God & GMOs: What about “glyphosate” and Cancer?

Welcome to Part 6 of God & GMOs, a series I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the IntroductionPart 1: The Gospel, Part 2: What is a GMO?, Part 3: “Do Your Research, Part 4:  Pursuing Truth, and Part 5: The “Big Ag” Industry so you can say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!
Be sure to subscribe by email (on the right hand side of the screen —-> over there) so you don’t miss an entry!
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If you’ve heard much about GMO crops, you may know that lots of people articulate specific concern about their association with glyphosate. Y’all that is a Big Word and things that sound sciency and end in -ite or -ate like that can seem extra scary sometimes. Here is the lowdown on glyphosate, why it is associated with GMO crops, why it can be a useful tool in agriculture, why it is not something to be scared of, and why we sometimes use it in our own personal garden and lawn care (where we grow some of our own food, and our children and dog play).

What is Glyphosate? 
Glyphosate is an herbicide. It is used to kill broadleaf plants, which makes it an effective weed controller in modern farming. It is not the only herbicide used in farming these days, but it is one of the more popular ones because it hits a really good sweet spot of safety and effectiveness. This was first marketed by Monsanto under their brand name “Round-Up,” but their patent has expired and many companies now distribute glyphosate and genetically modified glyphosate-tolerant crop seeds. Glyphosate is far less toxic than many of the chemical inputs it replaced, or even those currently allowed under the USDA-Organic program, and because scientists figured out how to genetically modify some crops to withstand it, much of the GMO canola and soybeans in the USA are “Round-Up Ready.” This means a farmer could spray their field of Round-Up Ready soybeans with Round-Up if he or she felt it was necessary, and could do so with less time and energy than many other herbicide options available. Not all Round-Up Ready crops are necessarily sprayed with Round-Up, but they’re developed to keep that option open. It’s cheaper for the farmer to not spray if they can get away with it, but when it is needed the Round-Up used is equivalent to one soda can worth of glyphosate per acre. (That’s more land than I have around my house here, and we have, by far, the biggest yard of anyone we know in town.) Because it’s one of the safest, strongest herbicides available today, we’ve used glyphosate to get our (non-GMO) yards and gardens straightened out in all three houses we’ve owned and we’re perfectly comfortable with our kids and dog running around there after it dries. 

Why is glyphosate controversial? 
Using effective herbicides like Round-Up is one way farmers can practice no-till farming, which is an important component of soil conservation for sustainable agriculture. But… if you look this up online, most of the information available is confusing and misleading. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO IARC) did a data analysis on a small number of the many studies on glyphosate, and in March 2015 they categorized it as a “probable carcinogen.” Because so many of the GMO crops grown in the US are part of the “Round-Up Ready” system, this moved many bloggers and anti-biotech activists to claim that GMOs cause cancer.

Does glyphosate (or “Round-Up”) actually cause cancer?
There are a few problems with this, but I want to say from the start: Cancer is no joke. Both of my grandmothers died from colon cancer, and several other older family members have experienced skin cancer and things like that. It seemed like last year was a really awful season of cancer in the people we know; I mentioned to Aaron that my facebook felt a little bit more like cancerbook. From afar I watched while a friend from college sat on the hospital floor cradling her son through his -ultimately successful- chemotherapy. (I remember cheering when he was born, maybe six years ago?) Two mothers died in agony, leaving families, spouses, and a combined five children. Three moms (two of them grandmothers) are in remission.  A friend lost his sister and lives with his own tumor chemo didn’t eradicate, so we pray it’s at least stable, but do you ever really know? A father died right before his only daughter’s graduation. Another father heals and gets to watch his three kids grow up. A grandfather is in his last stretch of suffering, but will probably die any day now. And then the old haunting picture of the grandma I named my girl after, gaunt, limp, barely cradling my infant niece in her last days pops up on my screen saver – I still cry when I see it. This suffering is not something I speak of flippantly. 

The IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” sounds scary, and if your personal life includes any of the cancer exposure mine has, it’s not something you’d want to mess around with at all. But many other organizations around the world don’t consider it to be a contributing factor in cancer at all, and if you dig into the actual information from the WHO you will see that the IARC’s risk classifications put people who would apply glyphosate all day, every day in the same cancer risk category as people who work night shift, drink hot beverages, or work in a hair salon. They also don’t think realistic exposure from eating crops that were sprayed with that teeny bit of glyphosate shows any increased health risks for consumers. I don’t worry that getting my hair cut will increase my risk of cancer even though my hairdresser’s constant exposure to all those sprays and fumes might increase hers a bit. I don’t worry that a midnight trip to the ER would increase my risk of cancer even though the night shift nurses might have an increased risk over their lifetime. I don’t worry about my exposure to glyphosate, which could come through eating genetically modified foods as part of my balanced diet or my yard, and I don’t think anyone else needs to be particularly worried about it either. 

Does spraying those Round-Up Ready crops cause superweeds?
Well, yes. It can. Just like some infections can become “superbugs” that resist antibiotics, some weeds can become “superweeds” that resist herbicides. But weed resistance is a problem with other herbicides and other farming practices, too. It’s not unique to genetically modified crops or any certain chemical application. We can read in Genesis that the earth is full of thorn and thistles along with our food. We know that the only full solution to this is Jesus’ return, not in any specific farming practice or technological advance. The existence of superweeds should give us reason to be prudent but it’s not a reason to avoid using herbicides or pesticides all together.

Where can I read more about glyphosate safety and cancer incidence? 
For further reading, you could check out Is Glyphosate Dangerous? and What Does Farming Without Glyphosate Look Like?
There’s also some interesting and very recent reporting about the incomplete studies the WHO used to study glyphosate from Reuters. For follow-up, this response from the IARC is available as well.
God & GMOs

Thanks so much for reading – I hope this is helpful for you all. I’ll be back soon to talk about what on earth is going on with farming and GMOs here and around the world!

God & GMOs: The “Big Ag” Industry

Welcome to Part 5 of God & GMOs, a series I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the IntroductionPart 1: The Gospel, Part 2: What is a GMO?, Part 3: “Do Your Research, and Part 4:  Pursuing Truth, so you can say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!
Be sure to subscribe by email (on the right hand side of the screen —-> over there) so you don’t miss an entry!

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Many people with reservations about GMOs have told me something like this: “I’m skeptical because I don’t trust big business; I think the agricultural industry is all a political game at this point.” They’re talking about the big crop development companies and the negative stigmas surrounding profits, patents, labeling, and various licensing practices of the “Big Ag” development industry, and they’re talking about the prevalence of large, industrial farms with concerns about monoculture farming (growing large amounts of fewer crops) and various chemical treatments like herbicides and pesticides. Monsanto is the most notorious company (and the target of much anti-biotech hatred), but there are other big companies like Dow AgroScience, Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, and BASF. There are also numerous small companies, like the one Aaron works for, which develop crop lines using the same technology and sell to farmers on a smaller scale.

I’ll say from the start: Aaron does not work for Monsanto. We think they are a great company and personally know many people who do work there. We go to church with them, visit the zoo with them, babysit each other’s kids, and eat dinner together. They’re good people. As far as I can tell, the most we’ve ever gotten from the company itself was a reusable grocery bag Aaron picked up at some conference, which I now use every week at Aldi. (I’m trying to work up the nerve to take it into Trader Joe’s, or maybe even… Whole Foods. Pray for me.) But if you search for GMOs on any social media or online search, or even bring it up in conversation, you’re likely to hear a lot of negative things (and many flat-out lies) about this company. We hear this negativity in person a lot, too. Since Aaron’s employer is smaller and not well-known, we usually say he leads a team of scientists in biotech development without naming the company (because no one’s heard of it before), and many people have said, “But not Monsanto, right!? They’re the bad ones!” This isn’t just idle words for some anti-GMO activists, who coordinate massive protests and marches as part of the “March Against Monsanto” movement. (I assume they pick on Monsanto over other companies because their name is most easily changed to spell “Satan.”)

Though they’re all working in the same field toward the same ultimate goal of providing food for people, the “Big Ag” players are essentially direct competitors of my husband’s employer. I’m not on anyone’s payroll to say this (it’s the opposite, actually, since I’m paying for childcare), and a giant turn of cultural affection towards Monsanto, Pioneer, BASF, or anyone else wouldn’t necessarily benefit Aaron’s work in a measurable way. But I’m especially burdened that there’s a lot of vitriol coming from Christians towards companies that, frankly, do not deserve the hate. Just this week I have seen two different friends (people I know in my real life) making snarky and destructive comments online denigrating various biotech development companies and employees – before or after sharing Bible verses and other Christian material. The New Testament speaks to this, even more sharply than I recollected initially: “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:8-10) When it comes to what we say about scientists and farmers and companies, big or small, we should be careful that our words are true and that they do not contradict our profession of faith.

Many of the negative things I’ve heard and seen about Monsanto have been proven false with a very quick fact check. Most of us are not very connected to farmers and the food production industry at all, so I’m going to talk a little bit today about how these “Big Ag” companies work and why we don’t need to feed on extra cynicism about the agricultural industry.

Contracts, patents, and “saving seeds.”
Farmers of all kinds have lots of options for working with different companies, and there are plenty of ways to grow non-GMO crops. These “Big Ag” companies are in business because hard-working farmers choose to purchase from them year after year. One such farmer in Indiana wrote about his contract with Monsanto for growing their crops here.   An Iowa farmer wrote about how he decides which seeds to purchase for his 500 acre operation. Another family farmer with 1400 acres of cattle and crops in Kansas wrote about discerning fact from fiction about Monsanto here – many of the things I was going to list in this post are already there, so I’m not going to reiterate them!

Many people like to criticize the patent and licensing regulations that go along with purchasing these seeds, saying we shouldn’t patent crops or that it’s wrong for a company to forbid saving and sharing seeds. It’s important to consider that patents and licensing rights are a way to protect and reward the intellectual property of the developers. As Christians we can read scriptures like I Timothy 5:18 that tell us “the laborer deserves his wages,” and even stronger statements from the Old Testament that say withholding money from someone who has already worked for it is equivalent to theft, like Leviticus 19:13. While the current system is far from perfect, it is not immoral to require payment for a service rendered. I’d argue that it’s actually immoral to demand the fruit of someone’s labor without compensating them.

When certain farm contracts require farmers not to reuse seeds, trade them, or collect them for replanting, we should think about the legal use of most other creative products. Back when we had CD’s, you weren’t supposed to burn copies of a CD to hand out to all your friends. You’re not supposed to print off extra copies of books for profit or download pictures from the internet without permission of the creator. We have legal guidelines about the use of all sorts of products – this isn’t unique to crops and farming. I’ve also found that most of this is a manufactured controversy in the first place, because farmers don’t really want to save seeds anyway. It’s extremely laborious and time consuming, and after all that work the yield of saved seeds is not nearly as effective as growing new seeds. These contract rules aren’t always limited to GMO crop seeds, either. Farmers can certainly seek seeds from distributors who don’t have requirements about where and how you can plant, but these big businesses are still running because so many farmers choose to operate within their rules.

