior of organisms with the novel genetic make-ups of transgenics."

Recent examples from the Philippines illustrate the complexity. In late August, 200I, (Manila Bulletin 2001 and PhilDaily Inquirer Sept 10, 2001) an estimated 500 farmers in Mindanao uprooted all the genetically modified Bt corn planted at an experimental farm in the village of Maltana, situated in the municipality of Tampacan, South Cotabato, Mindanao Island. Police prepared charges against the farmers led by the militant Kilusung Maghubukid ng Pilipinas, a notoriously anti-capitalist organization with links to the Communist Party of the Philippines. A year earlier, in February, 2000 (Regalado 2000:2000,4), local government units in the area even enacted local resolutions prohibiting experimental plantation of the Bt corn, contradicting the Philippine government's Department of Agriculture and the Philippine Commission on Bio-safety. The farmers took their illegal action in August 2001, despite government regulatory approval and the strict conformity of the experiment to the standards set by the National Commission on Bio-safety of the Philippines. The farmers claim that the scientists on the panel are all friends of agro-business and supporters of GMO technology to begin with. There is some truth to their claim, as Lopez (2001:1) pointed out in an article which appeared about the same time in a leading Manila business daily. The Philippine Government has received and is receiving foreign government funding (Canuday 2000a:A10) for research concerning plant biotechnology. Biotech corporations have sponsored programs to educate farmers as well as to conduct field experiments. Now the local mayors and town councils of South Cotabato (Sarmiento 2002:3) want to end the ban on GMOs that they demanded. Since local mayors are notoriously corrupt, one can only wonder why the local mayors and town councils of South Cotabato (Sarmiento, 3) now want to end the ban on GMOs that they originally demanded.

Prior to the farmers' attack on the GMO experiment in South Cotabato, the local government of Ilagan town, in the northern province of Isabela, enacted an ordinance against experimental planting of GMO corn in northern Luzon (Visaya 2001:12), a position they are reportedly (Manila Bulletin 2002a) still maintaining despite opposition from some farmers. Cardinal Sin of Manila issued a pastoral statement urging that experimental planting of GMO corn should be delayed (Maliwanag 2001:A12), pending more thorough study. The same news report on the Church's response to GMO crops (Maliwanag, A12) claimed that Pope John Paul II, in a speech to a crowd of farmers celebrating the Jubilee Year in Rome during November of 2000, asserted that GMO crops "are contrary to the will of God." However, examination of the text of the pope's speech (L' Osservatore Romano Nov 15, 2000, p.1-2) indicates that the unsigned newspaper report may have used interpretations of the pope's words supplied by opponents of GMO crops and biotechnology. True, the pope did appeal to the farmers to "Work in such a way that you resist the temptations of a productivity and profit that are detrimental to the respect for nature." He told the farmers:

"When this principle is forgotten and they become the tyrants rather than the custodians of nature, sooner or later the latter will rebel." Such a statement, however, is far from saying that GMO crops are simply contrary to the will of God, though opponents of GMO technology have interpreted the pope's words in that way.

On religious grounds it appears impossible today to make a moral argument claiming that research, development and production of GMOs are all contrary to the human good or contrary to some divine plan. More that 150 years ago Pope Gregory XVI made such a judgment about railroads and about Dr. William Jenner's vaccine for smallpox. Following popular religious understanding of his time, the same pope thought that railroads were wrong because if God wanted humans to go that fast God would have given them wings (McBrien 1997). Gregory XVI believed that use of Jenner's smallpox vaccine was wrong because sickness and death are God's way of punishing humans for their sins. No reputable ethicist would make such an assertion today, whether the judgment is based on Christian doctrine or human reason.

Evaluation of Consequences is not Enough

One NGO active in the Philippines is the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE 1998). SEARICE has been seeking grassroot support for its position that GMOs and GAFs (Genetically Altered Foods) are not the answer to world hunger. SEARICE asserts that GMO crops are environmentally dangerous and that they are not needed at this time. SEARICE holds the position that the problems involved with agriculture are more structural than biotechnological issues of land tenure and ownership, lack of credit, poor infrastructure and inadequate post-harvest storage facilities. SEARICE argues that if GMO rice were introduced into the country it could mean the disappearance of wild rice varieties that are native to the Philippines, such as Uryza rufipogon, O. meyeriana and O. officinalis.The bottom line is that SEARICE (1998:8) finds that "the cultivation of transgenic rice either for research or commercial purpose entails a lot of risk and therefore should be prevented."

