GE – Tampering with Creation

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 21, Spring 2001
by John D Corcoran

In the untrammeled wilderness I find a sense of awe about creation and the ability to see the Creator at work. It comes also when lifting from the good earth the potatoes sowed months before, renewed, multiplied, clean and firm. There is enormous satisfaction in lifting these, scrubbing them, cooking them and eating them. Culturally, historically, gastronomically, new potatoes from the ground are soul food. My ancestors lived on them and died for want of them, and were forced a long way from their turangawaewae when their crops failed. I feel very attached to potatoes.

And then someone suggests it might be possible to change them so they can treat heart disease. Add a bit of toad to them, change them in a way that is not selective as one would be saving seeds for the next year, but changing their fundamental nature to use them to solve a problem caused by some other aberration in the true natural order of things. I feel an awful rejection. Something fills me with that other side of the wonderment coin – dread!

What is it that I feel is so dreadful? This genetic manipulation is a continuum taking not just my food but the wellbeing created by food, the restorative power of medicine, the palliative power of human genius, and the creative power of the human couple, and twisting it new ways that is controlled without the wisdom of God into the image of mammon. It promotes the ability to make money out of the crucial power of Christian love. We feed each other, we cure each other, and we create each other as the reflective love of Christ. But suddenly now ‘they’ have developed the power of altering creation in a manner that allows control, restraint, and the creation of wealth beyond that which is reasonable.

Thinking about the genetic engineering (GE) debate can sometimes be rather mind-bending. A much more attractive proposition can be to just go out and dig the garden, get my potatoes in the earliest ever, and just get on with life. But that’s really submitting to one of the most dangerous challenges to facing responsibility. It’s awfully easy to bury yourself in what you would enjoy doing, the things that put you at peace with the world, that build a sense of harmony in the soul, and allow you to dodge the hard issues.

There has been an enormous amount written on the GE debate, a huge amount of information submitted to the NZ Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering. We usually have to rely upon others to sieve information, especially the media. Knowledge, however, comes from information with the application of a sense of wonderment and the reflection of experience, channeled by wise counsel. But in a complex situation it is awfully hard to find the wise counsel, and in some of these things there is little communal experience to draw on. The information is very complicated.

Many people have expressed opinions about GE. The outcomes of these opinions, the distilled knowledge, one hopes the wise counsel, has been fed to us in precis by the media, and ‘informed’ commentators. But the media in one paragraph will call it ‘treading the middle ground’, in another ‘opening the floodgates beyond control’, and elsewhere that the recommendations of the Royal Commission will cost us millions in money we might have gained (from others). It will restrict our research base, it will offend the values of the people of the land. The messages conflict. Some of the messages are downright insulting to one side of the debate, particularly when an enormous number of those submitting information to the Commission had their submissions effectively ignored. Forecasts have been made about the tremendous benefits GE might provide: ‘If NZ discovered a cure for diabetes or produced a potato that reduced heart disease, it would be an even greater boost to the economy’ (The Press, 31 July 2001). What is the objective really being said here? To solve human ills or to make money? I cannot help but think that mammon, not God, not love, is what is really behind all of this.

The New Zealand Bishops’ Conference made a submission to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification and in it they warned about ‘the maelstrom of data and facts’ and warned that this can overwhelm the majority of people. However they also suggest that people will be unthinkingly conservative and reject the new simply because the old is known and trusted. I have difficulty with this evaluation.

The concepts of genetic engineering are as remote and difficult to understand as any around. It is very hard, without a scientific basis to one’s education, to understand what goes into genetic development of any species. The knowledge itself is new to scientists. Many with a university degree only ten years old will never have studied what is now being applied and used to alter forever the natural order of God’s creation.

A philosophical understanding of the ‘whys and wherefores’ of Maoritanga is also very important. One is not expected in a Western industrial society to go into great depth in analyzing the values of a project or whether it is morally justified or ethically sound. So we are dependent upon the media and commentators to decide and influence for us what is right and what is wrong. And so much of what is right and wrong is now expressed in terms of financial and economic growth and prosperity.

When you plant potatoes, you discover really what growth is about. You go out every morning looking for the new shoots and count them until you see every seed has sprouted. You mound them up and water them, and keep the chickens from having dirt baths in the neatly mounded earth. And slowly the plant grows and produces more. But that more has a limit. You can’t keep growing potatoes in the same patch of earth all the time. Growth has natural limitations. If you try to abuse these, things go wrong. But we seem to have accepted the belief that, with GE modification, we can just grow things in the same dirt, in the same way, year in, year out. Field trials in other parts of the world in fact have shown genetically modified plants have unexpected problems. Notwithstanding the demise of monarch butterflies, so many people who have grown this type of plant now want out of it, and markets increasingly reject GE in favour of organic produce.