Are Big Companies out to ruin Small Farmers?
I also dug in to claims I’ve heard about Monsanto suing other farmers for accidental cross-pollination with Monsanto products, and found the landmark case — farmer Percy Schmeiser in Canada claiming his entire canola field was contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola, which you may have seen in the movie “Food, Inc.” — was basically a joke. You can read the Canadian Federal Court decisions (March 2001September 2002) and the final Canadian Supreme Court decision (May 2004) for details, but it seems like this guy’s implausible story keeps changing through his legal journey and the courts didn’t rule favorably for him on any point. His story just does not hold up and there haven’t been any other examples of GMO crops contaminating entire fields like he claimed. Governments are not infallible and some may argue this is further indication of political-industrial corruption, but we ought to be just as skeptical over the unsupported claims of a lone farmer and a documentary as we are towards bigger groups of people. It’s also worth pointing out that when Monsanto does win a court case over a contract violation (which has happened all 9 times they have been to trial in the last 10 years – hardly a significant amount compared to 3+ million contracts they have had with farmers during this time), their legal action protects the interests of the farmers who do abide by the legal guidelines and the lawsuit proceeds are donated to charity, not lining their pockets.

Why does this matter?
Like I discussed earlier, truth always matters for Christians. While the average grocery shopper has the rare privilege, compared to history and much of the world still today, of purchasing food without much concern for how it came to be there, those of us who wonder about our food and it’s development should be careful to find full, faithful information to answer our questions. And when the Bible tells us that the devil is the father of lies, and is like a prowling lion bent on destruction, we should expect to be confronted with smooth and appealing deception. We should also be very cautious about sharing, spreading, or passively approving things that aren’t true, as this is sin and it damages others (as well as our Christian witness).

But it also matters because, believe it or not, the cultural stigmas and activist criticism that leads to more governmental regulation of these big companies actually just places further burdens on smaller companies, which creates incentive for bigger companies to merge and leaves fewer players on the field. (This part might possibly be a conflict of interest, but… it’s coming from a place of love!) The fact is that biotechnology isn’t going anywhere. In many ways, GMOs are here to stay, and I think it’s better to keep these powerful tools in the hands of many different groups for maximum benefit to farmers and consumers. It’s a fair guess that big companies like Monsanto or Syngenta will be able to weather whatever regulatory burdens come their way, but smaller companies will not always be able to do that. Someone who really hates Monsanto would probably be better off fighting for less regulatory burden on crop developers, so smaller companies could grow quicker and new start-ups could get off the ground easier for greater flourishing in collaboration and competition among biotech developers.

God & GMOs
If you’re reading this and still thinking, “Okay, but what about that pesticide, glyphosate, with the brand-name Round-Up? Doesn’t it cause cancer?” or you’re wondering what to make of the large industrial farming side of this discussion, I’ve got you covered. Stay tuned! 

 

 

God & GMOs: Pursuing Truth

Welcome to Part 4 of God & GMOs, a series I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the IntroductionPart 1: The Gospel, Part 2: What is a GMO?, or Part 3: “Do Your Research” and say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!
Be sure to subscribe by email (on the right hand side of the screen —-> over there) so you don’t miss an entry!

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We talked last time about the scientific method and a little bit about how peer-reviewed research works in the scientific community today. I think there are some important ways we need to approach cultural topics like this one as Christians, too.

One of my biggest concerns about the trend of Christian suspicion towards agriculture and biotech is how quickly people let cultural stigmas drive their opinions instead of taking their thoughts captive and pursuing truth. In the Bible we read that everyone is fallen (Romans 3:23) and no one can perfectly know everything (1 Corinthians 13:12). We also see that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), which is (hopefully) the theme of my discussion here – I love people who disagree with me, and I want to host this discussion with charity and honor towards all. But we also read that scripture continually upholds wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, in direct contrast to admonishing foolishness, ignorance, and the “simple man.” There is no way to read Proverbs, for example, and assume that pursuing truth is “optional” for a Christian. There is no way to look at Jesus, who reveals himself as Truth (John 14:6), and take a casual attitude about falsehood.

There are definitely Christians who write online about natural living and specifically condemn GMO crops, but there is also a larger group of people (many of whom are likely in the numbers listed by that Pew Study I referenced in my Introduction) that say they think GMOs are dangerous simply because they have heard other people say it. Maybe they have seen labels in the grocery store that made them consider a non-GMO food item to be a safer or superior choice. Maybe they’ve seen confusing posts on social media, watched a misleading documentary, or read something negative in a magazine.

I think the Bible offers us a better way to filter information than just immediately believing what we see or hear, and I think this compels us to responsibly pursue truth even when the answers are hard.  I absolutely understand how confusing it is to know what’s reliable with all the information floating around, but that doesn’t give us a free pass on figuring out what’s right. It’s popular right now to discuss “nuanced” views of some topic or another, but the Bible calls it “discernment.” Let’s be careful, discerning people. If you care enough about science and the food industry to be concerned about GMOs, consider that the validity of your information (especially if you are promoting your views to others!) really does have significance to the God who made all things, sustains all things, and abhors all falsehood so much that he made “Do Not Lie” one of the Ten Commandments.

