By: Jim Virkler
In the lifetimes of some readers of this blog, the most fundamental knowledge of genetics has been revealed. Even in the 1940s and 1950s geneticists were uncertain which cell features were responsible for heredity and how heritable traits were passed to the next generation. For instance, bioscientists were unsure whether cellular protein or DNA controlled heredity. In the early 1950s scientists confirmed that DNA was the responsible agent. The existence of DNA had been known for several decades but little was known about its workings or function. Scientists discovered that DNA is “species specific” in 1950. In 1953 bioscientists discovered the beauty and complexity of the molecular structure of DNA. Determination of its incredible wonder-inspiring functionality was not far behind. In the 1960s they determined the code for DNA’s production of proteins—building blocks of life itself.
A DNA molecule is composed of three billion base pairs (chemical substances) arranged according to a specific order in a long double helix spiral. There are four bases in the molecule. In humans this long molecule is composed of 46 chromosomes, each with multiple regions containing thousands of genes, units of nucleotides, at a specific location. Each gene carries information for the eventual production of a particular physical characteristic.
Genetics is the study of how multiple traits of living things are inherited and passed along to the next generation. This definition belies the complexity of the knowledge of genetics. Most people would claim at least a modicum of genetic knowledge. The subject evokes strong responses in the current cultural climate, especially as it relates to one’s personal existence. When the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is raised we encounter strongly diverse reactions along all positions on the approval/disapproval spectrum.
First, we describe one of the most important applications of the GMO world. Since the mid 90s, we have been blessed by the widespread development of GMOs. This discovery is revolutionary, replacing some traditional agricultural practices. It involves transferring a gene from one species to a different species. For example, soil bacteria such as bacillus thuringiensis (bT) possesses DNA which produces a toxin fatal to harmful insects such as corn borers. Before discovery of GMO technology, this bacterial toxin was used to produce large quantities of commercial chemical insecticides. Many crop species have now been genetically engineered to produce their own intrinsic toxic resistance to insect pests; the pests die when they ingest any part of a genetically engineered plant. The new crops have incorporated a gene of bT into their own genome. Consumers benefit from increased crop productivity and reduced costs. There are many other GMOs, lately described under the umbrella term “bio-engineered.”
Many related issues exist such as the ethical consequences of tampering with naturally occurring genomes. Some authors describe the practice as “genetic tinkering,” a characterization which may impart a negative spin to the GMO phenomenon. Do we “play God” in a morally unacceptable manner? Are we creating, or do we have the potential to create “Frankenstein monsters?” Surely these questions provoke the most fearful human responses only if we permit them to rule our thinking.
Our position is in accord with God’s instructions to humanity in Genesis 1:28 “…Fill the earth and subdue it.” This verse and verses 29-30 have many applications for man’s prudent management of living things.
Humans have produced genetic modifications in plants and animals for thousands of years. They began in force at the inception of humanity’s agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. These genetic modifications were manifest in domestication of plants and animals. Some modifications are startling, increasing desirability and productivity in multiple ways. Over many years people selected the most desirable crops and animals for propagation. Unwittingly, they practiced a form of genetic modification. In the past few decades agriculturalists have enjoyed increasingly novel technological potential, doubtless a divine gift for which we give thanks to God. Our prayer is that humanity would not use this technological potential for evil or harm.
The United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina together raise 90% of genetically modified crops worldwide. In view of the proven benefits of GMOs this is a surprising statistic. European Union countries have mandated laws forbidding the sale and use of almost all bio-engineered crops. There are many examples in which people in underdeveloped nations would strongly benefit from improved nutrition by using bio-engineered GMO foods. For example, golden rice is a GMO. Bio-engineering has produced rice which contains abundant Vitamin A beta carotene, proven to be helpful in populations with vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Hundreds of thousands of children die each year from VAD in underdeveloped countries, but staunch resistance continues.
Science journalist David H. Freeman states in an article in Scientific American that, “Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations.” On the other hand, there have been many opposing voices casting doubt on the safety of GMOs. The issue generates deep emotions and is intensely ideological. Many other issues are the source of similar emotional disagreements.
Pew Research claims 48% of the US population says the health effects of consuming GMOs are no different from other foods while 39% say GM foods are worse for one’s health. GM foods are better for our health say 10% of those polled. Pew also reports that 29% of people have heard “a lot,” 52% have heard “a little,” and 19% have heard “nothing” about the issue. Their reporting also finds that people with high science knowledge are more likely to favor the use of bio-engineered foods. Personal research on the pros and cons of this and many other controversial matters is a useful exercise. Many discover the importance of ideology which often supersedes factual truth.
In our search for appropriate scripture references on this topic, we encountered a verse by Solomon who had never experienced controversies related to GMOs: “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver! (Proverbs 16:16 NIV).
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.