July 1999 - News Release
'THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND'S
VIEW ON GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS':
A RESPONSE BY CHRISTIAN ECOLOGY LINK *
1. Christian Ecology Link welcomes the Church of England's willingness to provide resources to assist Christians to explore ethical concerns such as the use of genetically modified organisms. However, we have strong reservations on whether such resources should be described as 'The Church of England's View'. In the case of genetically modified organisms this is misleading as the stance taken will be unacceptable to many Church members.
2. The paper raises important issues relating to human intervention in nature. It recognises that genetic engineering can lead to changes in living organisms that could never be achieved by natural breeding, noting that much public concern arises out of a perception that genetically modified foods are 'radically unnatural' and that producing such foods is 'playing God'. Our understanding of what is 'natural' requires further exploration. It would be wrong to fall into the trap of equating 'natural' with 'good': many toxins are 'natural'.
3. Environmental degradation suggests that an appropriate balance between human intervention in nature and restraint has not been achieved, which may explain why many people are so concerned about this particular scientific development. By contrast, the paper argues that 'genetic engineering does not seem very different from other forms of scientific advance' and then fails to explore why many people do not accept this claim. There is no clear justification for the paper's conclusion that 'wisdom is unlikely to lie either in an unrestricted exploitation or in a total prohibition.' A middle path is not invariably wise. For example, the total prohibition of biological weapons is widely accepted.
4. The theological section of the paper is too short and narrowly focused. The approach adopted of focusing on genetically modified organisms as a scientific concern results in a lack of balance. For example, the paper lacks any significant theological discussion of land, on which much has been written, or food. This is a serious flaw. Moreover, although the paper touches upon important issues relating to global trade and the use of commercial power, it offers no critical insights.
5. The paper lacks critical depth when describing several purposes served by genetically modified crops. It suggests that use of the technology may improve agricultural productivity and thereby enable the world's growing population to be fed. This suggests an underlying assumption that more food is needed rather than different diets or better distribution. It does not refer to the recent Christian Aid report Selling Suicide, which concluded that, far from ending starvation, application of this technology threatens to place too much power over food into too few hands and leave the poor more vulnerable.
6. The paper notes that genetically modified technology enables fields to be sprayed with herbicide without crops being destroyed. However, it does not mention the implications for biodiversity, the potential for 'superweeds', or the implications of disrupting the food chain. Nor does it question the apparent utilitarian assumption underlying this approach, that the only legitimate living species are those which can be used by humans and that other flora and fauna are dispensable.
7. The paper refers to the prospect of genetically modifying crops to make them resistant to virus and insect predators and suggests that this might lead to a reduction in the use of chemical sprays. However it does not refer to recent US Department of Agriculture research which found that in practice no significant reduction of chemical use is taking place on American farms which are growing genetically modified crops. Nor does it refer to concern that if crops are genetically modified to resist insects there is an increased probability that insect populations may acquire resistance.
8. The paper recognises that genes may be transferred from genetically modified crops to other crops or species. However, while recommending an 'appropriate degree of isolation of genetically modified crops from possible unintended recipients' it fails to acknowledge that such isolation will gradually become impossible, as eco-systems interconnect. In this sense, any decision to introduce the technology is irreversible. The paper does not address the potential injustice to organic farmers who will no longer be able to market their produce as organic if it is contaminated as a result of nearby farms growing genetically modified crops.
9. It is unfortunate that the paper should propose that refined products derived from genetically modified plants need not be labelled. The suggestion that they are 'identical' to products from unmodified plants is disputable. While labelling such foods certainly raises 'greater difficulties', this is should be seen as a challenge for scientists, rather than an excuse not to offer consumers choice. The problem exposes the fact that the science is undeveloped and its application premature.
10. The paper notes that processed foods may have some ingredients in very small quantities. However it is wrong to dismiss the case for labelling all ingredients derived from genetically modified food made by, among others, the Consumers Association. The paper should accept that Christians who take a principled stance against use of this technology will want products wholly free from genetically modified ingredients.
11. It is unclear why the paper specifically highlights the possibility that the Church 'might well wish to exert an influence' on issues relating to the two-thirds world but not on other aspects of the debate. It suggests an underlying belief that the Church's ethical concern should be limited to the relief of poverty rather than embracing environmental sustainability or dietary choice.
12. The paper describes the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes as offering 'independent assessment'. As membership of this committee (and the Government's other advisory committees) has been widely criticised as lacking independence this could be regarded as somewhat naive. More than half of the members of ACNFP have close links with the industry and there is only one consumer representative.
13. Although it may have been the intention to offer a neutral stance, the language used in the paper shows evidence of a presumption in favour of using genetic engineering. Thus, for example, genetic engineering is described as an 'advance'. A moratorium would not be 'introduced' but 'imposed'. In terms of agricultural productivity the technology is 'promising'.
14. The paper concludes with a remarkable comparison with irradiated food, which was rejected primarily because consumers judged that it served the interests of large scale producers while offering no real benefit. Many consumers will find patronising the suggestion that they might reject genetically modified food because of 'slogan words that are unreflectively (sic) taken to carry sinister meanings'.
15. In summary, it is our belief that in seeking to take care of creation (Gen 2:15) the Church should adopt the precautionary principle as recommended in the British Medical Association report The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health. This puts the onus of proof on the scientists engaged in genetic engineering to show that their activities will not cause any harm. Christian Ecology Link thus supports the Five Year Freeze Campaign, which calls for a freeze on growing genetically engineered crops for any commercial purpose and on importing genetically engineered foods and farm crops.
Tel: 01524 36241
* This response is based on the paper accessed on 25th June 1999 from the Church of England web-site: