Scientists have sought to address a global vitamin-A deficiency by creating genetically engineered bananas. They will arrive in the U.S. soon for their first human trial.
Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip revealed that these bananas “are fortified with crucial alpha- and beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A.”
Lack of vitamin A can result in early blindness, pregnancy-related problems and, in some cases, death, Phillip reported, citing a World Health Organization fact sheet.
James Dale, a professor at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, is heading up the project.
A QUT press release noted that the bananas are “expected to lift the health and well-being of millions of Ugandans and other East Africans.”
While the positive results could be far-reaching, this latest breakthrough raises the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and, specifically, genetically modified food (GM food) yet again.
Techniques to modify plants and animals have been around for centuries. The Bible has a story about selective breeding in Genesis 30, in which Jacob separated certain sheep from Laban’s flock in order to produce stronger offspring.
While selective breeding, hybridization via cross pollination and genetic engineering share the goal of creating plants or animals with more desirable traits, there are significant differences.
As Discovery.com explains, “Genetic modification changes the DNA pattern of an organism to help create a new organism with desirable traits,” whereas “in selective breeding, two members of the same species are paired as breeding partners in order to encourage desirable characteristics in the offspring.”
PBS Nova notes that some have called hybridization “crude genetic engineering,” yet hybridization is the cross-pollination of two species of plants, while genetic engineering “is the process of breaking the natural boundaries that exist between species to produce new life forms that will produce a variety of desired traits.”
PBS Nova has also compiled a pros and cons list about GM foods, as shared by advocates on both sides of the discussion.
Some pros include:
âˆ’ Longer shelf life
âˆ’ Lower in sugars and saturated fats
âˆ’ Higher nutrient levels
âˆ’ Greater resistance to pests resulting in lower herbicide usage
âˆ’ Increased resistance to freezing temperatures
A few cons include:
âˆ’ Introduction of new allergens
âˆ’ Antibiotic-resistant genes present in many GM foods
âˆ’ Small farms driven out of business by larger GM food-producing groups
âˆ’ Increased reliance on monocultures (a single crop grown over a wide area), which is more vulnerable to disease and pests
âˆ’ Potential negative environmental impact, including reduction of species and creation of “superbugs” resistant to pesticides
The World Health Organization has also compiled answers to 20 common questions about GM foods, which explains some items in the above lists.
The debates will continue, as people on both sides make valid points. The way forward for Christians is to read the research in favor of and opposed to GM foods and then turn to the biblical witness to reflect on the data.
While GM foods are not mentioned, several texts can provide a framework for evaluating this practice.
First, Genesis 1-2 sets forth an unequivocal call for humanity to both care for and cultivate the earth.
GM foods allow higher crop yields, yet, as noted by the Harvard School of Public Health, their environmental impact remains uncertain.
Cultivating the earth using new technology fulfills half of the Genesis imperative, but this must be done through practices that care for creation.
For example, for a few years higher crop yields can result from ignoring the well-established practices of crop rotation and allowing fields to lie fallow, yet the long-term negative consequences will outweigh the short-term benefits.
Second, throughout the Bible–from the law or instructions (see Deuteronomy 15) and the prophets (see Jeremiah 7), to the gospels (see Matthew 25) and the letters (see James 2)–there is a continual call to care for the poor.
GM foods, such as the newly created bananas, make it possible to provide higher crop yields with increased nutrients to areas of the world where malnutrition is a leading issue.
Yet, the possible side effects of new allergens, antibiotic resistant genes and “superbugs” should be factored in as well.
Once again, seeking to address a pressing issue through means that have short-term benefits but long-term negative consequences would be counterproductive and would violate this biblical call to care for the poor.
At the present, there is not enough evidence to make a definitive statement either way. GM foods hold great promise, but more research is needed to determine the possible costs.