While SEARICE points to potential consequences as its primary concern, SEARICE advances one argument based on universal principles. SEARICE claims that those who employ genetic engineering to modify agricultural crops are "playing God." The argument rests on the 'notion that no human being has the right to usurp God's authority and modify the genetic codes of existing life forms. The SEARICE pamphlet, in answer to the question "What are the Ethical Issues in Genetic Engineering?" contains the following opinion:

Genetic engineering of crops poses serious ethical questions on the role of scientists as creators of life. Like gods, genetic engineers manipulate life and interfere with the integrity of creation by combining genes of unrelated species that do not occur naturally (SEARICE, 9).

The SEARICE claim that genetic engineers manipulate life forms is true of course. However, the argument limps, for humans have been modifying crops and animals long before written history began (The Economist 2001:54-S6). The development of an agricultural way of life depended on the domestication of animals, selective breeding, choice of which seed grains to plant, what to eat, etc. Such "primitive" activities also interfered with "the integrity of creation" but they led to the development of new, improved animals and crops from which humanity still benefits.

So why draw the line at genetics? The SEARICE argument begs that question in its assertions about the limits of human autonomy. Given belief in God, where does one place the line between human and divine authority? Does one draw the line at biotechnological processes aimed at altering gene lines? Does one draw the line at crossing the species line, i.e., transferring genes from one species to the other, as is involved in the GMO "Bt corn" tested in the Philippines? SEARICE has no satisfactory explanation for the lines it has drawn, no rational principles that seem consistent and non-contradictory. While the SEARICE position shows that there are attempts at universal, principled arguments against biotechnology, such arguments are weak.

Today, with rare exceptions, ethical argumentation concerning the production, marketing and planning of GMO food crops is generally based on consequentialist grounds. Environmental NGOs warn of the dangers of reducing biodiversity, creating insects and weeds with resistance to organic and chemical controls, negative impacts on grass roots farming communities, and so forth. At the same time some biotechnologists and agro-business researchers claim that their products are safe and that they will provide nutritional improvement for those suffering from malnutrition while at the same time improving the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and/or chemical fertilizers. Both pro-GMO and anti-GMO arguments focus on the consequences biotechnology may bring in its wake. Some consequences are foreseen, while some cannot be foreseen. Some consequences are economic and some are environmental. Among the environmental concerns, for example, are the dangers of reducing biodiversity, creating insects and weeds with resistance to organic and chemical controls, negative impact on grassroots farming, the possibility of releasing some new super virus or bacteria. Proponents of biotechnology and agro-business claim that their products are safe and that they will provide nutritional improvement for those suffering from malnutrition, while preventing starvation as the world’s population continues to grow toward the 7 billion mark.

Many NGOs are skeptical of transnational corporations and there are some extremist NGOs that are ideologically socialists. Ideological NGOs insist that governments and the system of globalizing capitalism can do nothing that will help the poor of the world. The claims of the ideologues seem impossible to sustain, given the fact that centrally placed socialist governments, failed and are now converting to free market economics even if they still fear democracy. However, there is no doubt that transnational agro-businesses stand to reap huge profits.

Skeptical NGOs include Filipino farmers in their membership. Years ago, in the Green Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970's, Filipino farmers followed their government's urging and planted high yield varieties of rice and corn. There was governmental support from international development loans, and there was an increase in agricultural production. However, after initial bumper harvests, farmers soon found themselves trapped. Costs of fertilizers and fuel rose rapidly during the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970's. Improper use of fertilizers and insecticides harmed the environment. Ultimately, most Filipino farmers were unable to sustain their initial gains. So today, Filipino farmers are skeptical of the possibilities of biotechnology, though there are some farmers who are eager to try the new GMO corn and rice. In addition, there are Filipino scientists who support the use of biotechnology, including the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD). In its five-year biotechnology program, PCARRD and other institutions aim to increase agricultural production and productivity by using biotechnology on the following key crops: corn, banana, coconut, mango and papaya (Manila Bulletin 2002:G4).

