By Fr. Bud Grant
Part One: Natural Law
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants and animals that have artificially altered DNA. These “transgenic” organisms may have characteristics of another kind of organism: plant, animal, virus or bacterium. In fact, it is possible to substitute donor DNA in a human fetus whose own DNA would otherwise lead to birth defects. The infant would have DNA from more than her “birth parents” making nonsense of the term “biological” parent.
But what difference does it make whether the “transplant” is a heart, replaced after birth, or a segment of DNA replaced in the womb? In either case the child certainly has DNA of more than her father and mother. The ethical question shifts under us when we call it a “transplant” instead of a genetic “splicing.” The GMO debate is weighted by language. Is a pig with jellyfish luminescence “frankenpork?” Is a goat’s milk silk a hybrid? Tomatoes with the antifreeze gene of a flounder: is it vegetable or fish?
Scientific and technological advances in farming regularly convert the fantastical into the commonplace. This has always been the case. Livestock breeders exploited evolutionary principles 10,000 years before Darwin examined Galapagos’ finches. Modern poultry corporations produce larger birds faster, but by selective breeding, not test-tube chicks, though side effects include monster chickens too big to stand up.
Ethically, the difference between intra-species breeding and GMOs is that the latter can splice two different species … creating a DNA that could never be produced through the “natural” processes of evolution. But is it good or evil? We should proceed slowly.
Natural Law asserts that there are laws which govern the ecosphere. Non-human nature is determined by these laws, meaning that they can’t violate them. Humans, with our natural endowment of rational discernment, can. We don’t have to obey these laws, but should “do and pursue the good and avoid evil.” Natural Law means that we should always exercise our best reason in service of the common good. That’s it.
Well, not quite. While Natural Law cannot be quixotically codified into a strict set of specific laws to which there are no legitimate exceptions, it gives us useful insights. First, the “‘good” in one situation is not necessarily “good” in another context. Moreover, we should save non-human nature, over which we exercise hegemony; serve human flourishing with emphasis on the marginalized and future generations; and imitate that terrible good which is the sacrificing love of Christ.
What do we have? GMOs are not “unnatural” just because we create them. Shoot, we’d have to condemn airplanes, economics and the Mona Lisa. GMOs must be judged on their positive or negative impact on the earth, the marginalized/future generations, and our relationship to God.
The Earth? Loss of biodiversity through gene contamination and weed-ification are possible, but not evidenced. Human overpopulation and/or intensive agriculture of marginal lands, as side effects of GMO use, would be harmful to healthy ecosystems, but again … we need evidence.
The marginalized and future generations? If food production increases, then the world’s 780 million (one in eight people) who suffer from “chronic undernourishment” would be served. On the other hand, subsistence farmers, perhaps 83 percent of all farmers worldwide who farm less than 2 hectacres, cultivate 60 percent of all arable land and produce 80 percent of the world’s food (globalagriculture.org) may suffer from GMO contamination, loss of cultural/traditional seed exchange practices and inadequate technologies/regulation.
Our relationship to God? Will our exotic new dance with nature reveal the mysterious presence of God, leading us to humility and awe or, intoxicated by our own power to create, will we think ourselves gods? Wasn’t that Frankenstein’s monstrous sin?
Natural Law shows us what questions to ask and alerts us to moral threats. It cannot predict whether or not we will proceed with prudence or succumb to naive hubris.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)