Feeding the poor
Genetically engineered foods and care for the entire creation
Today at the supermarket, it’s normal to see people looking for non-genetically modified (GM) food products. They are ready to pay a higher price for items like bananas, avocados, or milk that are non-GM (also known as non-GMO). They set out to eat foods that are the most natural, so long as they can pay for it. But how natural are non-GM foods? Are we really getting added value, nutrients, and freshness for a higher price? What about people around the world who live below the poverty line, with an average daily income of US$1? Would they ever be able to purchase a box of non-GM almond milk? I would like to add to the discussion, considering the possibility of using GM crops to feed the two-thirds impoverished world as an answer to the call to care of the entire creation, not only the people that can buy prohibitively expensive organic asparagus water from upscale supermarkets.
I still remember when as an undergraduate in Lambayeque, Perú, in a weekly Bible study with the Comunidad Bíblica Universitaria (CBU) we came across the Gospel of Luke chapter 4, where it reads:
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (NIV)
The first question we had as a group was what kind of good news should we proclaim to the poor? Coming from one of the poorest regions in Perú, I identified closely with verse 18. Was the good news only related to the salvation of the soul as I was taught in my childhood years at church, or was the prophet Isaiah talking about the entire or integral dimension of the person and the gospel? It was then that I came across Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar and Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla’s seminal work on Misión Integral or Integral Mission and the urgency of understanding the person beyond their spiritual needs. In larger Christian circles, Peruvian Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez had been talking about liberation theology for thirty years or so, emphasizing liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as an anticipation of ultimate salvation.
But this time the question is: should we as Christians get to use scientific tools and techniques such as gene editing to bring good news to the poor who have empty stomachs and anemia? Do we have an ethical or theological basis to embrace GMO production? I believe we do. This is a case of stewardship, a way that human beings relate with the rest of creation. Now this topic is very controversial. Nevertheless, much of the controversy has been based solely on biased ethical arguments, especially among people of faith, neglecting scientific perspectives and labelling scientists modern apostates.
GM food derives from microorganisms, plants or animals manipulated at the molecular level to have qualities that farmers or consumers desire. These foods are usually produced by techniques in which foreign genes are inserted into the receiving organism. These foreign genes are taken from sources other than the organism’s natural parents and would not have been present had producers only used traditional plant breeding methods. Controversy around GM food usually arises when governments try to implement policies regarding how or if GM crops should be allowed in their territory. Genetic modification becomes a public issue when farmers protest again the damage GM crops could cause in the country’s agricultural diversity.
One of the many examples is the case of GM potatoes and anemia in Perú. Perú has over 3000 varieties of potatoes, most of them being native and endemic to the Andean region. Potatoes have been part of the country’s diet for centuries, even before the Inca empire was born. At the same time, the country has a striking 44% of children and 25% of pregnant women with anemia. Iron deficiency anemia in pregnancy is a risk factor for preterm delivery and possibly for inferior neonatal health, and anemia in children could lead to attention problems and poor school performance. Low levels of iron and anemia are usually caused by low protein intake, either from meat or non-animal sources. Oftentimes, meat sources are expensive or scarce in the areas with a higher index of anemia.
The Peruvian government has long opposed the import of GMOs, with a ten-year-long ban in place until 2020. However, last year researchers from the Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agraria (INIA – National Institute for Agricultural Innovation), including biologists, genetic engineers, and plant breeders, published their results on a new variety of potato with up to 250% more iron and zinc than the average commercial varieties, as well as exceptional antioxidant capabilities. Due to its cost-effective way of production, the government saw this as an opportunity to introduce this new variety as part of the diet in school lunch programs and Kaliwarma, a meal program for low income people nationwide. Children are getting more iron and other nutrients, helping them overcome the anemia barrier. Now, aren’t we proclaiming good news to the poor with this GM crop? Isn’t hunger and anemia an example of oppression that people need to be set free from? So far as these products are developed in universities, this is how the mission of God is embedded within universities. Here, genetically modified foods are an aspect of a good human-nonhuman relationship.
