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Cabbage patch theology: church people debate genetic engineering

By Paul Titus

An insect ravaged cabbage may seem an odd prompt to a theological discussion but it did the trick at Otago-Southland School of Theology in Queenstown last month.

University of Otago chaplain Rev Greg Hughson brandished the cabbage when he presented a paper to the gathering on spirituality, bioethics, and genetic engineering. Following his presentation, the group divided in two to debate the pros and cons of field trials for genetically modified crops.

The debate focused on a real life case. The Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) is currently considering the first application to field test GE plants since the moratorium on such tests in New Zealand was lifted in 2003.

The proposed research would involve restricted field trials of brassica crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale) that have been modified to be resistant to caterpillar pests like cabbage white butterfly and diamond-back moth.

Greg did a lot of the work for his paper during a month’s study leave in November. He says it is an attempt to provide a spiritual-ethical context to discuss genetic engineering. (The full version can be found on the Dunedin Methodist Parish website: www.dunedinmethodist.org.nz).

“I wanted to explore where God is in this issue. If we view the earth as God’s creation then Christians have the duty to be wise stewards of it,” Greg says.

“Genetic material is at the heart of God’s creation. God’s spirit moves through DNA. It is a mysterious and, some would say, sacred domain.

“Genetic engineering raises profound issues about the appropriateness of applying intrusive technology in this realm. This is especially so when genetically modified organisms are to be intentionally released into the environment.

“When we sing a Colin Gibson or Shirley Murray hymn we sing beautiful words about the spirit of God flowing through the heart of creation. But how does the spirituality nurtured by such hymns inform what we do? Spirituality should be a source of wisdom and hopefully it will lead us to be very careful with creation.”

Greg acknowledges that those who take a spiritual approach to these issues will not necessarily agree on how to proceed.

The government’s Royal Commission of enquiry into genetic modification decided that the best approach to GE is to proceed with caution. As the Royal Society observes, views expressed on the topic “imply that caution lies anywhere from the emergency brake to second gear”.

While he personally does not oppose genetic engineering in the lab, Greg does have concerns about GE agriculture. He has therefore made an application to ERMA against allowing trials on the genetically modified cabbage to proceed.

On the other hand, the Inter Church Bioethics Council (ICBC), which represents the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches, has made a submission to ERMA saying the proposed research should be allowed to proceed. With due consultation with all those affected by the research, the ICBC says the trials match the criteria of proceeding with caution.

“People who apply spiritual wisdom can come to different conclusions on the issue. Some of us doubt humans can control an entire ecosystem. Others say God gave us brains and this is all part of human progress. Do we have that capacity or are we kidding ourselves?” Greg asks.

Genetically modified brassicas: Pros and Cons

On April 11-14 ERMA will hold hearing on application GMF06001, at the Millennium Hotel in Christchurch. The application by Crop & Food Research seeks 10 years of contained field trials of brassicas that have been modified to contain proteins of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

These proteins are poisonous to insects but not humans. In NZ sprays containing Bt are used to control caterpillars in orchards and on vegetables even by organic growers.

The trial plants would be grown in a secure contained field and prevented from releasing pollen into the environment.

The proposed trial is a watershed in this country. If it is not allowed, this will have implications for further GE agricultural research. If it is allowed, it could create protests from anti-GE campaigners.

PRO: Chair of the Inter Church Bioethics Council (ICBC) Audrey Jarvis says the contained nature of the trial and the fact that the Bt toxin is already used are factors that lend support for the trials to proceed with caution.

Questions remain about whether the modified genetic material could affect other insects or get into the soil through the roots or through decomposition. A field trial is the only way to determine if that is the case.

“If the toxin is put in the genes of the plant it could create a bigger risk of resistant insects but the advantage is that the research could lead to a reduction in the amount of spray used to control insects. The possible development of resistant insects should be evaluated as part of the trial, if it is approved.”

The ICBC stressed in its submission that before any conditional or full release was contemplated, more research would need to be done on the effect of the GM plants on non-target insects. The risk that putting the Bt protein into plants would have an allergenic effect on humans would also have to be evaluated.

Audrey says Ngai Tahu have agreed that the trials should proceed but that Maori should be kept informed and consulted about the research if it were to proceed to another stage. The ICBC believes the effects of developing the GE brassicas on organic farmers should also be considered.

“With these qualifications the field trials may ultimately not lead to commercial products but it will be useful to learn more about the science,” Audrey says.

CON: While Greg Hughson has spiritual concerns about releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment, even in contained trials, he also has practical concerns.

He says the trials will cost millions of dollars, and there is no assurance that this investment will ever be repaid.

“There is a lot of practical and political opposition to GE agriculture from Maori and others on cultural, ethical and spiritual grounds. Therefore, I believe there are better ways to allocate the research money.

“I also believe it is crucial that New Zealand retain its current official position of being a GE-free environment. I do not believe the benefits would outweigh the management difficulties created by these or any other GE agricultural applications in the field.”

Greg says because Bt toxin can already be sprayed onto crops, creating transgenic plants that contain it would create more problems than it would solve.