Opposition movements are found in more and more places in the developing world, according to economists (The Economist 2001:S4-S6). In the Green Revolution of the 1960's and 70's Asian farmers increased grain production by using hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers, in combination with new pesticides and weedkillers. Chinese rice farmers raised rice production by two-thirds between 1970 and 1995. By 1990, India could export surplus grain. However, there were negative consequences as well. Pesticides and fertilizers were over used, as poorly trained farmers presumed that "if one is good, two is better." The result was serious environmental damage caused by the chemicals used, including increased incidents of "red tide," poisoning of fresh water supplies, and poisoning of farmers through chemical exposure. Hence, farmers and environmentalists in many parts of the world are skeptical about the potential of biotechnology to produce sustainable agricultural development.

In 2002 there is little government budgetary support for agriculture in the developing world. Improved technology will have to be developed and taught mostly through private funding. However, that brings with it the danger that first world governments and transnational corporations will be funding research that is favorable to their economic and trade goals. In the developed world subsidized farmers produce surplus food, but it is not available at a price the poor can afford. At the same time, it would not be a long-term solution simply to give all surplus food to the world's poor. Economists point out that such a move would simply create dependence; besides giving away surplus food would destroy the livelihood of small-scale farmers in the developing world. The answer to world hunger seems to be to improve the productivity of farmers in developing countries without destroying the environment (The Economist, S4-S6).

From the first world perspective, the most balanced attempt at seeking some guidelines for GMOs may be the ones proposed by the United States-European Union Biotechnology Forum. This consultative forum suggested developing regulatory principles to govern plant biotechnology, in the context of international trade. Composed of twenty individuals coming from the USA and the US-EU including scientists, farmers, business people, consumers, lawyers and ethicists, the US-EU Biotechnology Forum published its final report in December of 2000. Focusing on the questions concerning GMO foods and food crops, the US-EU Biotechnology Forum made some worthy suggestions about using GMOs. The Final Report noted (2000, 6) that although "The impact of biotechnology and its applications and regulation is global... (however) globalization does not automatically take care of equity or social justice." The report (2000, 6) observes that "the chal1enge of combining wealth-creation with the equitable development," which was formerly a domestic concern for individual nations, now crosses national boundaries and is truly global. That is why the report (2000, 7) recommends further reflection on governance at all levels, national, supranational, inter-governmental and global. Noting that citizens now tend to be better informed and "want to make informed choices and participate in decision processes," the report suggests that it is necessary to "strengthen the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both within and between countries" in the "debate about globalization and sustainable development." The Final Report (2000, 5) also points out the limitations of science in assessing the benefits and potential negative and unforeseen consequences of biotechnology, for "There are legitimate concerns for which science, at least natural science, cannot provide answers."

After following these developments for the past several years, the present writer concludes that assessing GMOs solely on the basis of biological investigations of their consequences is not enough from the standpoint of making an ethical decision about whether or not particular GMOs should be released. Some consequences may be too long term or unforeseen. Some economic and social consequences of deploying GMOs appear to go beyond the realm of biological sciences, yet such consequences may be highly important in making any ethical assessment.

What Contribution Can Christian Ethics Make?

Having described some important elements in answering to “what is happening” the central question of this essay can now be discussed. What can Christian ethics contribute toward assessing current plant biotechnology? In partial answer to that question, this essay now suggests three principal areas where Christian ethics may be able to make some positive contributions toward an ethical assessment. These three areas follow under three headings: a) theological stance; b) hermeneutics of suspicion and appreciation; c) option for the poor.

a) Theological stance: Humans as stewards of creation and created co-creators

All Christians affirms the biblical faith stance that God is the creator of heaven and earth and that the earth and all that is in it is the Lord’s. However, how those biblical proclamations are interpreted depends largely on how actual Christian communities and theologians understand the role of human beings. That is why there are differences in how Christian ethicists understand the biblical notion that God created human beings in God’s own image.

Christian concern about theology of creation and of the place of human beings in the divine scheme of things arose because of increased popular awareness of environmental issues and the destructive and creative potentials of biotechnology. As Hill (1998:155-187) has shown in his highly readable survey, Christian churches today have a growing awareness of their complicity in the environmental destruction that has brought about present ecological problems. This awareness is now.

