Genetically modified foods and the Bible
Many people are unaware that most soybeans grown in the US have had a ‘foreign’ gene (from a microbe) implanted in them.
This enables the plants to tolerate a weed-killing chemical. So, the farmer can spray the whole field and the weeds die, but not the crop plants. Much of the maize (corn) grown has a gene for a microbial toxin that kills moth larvae that eat the ears of corn. Such genetically modified (GM) crops are also ‘taking off’ in places like China. Consumer resistance is slowing the acceptance of GM foods in places such as Europe and Australia.
GM foods come from plants or animals that have been genetically engineered to contain genes from organisms of a basically different kind—such that the genes could not normally be incorporated through regular breeding techniques. For example, scientists in Australia engineered a pig to have a cow gene that produces cow growth hormone. The gene can be switched on/off by feeding/not feeding the pigs a certain amino acid in their food. In this way, the pigs grow faster and produce the lean meat sought by consumers.
All this ‘engineering’ requires considerable skill on behalf of the scientists involved. And for each success, there are many failures.
Arguments rage over the pros and cons of this controversial issue. What should Christians make of it?
Some have argued that even normal cross-breeding is not Biblical, so genetic modification, by extension, would be improper.
They cite Leviticus 19:19 (‘Do not mate different kinds of animals’). It is common for this to be related to the issue of keeping the original Genesis ‘kinds’ separate. However, that cannot be the point of this law, because, by definition, these kinds could not interbreed anyway.
This command would have presumably prohibited the mating of a horse and a donkey (to produce a mule), despite the fact that these probably descended from the same created kind. The way the word ‘kind’ is being used here, as in some other parts of the Bible, would loosely correlate with ‘types’ or ‘varieties’ (which would cover different breeds or species). This fits with the rest of the verse, ‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’
So why do most Christians feel perfectly comfortable about not just breeding mules, but wearing shirts woven from wool/polyester mixtures? Because they see that these laws were given to the covenant children of Israel ‘brought out of the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 20:2), as part of a number of signs that they were a holy people, set apart from other peoples, because the Messiah was to come from them (Galatians 3:16). Circumcision of males was one of these covenant signs commanded in Leviticus but specifically abrogated as a necessity for Gentiles in the New Testament (Galatians 5:1–12).
Without getting into a formal discourse, it would seem clear from the Bible that when it refers to the Law (e.g. James 2:10), it refers to the whole of the Law of Moses, without distinction. Having been saved by grace (i.e. it is a gift), Christians are, rather, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to fulfill a higher moral law, the ‘Law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2) or ‘the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:2, see Ephesians 2:8–10).
God gave mankind dominion over the Creation (Genesis 1:27, 28). Part of this dominion mandate, after the Fall, is to grow food (Genesis 3:19). The breeding of animals and plants to produce more food and fibre has long been recognized as part of our dominion. This form of genetic manipulation is not controversial (e.g. breeding wheat for rust disease resistance so that crops yield more grain or do not need the use of chemical fungicides).
But what of genetically modified food? As shown, there is nothing in the Bible that would prohibit this, but there is a principle: that of ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’. If producing a GM food could harm someone, then clearly it is wrong.
Are GM foods safe?
Evidence is mounting that the control systems in plant and animal cells are much more complex than many of the practitioners of genetic engineering anticipated. GM foods have been considered basically safe on the basis of a long-held idea that only DNA (genes) is the stuff of inheritance (information transmission) and only this determines the characteristics of an organism. A corollary of this is that one gene produces one protein. Recent discoveries undermine these simplistic notions (details in box below).
This means that a gene inserted into a host cell of a basically different kind of organism could, through various known mechanisms, produce dangerous byproducts other than the intended protein. Even if the intended protein has been tested as safe, the unforeseen byproducts may not be safe.
Also, the desired protein may be manufactured but have different effects to those desired. This happened with an early example of GM where the gene for the blue pigment in hydrangeas was successfully inserted into a rose. Of course, a blue rose would bring the company producing it a lot of money. Unfortunately for the investors, the blue gene did not produce a blue rose. Why not? Apparently the colour of the particular pigment depends on the acidity of the cell sap, and the acidity in the rose was so different to that of hydrangeas that the pigment did not produce a blue colour in the rose!
Another danger relates to the insertion of a foreign sequence into a part of the DNA such that it disrupts existing control mechanisms for protein manufacture. These effects may be subtle—a little more or less of a given enzyme, for example. But this could result in accumulation of a substrate in a given chemical pathway such that it is mildly toxic, etc., whereas before GM it was below the threshold for toxicity. Small changes can disrupt biochemical pathways and cause disease (many diseases have probably arisen through such losses of genetic information since the Fall).
