Genetic Engineering Evaluated from the Perspective
of Christian and Ignatian Creation Spirituality
By Roland Lesseps, S.J, Promotio Lustitiae,
Social Justice Secretariat,
Society of Jesus (Rome). 2003
Introduction: My Position Concerning GMOs My position on the questions
raised in the Introduction is that the evidence we have now does not support
promotion of GMOs in agricultural systems. The present GE technology does
not permit the insertion of the foreign DNA into a particular location
on the host chromosome, nor the addition of the normal regulatory mechanism.
Insertion of DNA can cause deletions and rearrangements of the original
DNA at the insertion site. This information helps us understand that GE
is significantly different from conventional breeding techniques.
I think that our human family should, at the very least, follow the precautionary
principle and not adopt a technology that is still inadequately tested.
We already have many examples of serious problems brought about by our
not being able to see the undesirable consequences caused by our use of
what seemed to be a wonderful benefit, e.g the insecticide DDT was later
found to lead to death of bird embryos by thinning the egg shells and
to cause cancer. The refrigerant gas chloroflourocarbon was found to be
destroying the ozone layer, and the tranquilizer thalidomide caused severe
abnormalities in over 7000 children born of women who took the drug during
I will not in this short article attempt to give elaborate answers to
the above questions about GMOs, partly because I am sure that most of
these questions will be addressed by others in this issue of Promotio
Iustitiae. Rather, what I will try to do is offer some reflections on
genetic engineering that arise from our Judaeo-Christian and Ignatian
Judaeo-Christian creation spirituality and GMOs A fundamental principle
to guide us in our reflection about GMOs is that all of Gods creatures
have intrinsic value, in and of themselves. Nature is not just useful
to us humans, but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in
Christ. A scriptural basis for this appreciation of all creatures is in
Genesis 1: "God saw that it was good
God saw everything that
God had made, and indeed, it was very good." This is an amazing statement,
points out Sallie McFague: "God does not say that creation is good
for human beings or even, more surprising, good for me, God, but just
good, in fact very good. God is saying that nature is good in itself --
not good for something or someone but just plain good. Gods pronouncement
here is an aesthetic one: appreciation of something outside oneself, in
itself, for itself. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis leaves
no doubt that the goodness of creation is its message: it is repeated
seven times in the space of 31 verses. How have we missed this?"
If we are willing to shift from an anthropocentric view of other creatures
and recognise that other creatures have intrinsic value, then we will
be able to accept that these creatures also have rights including the
right of each species to preserve its genetic integrity. Sean McDonagh
puts it this way: "From an ethical perspective the nub of the issue
revolves around whether other creatures have 'intrinsic' value. If they
do, then it seems logical to argue that they have rights that their own
'specialness,' especially the species boundary, be respected by another
Thomas Berry attributes the cause of the present environmental crisis
to "the effort of western peoples to produce a civilization that
recognizes the rights of humans and grants no rights to any other mode
of being." Berry, however, claims that "every component of the
Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat,
and the right to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the
Earth community." Fitting well with these rights is certainly the
right of each species to preserve its genetic integrity.
Ignatian creation spirituality and GMOs Gods appreciation of creatures
as very good is clearly reflected in Ignatius' relation to creatures.
It is striking that David L. Fleming expressed this Ignatian thought as
the obligation we have to appreciate and use these gifts of God insofar
as they help us toward our goal of loving service and union with God.
We who are made in God's image ought to reflect Gods attitude toward
nature: appreciation. We are to appreciate things in themselves, for their
intrinsic value. "Neither Genesis nor the Exercises offer licence
to misuse the things God made. On the contrary, 'insofar as any created
things hinder our progress toward our goal, we ought to let them go' is
freedom and respect, not abuse and rebellion."
This Ignatian approach to creatures, which he shares with Francis of
Assisi, may be even clearer in the Contemplation for Learning to Love
Like God. God dwells within all creatures. "The world is charged
with the grandeur of God," wrote Gerald Manley Hopkins. We experience
the creative love of God flaming at the core of all creatures and are
moved to respond with our own deep love, love for God and for all Gods
creatures, a love expressed in our deeds. "The Contemplatio proposes
a reverential respect for all things. It calls for the threefold relationships
among God, humans, and nature to be not only respectful and generous,
but also loving."
God labours and works in all creatures, continually calling them out
of chaos and nothingness. God continues to create all things at each moment.
If, through some impossibility, God would ever cease creating, we would
all immediately disappear back into nothingness. This "work"
of our Creator God is very different from that of a human tinker, fixing,
adjusting, mending, repairing. John F. Haught presents the theological
position that our God is humble, self-emptying, suffering love.
"Since it is the nature of love, even at the human level, to refrain
from coercive manipulation of others, we should not expect the world that
a generous God calls into being to be instantaneously ordered to perfection.
Instead, in the presence of the self-restraint befitting an absolutely
self-giving love, the world would unfold by responding to the divine allurement
at its own pace and in its own particular way. The universe would then
be spontaneously self-creative and self-ordering."
