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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 pregnancy.

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 spirituality.

Judaeo-Christian creation spirituality and GMOs A fundamental principle to guide us in our reflection about GMOs is that all of God’s 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. God’s 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 creature."

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 God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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., <katc@zamtel.zm> 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.