So before you spend extra money on groceries to “avoid GMOs” (or feel uneasy about “not feeding your family the best”), before you post something against GMO crops or agricultural developers (like Monsanto) on social media, before you pipe up in group settings or discuss this with your friends, consider if your lifestyle information has been filtered through some of the counsel of scripture:

Proverbs 6:16-19 “There are six things that the Lord hates: …a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” Are you watching for lies in your reading, just as much as looking for truth? Remember that lies are smooth, subtle, and appealing. Does what you’re reading lines up with the principles of the gospel, or does it subtly idealize nature, or tell you that certain food choices are holier, or  make you think that Eden (Creation) or Mount Zion (Heaven) are basically attainable right now? And does this information bring freedom, or does it bring shame to others who “just don’t see it the same way”? Does it give you a sense of superiority to “feed your family better” than someone who hasn’t read the same things as you? Would someone who shops differently feel insecure or shamed because of your attitude about food? Are you hesitant to eat food others offer because it might not be up to your standards? Are you hesitant to host meals because you can’t afford to feed company with your more expensively sourced groceries?

Proverbs 18:17 “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” As you read or hear about GMOs, science, and farming practices, are you listening to the same kinds of negative voices (like podcasts or magazine articles from lay people), or are you looking for what positive scientists and farmers have to say, too? If you’re watching documentaries, are you willing to take a few moments to check the facts and sources presented there?

Proverbs 23:12 “Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge.” Are you willing to work hard to understand answers about your questions, looking to people who are credible teachers? (Sadly, being a published author or an internet personality does not mean someone is a credible teacher these days.) Or are you listening to voices that validate your ignorance? (Like, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!”)

Proverbs 25:18 “A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a war club, or a sword, or a sharp arrow.”  We’ve met fellow Christians in every laboratory and department Aaron’s been a part of during the past 14 years. We know believers working in all roles of many different agricultural companies. We know Christians who are proud to farm genetically modified crops. Have you considered how negative words about GMOs, scientists, industry developers, and farmers, might be bearing false witness against others, especially those in the household of God?

God & GMOs

When we have concerns about scientific advances (and as I’ll tell you later, the Hummels do have them) scripture compels us to use faithful, reliable sources for our information because we serve the God who defines Truth. Of course, eating GMOs or not isn’t a test of our faith… not. at. all. But I want to encourage everyone to consider that our attitude about sources (and the way we act on them) matters, especially for Christians, because Jesus is the source of all things. The influence of our personal opinion matters because we want to leave people with a more beautiful understanding of Jesus than of our food choices. As we stake our lives together on the Truth that God reveals in his word and his Son, we can celebrate by pursuing truth and wisdom in the rest of our lives, too.

God & GMOs: “Do Your Research”

Welcome to Part 3 of God & GMOs, a series I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the IntroductionPart 1: The Gospel, or Part 2: What is a GMO? and say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!
Be sure to subscribe by email (on the right hand side of the screen —-> over there) so you don’t miss an entry!
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When you start asking questions about something like GMOs, the most common refrain you’ll hear is “Do your research.” The availability of information today is astounding. The collective wisdom of the known world is available in the palm of our hand. 

But the collective foolishness of the world is there, too. Anyone can write anything on the internet, and scientists (in academia and in the bigger industrial corporations) drastically underestimated the power of social media for steering the conversation about GMO crops. It’s frustrating to know how much information is swirling through the internet, especially in blogs, podcasts, and documentaries. If you’re browsing Netflix documentaries or typing your questions about GMOs into a search bar you’ll find lots of information that could very well be wrong. This freedom and availability of information is wonderful, but it comes with serious responsibilities. Fair or not, another equally important question that absolutely must accompany our previous concerns is: How can I find reliable explanations about GMOs? What’s a good source for my information?

My biggest problem with “do your research” cultural pressure is that there’s a specific end in mind, always opposed to scientific consensus: Do your research, and you’ll see that Big Ag/Pharma/Medicine is corrupt and I have found the superior way. It carries the implication that anyone who follows the conventional path is “uninformed.” In reality, anyone can write a blog, even about topics they don’t know much about. (I hesitated to write this series for years because I’m describing myself there, too.) Anyone can make a documentary. Anyone can craft a clever meme or infographic. Many of these “alternative sources” about science are just as biased and arrogant as they accuse professional scientists of being.

Aaron’s biggest problem with that phrase is that it’s a misuse of the word “research.” As someone whose life work is in scientific research and development, he’ll tell you that reading things on the internet is not scientific research. A frantic Google search is not equivalent to a series of laboratory tests or the body of work necessary to earn an advanced degree. This is an important distinction.

The Scientific Method & Scientific Research Today.
Do you remember science fairs from school? I do, because (believe it or not!) I actually won a competition during my junior year of high school. I did a lame project that took me an hour and I tell you the truth, I just copied-and-pasted the report requirements from an email into a Word Document to fill in my results. Many of the other entries came as the result of an entire semester’s worth of hard work, in some cases from students who have since become medical doctors. My project was not “high school science fair winning” caliber, but I won because I followed the scientific method. I scrupulously documented my observations, hypothesis, experiment, and results so the judges could figure out what was happening and could replicate the experiment to see if my findings were consistent. My classmates worked harder than me, but they were sloppy with their research and couldn’t answer some of the judges’ questions. I’ll confess that winning didn’t feel great. My physics teacher and another judge chided us all: me, for not coming up with a harder project, and everyone else for not documenting their research appropriately.