God lovingly renounces domineering omnipotence and allows the universe
to evolve without divine intervention, even with all the suffering, struggle,
waste, and loss that have occurred. It is Ignatius' dream for us in the
Contemplatio that we imitate this divine self-restraint, God's humble
love. The application of this to the GMO debate is obvious: we should
abandon our arrogance and our acceptance of the principle that, because
we can, it is good for us to modify the genetic makeup of other creatures
in such a profound way.
Roland J. Lesseps, S.J., <firstname.lastname@example.org> Kasisi Catholic Church,
P.O. Box 30652 Lusaka, ZAMBIA
Response from Wayne Parrott, Ph.D., Professor, University of Georgia
The Effect of Plant Breeding at the DNA Level -- How Different is
it from Genetic Engineering?
Roland Lesseps, S.J, Kasisi Catholic Church, Lusaka, Zambia writes that,
"Insertion of DNA can cause deletions and rearrangements of the original
DNA at the insertion site. This information helps us understand that GE
is significantly different from conventional breeding techniques."
I am afraid that anyone who makes such a statement about plant breeding
vs genetic engineering is showing a profound misunderstanding of the effects
that selection has had on plant genomes. Ftr Lesseps is absolutely correct
about the rearrangements that take place when transgenes are inserted.
He is not correct in claiming such rearrangements are a significant difference
from what is accomplished by conventional breeding. In fact, I will argue
that the changes brought about by genetic engineering are minor compared
to what has happened over centuries of selection.
The effect of selection has been nothing short of amazing when it comes
to the changes it has effected. Charles Darwin first recognized that our
current plants and animals were the result of "... a kind of Selection,
.... which results from every one trying to possess and breed from the
best individuals..." and that the changes have been so great that
"... in a vast number of cases, we cannot recognize ... the wild
parent-stocks of the plants which have been longest cultivated in our
flower and kitchen-gardens."
Not unexpectedly, such changes have also altered the DNA. In first place,
plants are continuously altered by the effects of transposable elements
jumping in and out of genes, where they "can alter gene-expression
or serve as sites of chromosome breakage or rearrangement (Wessler,
2001, Plant Physiol, 125:1490151) just like transgenes, and without ill
effects to the plants or those of us who consume them. In addition, retrotransposons
continuously insert themselves between genes (San Miguel et al., 1996.
Science 274:765-768). Because retrotranspon sequences are found in current
EST databases, we know that their movement was not just a thing of the
past, but something that continues to the present.
All this means that different varieties of the same crop differ greatly
in the amounts of DNA they have, and I do mean greatly. For example, different
varieties of maize can differ by as much as 42% in their DNA content;
different varieties of chili pepper differ by 25%, and different soybean
varities differ by 12% (Graham et al., 1994. Theor. Appl. Genet. 88:429-432;
Mukherjee & Sharma, 1990. Proc. Indian Acad Sci. 100:1-6; Rayburn
et al., 1989. J. Exp. Bot. 40:1179-1183). By my calculations, the difference
between the most different soybean varieties is over 100 million base
pairs compared to the thousand or so base pairs a transgene would
add to a genome. The take home lesson here is that plants can maintain
their integrity even when their DNA appears to be surprisingly fluid.
Furthermore, different individuals of the same species differ by the
number of transposon and retrotransposons they contain, a phenomenon vividly
illustrated by Fu & Dooner (2002. PNAS 99:9673-9578). While this finding
was not altogether unexpected, the most relevant finding by Fu & Dooner
is that different individuals within the same species do not even have
to have the same number of genes.
Again, this result is not altogether surprising, cytoplasmic male sterility
in a variety of plants is known to result from the creation of novel genes
in the mitochondria along with novel fertility restorer genes in the nucleus
(Schnable and Wise, 1998, Trends Plant Sci 3:175-180). The bottom line
is that individuals within a species can tolerate different gene numbers
without endangering the animals that consume them.
A final argument made is that plant breeding does not involve transfer
of DNA between non-related organisms. While such a statement is true,
it must also be acknowledged that DNA of unrelated species does get transferred
and incorporated into plant genomes anyway, to the extent that adding
foreign gene sequences via genetic engineering cannot be considered unnatural
or anomalous. For example, plantain bananas contain the genome of the
banana streak virus, rice contains sequences of the rice tungro bacilliform
virus, and tomato has sequences from tobacco vein clearing virus. Some
tobaccos even have genes from Agrobacterium rhizogenes (reviewed in Harper
et al., 2002. Annu. Rev. Phytopathol. 40:119-136). The true extent of
such horizontal gene transfer will become more apparent as additional
genomes are sequenced.
It is high time to stop conjuring imaginary and unsubstantiated dangers
associated with genetic engineering. In the end, if DNA rearrangements
in plant gnomes routinely endangered the health and safety of those that
consume plants, there would be no animal life on this planet.
A side message to Fthr. Lesseps: As a fellow Catholic I will pray to
our lord Jesus Christ, that he will soften your heart, so that you can
do everything in your power to help your fellow Zambians who are facing
starvation, rather than exercise "self-restraint" like Ignatius,
even if it means letting the world continue with "all the suffering,
struggle, waste, and loss that have occurred." Quite frankly, I really
do not believe you understand the true teachings of Jesus, for whom love
and respect and help to fellow humans in need was an integral part of
his teaching. May the Holy Spirit come to be with you.