At this point, many will say, what about Monsanto? Isn’t Monsanto creating dependence on farmers with corn crops that produce kernels which cannot reproduce themselves, thus forcing the farmers to buy again and again from them in a vicious cycle? That is why scientific research must be carried out within an ethical framework. Ethical objections to GM foods are usually centered on the possibility of harm to people or other living organisms. Is the harm they do justified by the outweighing benefits they provide? An example of a university researcher addressing these complex questions is Gary Comstock, a philosopher who has carried out research on food ethics and GMOs for over two decades. He proposes that we should formulate some questions to evaluate whether harm is justified or not: What harm is envisaged? And are those who are at risk of being harmed by the GM crops different from those who may benefit from the GM crops plantation? This is where most conflicts arise, when there’s an imbalance of interests among stakeholders. However, it is also very important to ask, what information do we have? Ethical judgments should go hand in hand with a comprehensive understanding of the scientific facts so that we do not just present a sentimental opinion of the matter but a factual one. We should ask ourselves, what information do we need to have before we make the decision?
To conclude, GMOs are an example of stewardship of creation. They could represent good news to the poor and freedom to those oppressed by hunger and other limitations such as anemia and malnutrition. However, when used for the benefit of the few, such as big corporations and agrochemical companies, ethical concerns need to be raised. This example of human-nonhuman interaction points out that scientific research carried out within the domains of the university has tangible effects on those whom we are most urged to love and care for: the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner.
Questions for Discussion
Read Luke 4:14-28 and discuss the following questions:
- What do you usually tend to describe as the good news or the gospel?
- Who do you think Jesus is referring to when he speaks of the ‘poor’ in this context? Is there only one kind of poverty?
- If in Luke’s Gospel Jesus chose to read this passage to inaugurate his ministry, what does that indicate Jesus’ ministry is about?
- Look at the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 that Jesus reads. What does the broader context tell you about the kind of good news that Jesus proclaims?
- How can you “proclaim good news to the poor” in your university, work, family, or other local context?
- Do you agree that research on genetic modification is a way to proclaim good news to the poor?
Further Reading: English
- Escobar, Samuel. Christian Mission and Social Justice. Missionary Studies 5. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1978.
- ———. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- López Rodríguez, Darío. The Liberating Mission of Jesus: The Message of the Gospel of Luke. Translated by Stefanie E. Israel and Richard E. Waldrop. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2012.
- Padilla, C. René. Mission Between the Times. 2nd rev. and expanded ed. Carlisle: Langham Monographs, 2010.
- Padilla, C. René, and Tetsunao Yamamori, eds. The Local Church, Agent of Transformation: An Ecclesiology for Integral Mission. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones Kairós, 2004.
Further Reading: Spanish
- López Rodríguez, Darío. La mision liberadora de Jesus: el mensaje del evangelio de Lucas. 3rd ed. Lima, Perú: Ediciones Puma, 2017.
- Padilla, C. René, and Tetsunao Yamamori, eds. La iglesia local como agente de transformación: una eclesiología para la misión integral. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones Kairós, 2003.
- Martin Ravallion, Shaohua Chen, and Prem Sangraula, “Dollar a Day Revisited,” The World Bank Economic Review 23, no. 2 (2009): 163–84, https://doi.org/10.2307/40282299.
- “‘Asparagus Water’ and $8 Eggs: Whole Foods Proves It Knows Its Customers,” accessed October 30, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/05/whole-foods-customers-asparagus-water.
- Pedro Arana, Samuel Escobar, and René Padilla, El Trino Dios y La Misión Integral (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Kairós, 2003).
- Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988).
- Franz-Theo Gottwald, Hans Werner Ingensiep, and Marc Meinhardt, Food Ethics (Springer Science & Business Media, 2010).
- Gottwald, Ingensiep, and Meinhardt, Food Ethics.
- Colegio Médico del Perú, “La Anemia En El Perú ¿qué Hacer?” (Lima, 2018).
- Lindsay H. Allen, “Anemia and Iron Deficiency: Effects on Pregnancy Outcome,” in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 71, 2000, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/71.5.1280s.
- Instituto Nacional de Innovación Agraria, “MINAGRI Presentó Nueva Variedad de Papa Con Alto Contenido En Hierro y Zinc Para Combatir Anemia y Desnutrición En Zonas Altoandinas,” 2018, http://www.inia.gob.pe/2018-nota-207/.
- Gary Comstock is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University.
- Gottwald, Ingensiep, and Meinhardt, Food Ethics.