One theme is captured in the term "stewardship." Building on the Biblical creation narratives found in Genesis chapter one and two, Christian theologians point out how human beings were called by God to be stewards of God's good creation but that they fai1ed in that task and sinned, causing the earth to turn against them. Ultimately, human greed and carelessness produced tragic consequences for the biosphere, as church documents have pointed out (Hill 1998). This theological theme of stewardship implies a renewed human sense of moral responsibility. Humans are to care for God's creation and they are obliged to try to heal the wounds of creation and to restore a sense of eco-justice by overcoming the human tendency to exploit and dominate the earth to the point that ecological damage is irreparable and now endangers all forms of life. This theme of stewardship is interpreted in different ways, yet stewardship always points to the responsibility and the dangers implicit in using the earth without concern about the impact of human actions on the future of all life forms.

The second theological theme is that human beings are "created co-creators." Humans owe their life to God, but have the responsibility to "build the earth" and to share earth's resources equitably, for the earth is destined for the common good of every living being. This second theological theme maintains a strong recognition of the limits to human responsibility and demands that humans manifest a deep respect for their co-creatures, both animate and inanimate. It incorporates a high regard for eco justice and reverence for all forms of life. Implicit in the theme is an awareness of the global common good and a sense of solidarity with other human beings, regardless of their culture, nationality, religion, social status or any other differences.

Neither of these theological themes necessarily precludes intervention in the genetic structure of plant, animal or human life, though some Christians do argue in favor of that point. For example, Walter (1999:124-134) traced the implications of theology for interventions in the human gene line and has shown some of the diverse positions that have been developed by Christian communities and theologians. Hill (1998) used a broad range of different Christian church teachings since the 1960's to show the similarities and the differences in Church stands. However, both the theme of Christian stewardship and the theme of "created co-creators" always emphasize that any genetic invention should be undertaken with a deep ecological sensitivity and respect for justice. For example, if people carelessly and arrogantly alter ecosystems short-term gains may be followed by long-term disaster felt by their children. This was the message contained in the 1988 pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP 1988:305-25) and the works of countless church bodies around the globe. Plunder the world’s ecosystems today, and what will the next generation inherit? Thus, these two theological themes lead Christian leaders to call for an increased respect for the integrity and goodness of creation. Such respect provides a useful framework in which Christians can assess such ethical questions as those concerning GMOs. Such respect, it should be noted, often endures among the native tribal cultures that have survived modernity.

b) Hermeneutics: Where we stand affects what we see and how we act.

One common observation of today's philosophical and theological approaches is a growing awareness that human perception of the world is largely a social construct. Put simply, where we stand in the social, political and economic systems in which we live shapes our way of seeing the world. In other words, we tend to perceive everything else in terms of our place in the world. Such "social constructions" of reality are the reasons why people of one race, color, social status, or religion can be blind to the way in which they interpret things. For example, Christopher Columbus commented in his diary of his second journey to the Caribbean that the natives of the islands he visited knew nothing of warfare and could easily be subjected to servitude. Such an attitude was the viewpoint of a highly educated European who saw himself as superior to the indios as he calculated exploiting them. Most of human history has been written from the viewpoint of conquerors, of the educated, of the elite. Were it written from the standpoint of the indios whom Columbus "discovered," his arrival would have spelled the beginning of untold oppression and the genocide of native peoples.

This interpretive scheme, or hermeneutic, leads ethicists to point out that one can have unconscious biases in the development, use and marketing of the products of biotechnology. First world scientists can see themselves in the role of solving world food problems through biotechnology, forgetting that their exploits may lack sensitivity to the social and economic realities of the third world. For example, producing more corn or rice may not feed the poor, instead, it may satisfy middle and upper class demands for more meat in their diets. Or again, as some GMO opponents suggest, multinational biotechnology companies can treat developing nations simply as markets for their high tech products, without adequate regard for the social and cultural needs of the poor farmers. First world corporations can be unconcerned with what developing nations need; thus, they promote their products sincerely believing that their products can help feed those suffering from malnutrition. By using their economic clout to maximum advantage, it is possible for transnational biotech companies to influence governments to act in their corporate interests, for example on testing and marketing of GMOs, rather than acting to protect the interests of their citizens.