This gives us a helpful way to work through “anti-GMO studies” and “pro-GMO studies.” When Aaron publishes research, which is the professional grown-up version of a science fair project, he spends years working 60+ hours a week of compiling data, organizing it, and collaborating with his partners before sending the report to a “journal,” or an academic publishing team. A while later, he’ll receive a bunch of comments from a team of editors and blind reviewers acting as “science fair judges” with questions, criticisms, or recommendations to tackle before the research can make it to publication. (EDIT: Michelle, a professional scientist, explains further in the comments “My clarification would be this: those “editors and blind reviewers” are other scientists in the field, meaning colleagues and competitors. The reviewers are especially knowledgeable and invested in the quality of work being performed and published, because this work shapes the body of knowledge in their field. The very currency of their profession is critical thinking and their mantra is “show me the data.” In short, these are not a group of easily convinced or impressed peers. One’s research must be well supported by evidence in order to earn publication.”) The group seeking publication must meticulously record their methods, materials, and procedures. If another group repeats their project and gets different results it could have disastrous consequences for their academic and professional credibility.

When I look at anti-GMO sources, they usually paint the scientific community as a bully clique group trying to keep the truth hidden for their own profit, and say that the “powerful” scientists are suppressing studies showing GMOs to be harmful (or something like that). In reality scientists are only as prone to corruption and greed as any of us, and the community polices itself using a firm commitment to the scientific method, and the necessity of collaboration and peer review. So far the anti-GMO studies have not demonstrated anything that passes the muster of other scientists.

A good example of this is work from Gilles-Eric Seralini, a scientist from France who published a paper claiming GMO corn and the popular herbicide glyphosate (brand name “Round Up”) were associated with terrible tumors in his laboratory rats.  This study was later retracted after criticism from the scientific community as a whole concerning poor methods (he used a breed of rats that were inappropriate for this study because of their natural propensity to develop huge tumors), his changing hypothesis, and his obscure control groups (there were not enough rats in the control group and their feeding plan was not sufficient to compare them to rats eating GMO corn). As the spouse of a scientist, I’ll tell it to you straight: these folks don’t mess around. If they can poke a hole in an argument or find something wrong with a method or conclusion, they will, and they aren’t really worried about hurting anyone’s feelings in the process. The ways the scientific community responded to Seralini’s poor research with legitimate, reasonable criticisms gives me quite a bit of confidence in the process of scientific publication and peer review. Still, I see this guy’s work touted on social media and in “natural living” blogs as evidence against GMO crops on a regular basis.

Reading “Real” Science Research. 
The catch for most people here is that you have to pay to look at most of the studies published in reputable journals. If you want to look at the research scientists are doing in this field, you can search online but the reliability of free (or “open access”) studies varies widely. They aren’t all bad, but the limitations can be different. (Don’t hate too hard on scientists for this, though, because it is standard across all disciplines. My friend who is an English professor was just lamenting about paid access to research published in her field, too.)  If you don’t want to shell out money to read technical scientific publications, you would be wise to check out some science journalists and other groups who are reading these studies and talking about them.

Some excellent sources would be The Genetic Literacy Project and the Talking Biotech Podcast. We’re ecstatic about the upcoming documentary called Food Evolution. The Skeptical Raptor blog also has a wealth of DOCUMENTED information about discerning scientific sources, and is worth clicking around in as well.

God & GMOs

Thanks for reading! If you want to chat, I’d love to know how YOU evaluate sources for your information. Do you read blogs? Watch documentaries? Do you fact check much? Is that important to you?  

If you missed anything, check out the IntroductionPart 1: The Gospel, and Part 2: What is a GMO? to get up to speed. I’ll be back soon with some practical application of scripture and the Christian community’s responsibility to practice discernment and uphold truth in all aspects of life! 

 

God & GMOs: What is a GMO?

(Welcome to Part 2 of my new series God & GMOs, which I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the Introduction or Part 1: The Gospel and maybe say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!) Untitled Design (3)

After reviewing the foundation of the gospel and arming ourselves with some important Biblical truths, it’s time to start asking questions about science. What is a GMO? How is it made? Are GMOs safe for eating? Why do we need GMOs when we have other ways to breed crops? These are great questions, and I’m glad people ask them. 

There are lots of different people talking about GMOs, but there are also lots of ideas about what makes something a GMO (or not). Different countries and different international research groups use slightly different definitions, and this is one of the many reasons this conversation is so hard.

The shorthand “GMO” means “Genetically Modified Organism.” It sounds weird, but the most important thing you need to know is that a GMO is a fruit, vegetable, or grain. It’s planted in the ground and grown like any other crop. The “genetic modification” for a GMO crop happens before planting, when a seed or crop line is developed in a laboratory using biotechnology for a cisgenic or transgenic DNA transfer to improve the genetic code. It makes perfect sense, right? …maybe not. Basically, scientists have figured out how to precisely combine one or two portions of DNA into a plant genome in order to produce a plant that has a specific desired trait. (Here’s a video explanation of the process to make GMO papaya, if you want a visual aid!) Sometimes this happens with genes from two plants that could be conventionally bred (which is called a “cisgenic modification”), and sometimes it happens between genes that wouldn’t combine in nature (or “transgenic modification”). Sometimes scientists can “silence” or “delete” a gene within a single plant, and though this uses some of the same biotechnology tools, those aren’t always considered GMO.

Why make GMO crops?
Scientists like genetic engineering because it’s more precise than traditional crop breeding, since it takes just the exact DNA that it needs for the resulting plant without having to account for other DNA crosses that would happen in typical breeding. Even though it’s still a lot of work, these tools can produce the desired plant traits in about half the time of older methods, so it’s quicker, too.

What is the purpose of GMO crops?