There’s a ‘lovely’ argument that GE rice, rich in Vitamin A, will solve nutritional deficiencies in India. These arguments are a smokescreen. The GE merchants’ aim is not to solve India’s problems. These could be easily solved through a return to their rich and varied historical diet and fairer food distribution. The proponents of ‘golden rice’ want to be able to grow more of it, with the ground less often rotated in different crops, and able to produce greater yields with chemical assistance. There are also attempts to patent the rice in order to make it a private property of Western business. Certainly this appears to me to be attempting to steal the birthright of the people of India. It is very easy to argue for a patent on a genetically modified food crop.

I feel the New Zealand Catholic bishops may have missed a point that they should have addressed. There appears to me to be no option for the poor here, but only an opportunity for a selective prosperity built on an inculcated ignorance of ethics and real values. Western society unfortunately continues to misunderstand the differing concepts of price and value. Value has a non-pecuniary aspect. I value my home grown potatoes far above those purchased from a shop. When I handle a good tool, be it a spanner, a garden spade, an ice axe, or whatever, I have a feeling of how it swings, or lies in my hand. Does it fit with precision or purpose between me and the part of God’s creation that I am working with? Do I know it is valuable for its task? If it does fit the task and me, it is without price if the task is important enough. Surely food too is really without price, but oh so valuable!

But Christ’s lasting image and gift to us is the eucharistic meal, and hospitality and love is so often demonstrated through food. Christ told us ‘Feed my Lambs!’ Most of us who use tools know the measure of the tool by a gut reaction. It fits and it feels right. Gut reactions often work, and many of us have a gut reaction about genetically modified food. We haven’t asked for it, and we don’t trust it. Rightly the bishops state ‘Decisions concerning GM should not remove the rights of individuals to distance themselves from GM if conscience precludes use of the technologies or the products’. But they go on to say that ‘the mechanisms are available to ensure that those who do not wish to eat GM food can avoid doing so…’ I suspect that this is not true. Contamination by pollen drift, by accident and by deliberate producer policy (as with soya beans in the USA) can so easily remove this right.

Maori Concerns

We also should note that generally speaking Maori were opposed to the findings of the Report. Maori were concern about a variety of issues including the mixing of genes between species, the abrogation of Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, concerns about who would control genetic modification and who would benefit from it.

What was of particular significance was the way that Maori were treated as just another interested group, rather than as a Treaty partner. The presumption made by the Commission concerning Maori was that they had no specific intellectual or scientific knowledge, therefore were not to be treated as being of special significance. This is an important point. As Moana Jackson points out, for a Maori, ‘analysis of GE need not be a merely cultural response based on esoteric lore but a considered scientific response as measured in Maori intellectual terms.’ He quotes the recognition of this by the Conservation Authority (May 1994) which concluded that ‘Maori have invaluable knowledge of specific resources and the wider environment, much of which will go back over many generations. Much of this information exists nowhere else. Much may be in a form that is completely different from the conventional approach taken by European science. Much may be communicable only in te Reo Maori’. Many people appearing before the Commission found this concept difficult to accept and some scientists continue to argue that Maori have no notion of science. This is profoundly offensive.

The Commission effectively adopted the same approach and rejected the possibility of a Maori intellectual tradition. It re-defined all Maori submissions as culture-based and then used the Treaty to effectively dismiss them. As Jackson says, the Commission did not go as far as saying that the Treaty permitted GE. But in its Treaty-based re-definition of Maori concerns and the jurisprudential base upon which it constructed its Treaty discourse, the effect was much the same. The Treaty was used to acknowledge contesting views. Then with equal facility it was used to dismiss the Maori view in favour of those of the Crown. ‘It can be reasonably argued that the Commission’s Treaty discourse ill serves Maori, not just in its general approach and recommendations but in the quite specific effect it may have on the whole issue of intellectual and cultural property rights that Maori have been presenting to the Waitangi Tribunal.’

Conclusion

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference presentation to the Commission was very well prepared, with strong ethical arguments mixed with scientific insight. Their final sentence is very true: ‘How we use genetic modification will be a statement of what we value as a society and who we are as a people’. But has the Royal Commission really looked at who we are as a people? Maori submissions have been glossed over. Values, I feel, are not really clearly understood. I fear we have been sold out for possible monetary gain, without true consideration of the real cost.

With so many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ still unanswered, I believe the bishops drew the wrong conclusion when they came down on the side of implementing further GE experimentation. The Conference sought – and received – a code of ethics under which such experimentation would take place. But it assumed a rather naïve understanding of how that could be enforced. Given the way parts of medical science has moved so far away from a reasonable standard of ethical care, how can anyone assume that those who wish to practice GE experimentation will abide by a set of rules? With the prospects of vast amounts of money soon to be made from commercial extension of GE experimentation, a code of ethical conduct will have as much control over behaviour and standards as one might have trying to control a balloon in a Canterbury nor’wester. Once the GE genie is out of the bottle, there will be no controlling it.

John Corcoran has a long history teaching mountain safety skills, relishes growing excellent potatoes when he’s not in the hills, and lives in Burkes Pass..

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