Sensitivity to such tendencies are part of what ethicists bring to questions about whether or not research, development and marketing of certain GMOs should proceed. In decision making processes concerning the application of biotechnology, there is no room for elitism or cultural imperialism. If the greatest good of the greatest number is at stake, then ethicists try to point out that every human being counts, every culture counts, every context counts. In other words, the kind of critical skills developed by Christian theology can enrich the ethical frameworks used in assessing GMOs. By insisting on a global concern for justice, Christian ethics can cut through ideologies and help all concerned persons see beyond the limitations of their own point of view.

c) An Option for the Poor

Today's readers of the Bible are beneficiaries of more than a century of historical critical exegesis. Biblical exegesis, combined with the social sciences and a critical awareness of history, has helped the Christian churches retrieve a deep sensitivity to the biblical call for justice for the poor. In the Ancient Near East and in the history of Israel, kings and governments and laws were judged in terms of how they treated the widows and orphans. Therefore, in the Judeo-Christian tradition to live the covenant of the Lord is to walk in justice. The heart of religion, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, does not consist in rituals, temples and prayers; the heart of religion is doing justice for the poor, for the orphans and widows.  The Hebrew prophets called priests, kings and people to be faithful to the covenant by doing justice. As the Lord God pitied the Israelites in slavery, so the Israelites are told in Leviticus to love their neighbor as themselves. If they put their trust in God and observe the Sabbath, the sabbatical year and the jubilee year, the Lord will provide for their needs in abundance (Lev 25). However, if they persist in exploiting their neighbors they will be cursed, and suffer death at the hands of their enemies.

Jesus himself appears as a prophet who comes to proclaim a jubilee of justice: Good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind (Lk 4:16-22). Jesus warns of the dangers of riches (Mt 6:19- 21), teaching instead a providential trust in his loving Father (Mt 6:24-33). He challenges the rich young man to sell what he has and give to the poor, but the young man goes away with a heavy heart (Mt 19:16-30). Even the discip1es miss the point in their questions about places of honor (Mk 10:35-45), authority and rewards in this life (Mt 9:30-41). The temptation and reality is that throughout its history, the church continues to make the same mistake as the first disciples, though eventually the message finally got through to the first disciples and found expression in the Gospel and in the witness of faithful Christians. The Gospels makes it clear that the reign of God is about justice, truth, love and peace. The Son of Man will judge the children of men in terms of the way in which they have treated the least of their brothers and sisters (Mt 25:31-46).

As the Church continues to retrieve the Gospel option for the poor, it has also become critically aware of its own partnership in oppression. The crusades, anti-Semitism, colonialism, slavery, and so forth, are all things for which Pope John Paul II has apologized. Therefore, the challenge to change and to incarnate Jesus' love for the poor and the outcasts of his time demand that Christians work for justice. Indeed, acting for justice is an integral part of the mission of the Christian church today. As the Asian Synod of Bishops put it in 1971, the church in Asia is called to become a church of the poor. It must adopt the perspective of the poor and see the world "from below" rather that "from above." In Asia that means solidarity with the poor masses, not with the rich or powerful. This aspect of faith is what Christian ethics can contribute to discussions concerning biotechnology. Christian ethics asks the hard question: How can the biotechnology that produces GMOs truly benefit the poor and raise the quality of their lives? That question must be raised often in a globalizing economy that seeks high returns on investments, for it is a question often forgotten. After all, globalization has its own logic but not its own ethic.


After examining the complex questions raised by GMO food crops, this paper has suggested that Christian ethics should make important contributions to the process of ethical assessment of agricultural biotechnology. The contributions, this paper maintains, are found in three principal areas.

First, Christian ethics brings with it a faith stance that can serve as a foundation for a critical ethic. Contemporary theologies bend to see human beings as "stewards of creation" or as "created co-creators." Both views of our human situation, vis-à-vis God and creation, can and have been utilized to provide the foundation of a religious framework for answering the ethical questions raised by contemporary biotechnology, such as the questions involved in decision making regarding the development, testing, use and marketing of GMO crops. Within the context of such theological ethics churches and individuals can develop an ethical assessment of modern biotechnology which is not ideological, but critical and intellectually consistent.