GMO crops are developed for many different reasons, including drought tolerance (so a farmer can still provide food even if it doesn’t rain much), resistance to pesticide or herbicide so a farmer can more effectively manage the field, expressing genes that will make the plant naturally undesirable to pests to avoid using chemical applications, increased yield, or improved nutrition. In the field, they tend to produce more food per acre and do so with less chemical applications than their non-GMO siblings. (In recent years it still looks like GMO crop fields’ overall toxicity screens remained similar or lower than non-GMO fields.) 

Are GMO crops safe?
Despite the claims of naysayers, GMO crops have been rigorously tested for safety in animal and human consumption for as long as I’ve been alive, and the full counsel of multiple studies is that GMO crops are as safe or safer than non-GMO crops for human consumption.

What is the difference between GMO crops and non-GMO crops?
While it’s developed differently from a “conventional” plant, the final GMO product is usually indistinguishable from it’s non-GMO sibling. The FDA considers them “substantially equivalent,” but the precision and purpose of genetic modification means that if there’s a difference in nutrition or quality, the GMO has the upper hand.

What GMO crops are available for sale in the US?
The GMO products available in the US today are limited to corn, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa (for animal feed, not those sprouts for the top of your salad), sugar beets, canola, papaya, potato, and squash. Pretty soon we’ll be able to buy GMO apples that won’t brown quite so quickly after you cut them open. (Source: FDA Consumer Info about Food from Genetically Engineered Plants) 

Can GMO technology benefit threatened plants and croplines? 
Because it is so precise and so much faster than traditional breeding, GMO technology can preserve plant lines that would otherwise be destroyed, even to the point of extinction, by natural factors (stemming from that curse on the ground in Genesis 3), like disease, drought, and destructive predators. If you watched the earlier video, you’ll note that papaya was genetically modified to resist ringspot virus, which essentially saved papaya from extinction in Hawaii. There are significant concerns today about various problems facing the American Chestnut tree, bananas, cassava, and citrus (Florida citrus production is at a 50-year low due to citrus greening), among others, and scientists are frantically trying to get ahead in enough time to preserve these foods for the benefit of farmers and consumers alike.

Can GMO technology work on anything besides crops?
The technology that makes GMO crops is also used to develop medicine with virtually no controversy (insulin, extremely promising cancer treatments to replace and supplement traditional chemotherapy, etc.). Research is also happening using genetic modification in human embryos with shockingly less controversy, in my observation, among Christians than the general uproar over GMO crops.

Aren’t GMOs “unnatural”? Why not use traditional breeding methods? 
GMOs are not the only big (and “unnatural”) improvement in crop development
. Farmers and scientists (and sometimes even just nature, in ways we don’t always understand) have been improving the crops that we eat since the beginning of time. (Doesn’t this sound like that “Cultural Mandate” to tend the earth and establish ways of life?) Some of the other crop development techniques used today include cross-breeding, mutagenesis, polyploidy, and protoplast fusion. Do you know what those are, off the top of your head? Probably not. (I wouldn’t, either.) There isn’t a lot of uproar about those things, even though they are also fairly “unnatural.” To an untrained scientist like me, their definitions seem just as unnerving: Induced chromosomal manipulation? That’s polyploidy breeding. Blasting a group of parent plants with radiation and then breeding whichever plants mutate into the desirable traits for the next generation, which ends up on our plates? That’s mutagenesis. These crops are subject to the same rigorous safety testing, which demonstrates we can eat these foods with just as much confidence. No one’s stirring up anti-mutagenesis sentiment in modern consumers, as far as I can tell, even though that one (which is allowed within the framework of the USDA Organic program) seems the freakiest to me. Still, “cisgenic or transgenic DNA transfer” sounds a little bit less concerning if you set it up next to those things. (Source: The Genetic Literacy Project “How does Genetic Engineering differ from Conventional Breeding?)

Should we identify GMO foods?
We’ll discuss the facets of GMO labeling requirements in a post later. But it’s important to note that we don’t define any other produce by their breeding or development process. If you eat delicious grapefruit every February and March like I do, you’re very likely eating a “mutagenesized organism.” Have you ever seen a grapefruit with a “mutagenesis” (or “non-mutagenesis”) label? When you compare this to the other ways we develop crops, it seems that calling genetically modified food “GMO” is very much a cultural construct and not a scientific one. 

I’ve purposefully left many points for later discussion and I’m sure more will come up as the series continues, but I’ll end here for now. We’ll be talking about the scientific method, what constitutes a “scientific study” for publication, and discerning reliable sources next. If you’re interested in doing some more reading before the next entry, we suggest the following items to tide you over. Thanks for reading, friends!

“Unhealthy Fixation” by William Saleten for Slate. 
“Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture” TedX talk by Rob Saik (20-minute video) 
GMO FAQ from the Genetic Literacy Project
(We have been impressed with the reliability of this site and they have LOTS of pictures and infographics if that is more your style!)
GMO series by Greg Peterson at the Peterson Farm Brothers (You’ll want to click on the little “next” button at the top to see the rest of the entries.)

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God & GMOs: The Gospel

(Welcome to Part 1 of my new series God & GMOs, which I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the Introduction and maybe say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t read much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!) Untitled Design (2)

To kick off this series about God & GMO’s, I want to start with looking at the Bible. Christian teachers often speak of the Bible’s big story (or “Metanarrative”), which proposes that all biblical passages are connected to the full gospel story: God’s Creation of the earth and mankind, The Fall of Man into sin, Christ’s Redemption on the cross, and the final Restoration of God’s order for eternity. Don’t we need to get on to science? to economics? to agriculture? to ethics? Yes. But I’m mostly burdened to communicate specifically to my Christian brothers and sisters here. Before we start looking at some of that stuff, I’d like to review these points because we can’t really move forward in charged conversations without a common understanding of our spiritual foundation. (If this part doesn’t concern or interest you, I’ll have some helpful links and explanations about GMOs, research standards, and the scientific method coming up soon!)