Undoubtedly, a lot of the naïveté arises from the evolutionary indoctrination of many of the scientists doing the GM research. Perhaps underlying the belief that tinkering with the genetics of living things will, without too much care and effort, improve them, is the belief that life arose as an accident. If life is an accident, then surely a little bit of intelligence applied to it can improve it. With the knowledge we now have of the complexity of even the most basic of living things, there is no excuse for believing that living things are simple, and to be easily improved. And are the GM organisms ‘improved’? Genetically modified pigs have a high incidence of gastric ulcers, arthritis, enlarged heart, dermatitis and renal disease.1
There is an incredible inter-relatedness of cellular processes. A cell is in fact ‘irreducibly complex’—that is, almost everything has to be there for it to function properly. So, to deal with a given gene in isolation, as if it works without reference to other genes or the existing proteins in the cell, is extremely naïve, even dangerous.
In principle, there is nothing morally wrong with GM foods, but in practice, I believe that many of the efforts are dangerously naïve. Testing needs to be very thorough to make sure that GM foods are indeed safe to eat. On the other hand, products that are not eaten, such as cotton, may demand less stringent testing. Such GM plants may enable, for example, large reductions in pesticide use, which would be good for the safety of agricultural workers as well as beneficial to the environment.
Scientists who are Christians should have a respect for what God has created, realizing the supreme intelligence that went into creating the various kinds of living things. They would therefore ‘hasten slowly’ in genetically modifying foods. On the other hand, they would realize that deleterious changes in organisms have occurred since the Fall. It may even be possible to recognize and repair some of these changes to make food safer to eat.
The number of genes identified in the Human Genome Project, about 25,000, is far less than the known number of human proteins, which is more than 100,000. In other words, there are many more proteins than there are genes to code for them.
Cells are able to ‘edit’ the information copied from a gene on the DNA to produce various different proteins. This is called ‘splicing,’ which is done by a very complicated protein complex called a ‘spliceosome,’ though no-one yet knows how it does its editing to produce the desired proteins. One particular gene has been found to produce over 500 different proteins in this way!1 This discovery means that a certain gene inserted into the DNA of an organism might not produce only the protein that the scientist desires. Or any of it! Since the cell environment of the host DNA determines the editing, different, unanticipated proteins could be produced from the donated gene.
DNA replication depends on many different proteins, so DNA replication and inheritance depend on the cell environment. Several different enzyme complexes actually check the accuracy of the copying. Without their action, the error rate is about 1 in 100; with their checking, the error rate is a low one in 10 billion—that’s like typing out this article five million times and having only one error overall. The experience of cloning animals has also revealed the importance of ‘imprinting’ in inheritance. Imprinting involves certain genes being turned off by the cell such that gene expression in the cloned offspring is affected.2
For a protein to become functional after it is manufactured as a string of amino acids, it has to fold into its appropriate three-dimensional shape. It was once thought that it was only the sequence of the amino acids, which is determined by the gene on the DNA, that determined the folding. However, now we know that protein folding needs other proteins called chaperones to arrive at the correct shape. The host cell may have different chaperones and this could cause a different folding to occur, producing a protein with different characteristics to those desired.
Prions are infectious proteins, possibly the cause of diseases like Mad Cow Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. These rogue proteins cause certain other proteins to take on their shape, and so they replicate in a cell, causing damage. This means that a new protein manufactured in a host cell could act as a prion as it interacts with proteins not present in the donor organism, replicating itself and causing havoc.
- Black, D.L., Splicing in the inner ear: a familiar tune, but what are the instruments? Neuron 20(2):165–168, 1998.
- Jerlströlm, P., Genomic imprinting, Journal of Creation 13(2):6–8, 1999.
References and notes
- Commoner, B., Unraveling the DNA myth—the spurious foundation of genetic engineering, Harper’s Magazine, February 2002, grain.org/article/entries/375-unravelling-the-dna-myth, 26 February 2002. In this article, evolutionist Barry Commoner attacks the dogma of the central role of DNA on the basis of the importance of proteins in the replication and expression of DNA. However, all the proteins that replicate DNA and modify protein manufacture (DNA replication enzymes, error-checking enzymes, spliceosomes, chaperones) are themselves coded by the DNA—another problem for chemical evolutionary theories on the origin of life. For more, see Origin of Life Questions and Answers. Commoner’s objections really show how little we know about how DNA controls the processes in living cells, especially growth and development. Recent discoveries about methylation and the role of histones in gene expression are only the tip of the iceberg. Much treasure is yet to be mined from the DNA that does not code for proteins, much of which has been labelled by some evolutionists as ‘junk’ DNA (they don’t know what it does, so it is labelled ‘junk’—reminiscent of the vestigial (‘junk’) organs debacle of the past). See Walkup, L.K., ‘Junk’ DNA: evolutionary discards or God’s tools? Journal of Creation 14(2):18–30, 2000. Also, Not ‘junk’ after all. Return to text.