Second, Christian ethics can deploy an array of critical skills in attempting to render a reasonable account of faith and its implications for assessing biotechnology. It can bring its hermeneutics of suspicion to the assessment of situations, programs, projects, foreseen and unforeseen consequences. It can bring its hermeneutics of appreciation to cultural minorities, tribal religions, and the culture of the poor. Christian ethics can provide a critical eye with which to engage in reflective dialogue that is interdisciplinary, inter-religious, and inter-cultural.

Third, Christian ethics can contribute its Gospel based concern for the poor and the outcasts of our modern world, in fidelity to Jesus of Nazareth. This bias, which dovetails with some social science research and with the stances taken by international consultative bodies, is an important contribution that Christian ethics can make. It is this bias that leads Christians to argue that tribal peoples of the world must be protected so that their wisdom and ways of life will continue to enrich humankind. It is this bias that insists that poor farmers have the same right to a decent life as do first world merchants, investors, managers and politicians. It is this conscious option for the poor that can sometimes lead to the conclusion that what is technologically possible ought not be done, or ought to be done with great precaution, given particular cultural and socioeconomic contexts.

Ultimately, Christian ethics finds the profit driven market economy of a globalizing world an inadequate answer to questions of justice and equity. Christian ethics reminds believers that some values are so central to what it means to be a good human being that those values must be cherished and protected against the overwhelming economy and technological power of the few. Christian ethics does a public service by helping believers to see that creation is God’s gift to all the human family and that humans are also creatures themselves who are dependent on ecosystems, delicate webs of life, in which they live. That is why Christians ought to be sensitive to their fellow creatures, animate and inanimate, as they attempt to be creative stewards of God’s creation, created co-creators who must render an account for what they do.

Beyond the scope of this essay, the writer wishes to remind his thoughtful readers that every religion has similar potential, based on different sets of belief. It is the religious ethicist’s task to unlock that potential as the human family faces the brave new world of biotechnology. Theology, religious ethics and people of faith are not the opponents of science. They are both its humanizers and its potential beneficiaries.


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2001 "Survey: Feeding the Five Billion" (361: 8247) Nov 10 (London).

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2001 "Food Fights Can't Feed the Hungry," Boston Globe (Boston, Mass.), August 21.

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Lopez, Bernardo
2001 "NCBP's 'Secret' GMO Field Bests," Businessworld (Manila, August 16).

Maliwanag, Dennis
2001 "Sin Wants GMO Tests Delayed," Philippine Daily Inquirer (June 12).

Manila Bultetin
2001 "Raid on GMO Corn Farm is Called 'Mob Rule' by PNP Official," Sept 1, p. E1 (unsigned news report).

2002 "Scientists Support Biotechnology, Say Mindanao Critics are Mistaken," Jan 2, p. G4 (unsigned news report).

2002 "Ilagan Councilors Reject Bid to Hold Bt Corn Field Tests, " Jan 5, G2 (unsigned news report).

McBrien, Richard
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1999 "Without Biotechnology We'll Starve," Today (Manila, Nov. 7).

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Mitchell, Jennifer S. and Mitsch, Frank J.
1999 "AG Biotech: Thanks, But No Thanks," Whole Earth, Winter issue @

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2000 "The Global Food Fight" Foreign Affairs 79:3 (New York, May/June).

Pollack, Andrew
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Prakash, Channapatna S.
2001 "A Gene Revolution: The Radical Environmental Movement is Fighting Biotechnology and Underdeveloped Asia Could be the Loser." Asiaweek July 20, printed from

Regalado, Edith
2002 "Angara Backs Corn Tests, " Philippine Star, Feb 26.

Sarmiento, Romer
2002 "Mayors Want Reversal of Ban on Bt Corn Testing," Today, Manila, January 4.

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2000 "China Rushes to Adopt Genetically Modified Crops," New York Times,Oktober 7.

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2000 "When it's Right to be a Luddite: Genetically Modified Food," New Statesman, April 24, printed from

Union of Concerned Scientists
2001 "Biotechnology: current priorities" downloadable at

Union of Concerned Scientists
2001 "Bt Crop Renewals" downloadable at

U.S.-E.U. Biotechnology Consultative Forum
2000 "Final Report December, 2000" available for download at

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2001 "Isabela Town Council Rejects Tests of Genetic Corn, " Philippine Daily Enquirer, Dec 22.

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