CREATION
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”(Genesis 2:15)
Mankind was created for life in a beautiful, lush garden, that was full of enough food for everyone. No one would get sick, and no one would die. In that perfect paradise, we were created to tend the plants and animals with freedom to eat from all but one tree. Mankind’s original purpose was stewarding the earth and everything in it, bearing fruit by having children and by establishing ways of life for the coming generations. (Sometimes this is called the “Cultural Mandate.”) We love beautiful plants, enjoying the outdoors, hiking, lakes, fresh food, tending gardens and animals, and “agrarian visions” of idyllic farms because that’s what we were originally made for. Everything in us was made for Eden, and I think most of us don’t realize how desperate we are to get back there.

God created the earth, plants, and animals, and called them all “good.” He created men and women uniquely in his own image, (Gen 1:26-27) and called his image bearers living in that world “very good.” This is an important way God emphasizes the dignity of all people.
(Genesis 1:1-2:24)

FALL
“…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19) 

The original people in the Garden, Adam and Eve, ate from the one tree God forbade. The fall into sin means mankind and nature are both broken, which are connected in devastating ways. God explicitly says the ground itself is cursed, and that drawing out enough food to survive will be the lifelong toil of man. We listen to the Songs for Saplings catechism CD’s with our kids and find ourselves humming the song that goes along with this point – pain and toil, pain and toil, thorns and thistles, thorns and thistles – with amazement that this is still happening every single day. Aaron experiences this when he spends himself for the projects he manages for developing crops all day, and again when he comes home to see that the germination rate of our summer garden is abysmal. Farmers here and around the world live this out even more so as they work harder than most of us can imagine. This is a huge part of my life, too, in some ways. I’m in charge of the meals and eating at our house. Even though we garden and I have every grocery store I could want (and a farmers market) within a mile or so, and always enough money to get whatever we want (not just need),  I’m constantly planning meals, shopping, preparing them, serving them, or cleaning up after them while I set up for the next one.

This fall into sin also means that relationships are broken. The primary break and conflict is between man and God, which is not fixed until Jesus’ crucifixion, but this fractures our thinking and our relationships with other people as well. In many ways we are all looking out for ourselves, even at the expense of others. Because of our fallen nature, we look for fulfillment in many different ways,  all outside of our standing with God.
 (Genesis 3)
[I discussed this at greater length for Christ and Pop Culture last summer as well.]

REDEMPTION
“…through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” (Colossians 1:20-23)
The only full redemption of the curse of sin in the fall is through Jesus, who restores our right relationship with God by dying in our place. While there are healthy and unhealthy choices we can make about eating, there are no particular kinds of foods or agricultural developments that are always sinful, and, as 1 Corinthians 8:8 says plainly, “food will not commend us to God.” The food that really matters for our spiritual state is Jesus’ body, offered in the Lord’s Supper. (Matthew 15:10-20, 1 Corinthians 8, John 6, Matthew 26:26-29)  

After Jesus resurrected and ascended into heaven, we have the promise of his return, but we are still living under the effects of sin and death on our bodies and on the earth. We are not to live our lives in fear of death, but instead look with hope for God’s promised restoration of all things.  (Hebrews 2:14-15

We also have the Holy Spirit for this age between Christ’s ascension and return. It is the Holy Spirit who develops us in unique, personal ways with spiritual gifts to build up the church and the kingdom of God in love until Jesus returns. (1 Corinthians 12-13, John 14:25-30, Ephesians 1:13-14

RESTORATION
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:20-23)
The Bible tells us the earth (and the generations of people in it) will be sustained in it’s fallen state and then restored fully with Jesus’ future return. While Christians often talk about “going up to heaven to be with Jesus when we die,” the real promise of Restoration is much bigger than that. Isaiah, 2 Peter, and Revelation talk about a “new heaven and a new earth,” and Romans 8 and I Corinthians 15 also talk about the resurrection being for creation as well as people. In the restored kingdom, or heaven, our resurrected life will be filled with food and feasting, without hunger, sickness, or death. When this happens, there will be sowing and reaping, but it will not require the toil that we’ve had since Genesis 3.
(Romans 8, I Corinthians 15, I Thessalonians 5:1-11, Isaiah 25:6-9

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Now, Christians can (and obviously do) disagree about dietary choices and genetic engineering, but as we go on, I hope you’ll see the gospel story provides ample room for the way biotechnology is advancing modern agriculture. I also hope you can learn about GMO foods and scientific progress with the firm foundation of the gospel offering hope instead of trying to figure it out from a place of fear or confusion. I’ll touch on these (and many other) parts of scripture later, too. 

God & GMOs: An Introduction

Guess what? We’re going to turn a little corner and talk about GMO crops here for the next little bit.

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It’s not a secret that I am not much of a scientist. I’m more artsy and relational and feely; my gifts include teaching and communicating. In many ways it’s a powerful blend of gifts that I write and my husband Aaron is a scientist. For anyone who doesn’t know us, he’s a Christian plant biotechnologist (with a PhD in molecular biology) who firmly believes he develops crops using complicated biotechnology (sometimes “GMO” and sometimes not) for the glory of God. We’re both proud that he’s part of the production side of modern agriculture, including using biotech for GMO crops, and we gratefully eat “genetically modified” food all the time. He’s shared about this for The Gospel Coalition and I’ve written a longer think-piece-ish article for Christ and Pop Culture. We’ve also chatted with some of our friends about this on a Vernacular podcast episode and just finished recording an interview with our friend Abigail Murrish for her current podcast series Our Midwestern Life. But talking about science often feels like speaking another language. We have realized we spend a lot of time in our nerdy head-spaces about this, and that is not always helpful for most other people. As far as I can tell, there aren’t many scientists engaging this topic with Christian culture, and the misinformation fed by social media and “mommy bloggers” is deafeningly loud. We have both sensed an urgent need to open this discussion in more accessible ways that we’ve done before. 

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing this series for a very, very long time, but it’s a big topic and I find myself both overwhelmed by the material (which is out of my depth in the technical realm), and resenting the potential for social blowback. A new friend just asked me if I struggled with an unhealthy desire to please others and I had to chuckle a little bit. A Pew Study in 2015 reported that more than half of Christians think genetically modified foods (“GMOs”) are unsafe, and even more think scientists are unclear about the health effects of GM foods. Numbers for the general public’s opinions are similar, but if anything, I was surprised the disapproval rates weren’t higher. This means anytime I tell a new friend what my husband does for a living, I’m more likely to be talking to someone who thinks he’s harming the environment and our food supply than not. Personal responses to this news have ranged between supportive (which is rare, but appreciated), neutral, skeptical, and even hostile. Pleasing people? It usually feels like that ship has sailed. Still, as I prepare these posts, I wonder how this could impact relationships. I checked in with some staff at my church to find out if this might bring up any particular challenges within our congregation. When I close my eyes I can visualize the faces of people I dearly love, people I fear alienating because I know they disagree. Will Thanksgiving be weird if our GMO-skeptic family members don’t like what I say here? Is it possible to just remove some of my email followers for a while and add them back later? Should I block a few people on facebook so they don’t get an immediate notification about this? Would someone who really needs to hear what I shared about my miscarriages be turned off by my discussion about GMOs and food production?  

An important part of critical thinking is not just asking questions about a given topic, but knowing what kinds of questions to ask. It’s fair for me to wonder about those things, but I also have to consider a host of ideas from the other side. There are risks involved in not speaking plainly about this. The more that I read and discuss my numerous resulting questions with the Hummel family Scientist in Residence, I grow increasingly convinced that skepticism and hostility towards biotech in farming (even when it comes from well-meaning sources) feeds shame, anxiety, and conflict in communities around me. I’m even more concerned that this keeps lifesaving technology out of the hands (and hungry bellies) of people around the world who desperately need it to survive. If I serve the God who so loved the world that he offered up his only son, can I also love the world enough to risk opening challenging conversations with my community? Can I model gracious discussion so that Christians are equipped to make decisions about feeding themselves and their families with faith instead of fear? As science advances at a breakneck pace while we lack articulate voices explaining a Christian ethical framework for it all, will I look back at this time and wish I had spoken up sooner? I can’t help but face that the negative repercussions of anti-GMO sentiments, especially in churches around me, are not going to reverse until people like me are willing to turn the conversation around.

In sharing these upcoming posts, please know that I am pledging to offer the best information I can find, explaining it in ways that are clear and gracious. If you’re reading along, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions or if you have any topic or specific angle you’d like to see addressed. (You can reach me in the comment box on this site or through the email address I have listed in the “contact” field on the site menu.)

Thanks, friends. Whether you consider yourself pro-, neutral-, skeptical- or anti- GMO, I hope you’ll stick around!  

Writing Elsewhere: Jesus & GMOs

In the last few months, Aaron and I have been excited to share with wider audiences about his vocation as a Christian in the biotech industry, where he’s developing genetically modified crops. We’re thankful to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the relationship between our faith, scientific advances, and the food we eat. If you find eating enjoyable or necessary, we invite you to click through these links to read these articles about the relationship between faith and food production!

For a quick read, Aaron was interviewed by our friend Abigail Murrish over at The Gospel Coalition talking about Growing Food More Reliably and Efficiently:

In [God’s] image, I help to grow good food for people, too. Yet it takes our team years of hard work to change just one aspect of one species of plant. His work, in contrast, is truly amazing.

If you’ve ever wondered about how the gospel should inform our food choices, what a Christian theology of agricultural biotechnology looks like, or if Jesus would eat a GMO food, my longer article “Faith and Fear in the Food Wars: Biotechnology’s Role in Redeeming the Cursed Ground” is just what you’re looking for! It was published by the fine people over at Christ and Pop Culture (originally in Magazine Vol. 4, Issue 6), and is now available without a paywall.

…When we look this stuff up online, the social media results offer a lot of confusion and guilt without a lot of information. The scientific community as a whole is overwhelmingly supportive of biotechnology and GMO crops, but the pushback from groups promoting natural foods has levels of near-religious fervor. Type any question into a search engine, and you’ll quickly find a website giving you the answer you want. Is organic food healthier? Do pesticides cause cancer? Are genetically-engineered foods safe? There are plenty of people saying yes, plenty of people saying no, and lots of us questioning what to buy at the store because of it. Those who aren’t “eating clean” or “going organic” often feel guilty about it. Who hasn’t heard about food sourcing and wondered how to choose the best food? What shopper hasn’t felt pressured to pay more for a product that is marketed to seem healthier? Without knowing much about science or agriculture, most people are going into this food war blind.