Genetically Engineering Jesus

If you could go back in time and genetically engineer Jesus—wave some futuristic gizmo over Mary’s womb and edit his DNA—would you do it?  Would you trust a large, for-profit corporation to do it?

In 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela of U.C. Berkeley announced in Nature that transgenes—chunks of DNA artificially transferred from one species to another—had been found in traditional maize landraces in central Mexico.1 (A “landrace” is any locally-adapted domestic plant breed.)  The genes weren’t supposed to be there.  They had presumably hitched a ride on pollen from fields of genetically modified (GM) corn to fields of native landrace corn, yet the growing of GM corn had been banned in Mexico since 1998.  So why were GM genes still being found in 2001?  Had they integrated themselves into the genomes of the maize landraces, changing the DNA of those varieties forever?  Or had illegal GM plantings continued in Mexico, sprinkling fresh GM pollen on the wind from season to season?

Regardless, the study seemed to show that modified genes could spread uncontrollably in the real world, just as opponents of genetic engineering had always warned.  Mexicans were angry because Mexico is the home of corn, the place where corn was probably first domesticated from teosinte, a wild grass, about nine thousand years ago. Not only is corn basic to the Mexican diet, but the world’s hundreds of thousands of square miles of commercial corn contain a paltry handful of genes compared to Mexico’s scattered fields of maize landraces.  The rural farmers of Mexico are thus key not only to corn’s past, but to its future.

Maize.  From Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885, Gera, Germany (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/95/Illustration_Zea_mays0_clean.jpg).

If the scary 2001 study was correct, transgenes might threaten the character or continuance of the Mexican maize landraces.  They might thus alter the Mexican diet and the global fate of corn itself. As Quist and Chapela put it,

Concerns have been raised about the potential effects of transgenic introductions on the genetic diversity of crop landraces and wild relatives in areas of crop origin and diversification, as this diversity is considered essential for global food security. Direct effects on non-target species and the possibility of unintentionally transferring traits of ecological relevance onto landraces and wild relatives have also been sources of concern.

Concern or no concern, GM corn is big business: 25% of the world’s corn, including 80% of US corn, is now GM.2 Mexico’s maize landraces do not even exist from the point of view of global agribusiness.  The 2001 study, a threat to profits, was therefore vigorously attacked.  Minor methodological flaws were identified.  Under pressure, Nature took the unprecedented step of publishing a quasi-retraction stating that “the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.”

The debunking seemed complete in 2005, when a paper in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported not a single transgene in thousands of maize samples from the same parts of Mexico examined by Quist and Chapela.3 The relief emanating from the biotech stakeholders was thick enough to slice like polenta.   For example, Ohio State University’s Research News website announced that “Contrary to what many scientists thought, genetically modified (GM) corn has not yet spread to native maize crops in southern Mexico.”4 A moment’s Googling reveals the unsurprising fact that OSU is a member of the Ohio Plant Biotechnology Consortium and runs a student externship program with Monsanto, the world’s largest seller of GM corn and other seed.5

Head-wagging and pontificating were a natural next step.  In a 2006 review of the decade’s eight worst “biotech gaffes,” Nature Biotechnology chided Quist and Chapela for being partly “culpable for lukewarm public acceptance and stigmatization of transgenic crop technology.” That’s right, culpable as in deserving of blame—not the usual tenor of scientific dispute.6 “With so many of the groups ideologically opposed to transgenic crops able to exploit the media, scare the public and perpetuate myths and conspiracy theories about genetic engineering over the Internet,” Nature Biotechnology harrumphed, “prestigious journals should be aware of the long-lasting damage resulting from their willingness to widely publicize results that may be contentious or equivocal.”  The maize-transgene scare had “certainly contributed to the decline of European agbiotech.”   Yikes!

During the fuss, Chapela was denied tenure at U. California Berkeley.  He appealed, arguing that the biotechnology industry had improperly influenced the decision.  A university investigation found that conflicts of interest had indeed occurred, and Chapela was granted tenure.  Good for him, but still not too bad for the biotech industry, which had already won a major PR victory with the downfall of the 2001 paper.  Panicky eco-freaks had jumped the gun.  False alarm.  The scientists were in firm control, as advertised.  All was well and all would remain well.  Carry on, global techno-capitalism!

But then—aha—in late 2008, a paper in Molecular Ecology vindicated Quist and Chapela on the basis of tens of thousands of Mexican maize samples.7 Transgenes had again been found in Mexican corn landraces.  What’s more, the authors had figured out exactly why different studies were getting different answers, explaining the false-negative results of the 2005 paper.  The lead author of the 2005 paper, invited to comment in the same issue of the journal, sportingly pronounced the new piece “a very good study.”

Truth triumphs over error.  Nice, but what does it have to do with Jesus?

Genetic engineering alters the core patterns of life in ways that may persist indefinitely.  Unless your religion is a very otherworldly affair indeed, that has got to be a matter of concern.  Corn is a particularly obvious case: for many people in Central America, corn is food, life, body, religion.  The Mayans of ancient Mexico believed that their first ancestors were formed from maize dough, a belief that still resonates for many people in the region.  The 2003 manifesto of a Zapatista conference declared that “we, indigenous and non-indigenous, women and men who emerged from the corn,” intend to “defend our seeds and our identity” from corporate tampering.8

Christianity is a grain religion too.  We take up bread, declare solemnly to each other that it is the Body of Christ, and chow it down.  Although Christian sacramental bread is almost universally made from wheat, not corn, there is, in my view, no theological reason why it shouldn’t be made out of spelt, rye, oats, millet, or corn instead.  And wheat is no more immune than maize to the manipulations of the genetic engineers: Monsanto, Kansas State, Cornell, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M are all working on GM wheat.  GM wheat is not yet grown commercially anywhere, having lagged corn for a variety of reasons that include lower profit margins for the crop, wheat’s unusually large and unruly genome, and political resistance: in 2004, Monsanto withdrew its permit application for test plantings of herbicide-resistant wheat, fearing market backlash in Europe and Japan.  However, Syngenta is testing its own GM wheat and may market it commercially within a few years.9 If history is any guide, GM wheat is on its way.


Wheat.  From Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885, Gera, Germany (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Illustration_Triticum_aestivum0.jpg).


If they raise it, we’ll eat it.  In the US, only 31% of Americans think they have eaten GM foods, but the number is more like 100%, given that 60%–80% of packaged foods in US markets contain GM ingredients, typically sugar from corn or oil from soybeans.10

The point is this.  Within a few years, when a fellow Christian hands you a wafer or chunk of homemade bread and says that it is “the body of Christ,” that body may be genetically engineered by Monsanto or Syngenta.  It will not have been labeled as such: GM labeling is voluntary in the US and food packagers never do label because they aren’t insane.  Even if it is made with organic wheat, that communion bread will probably contain stray transgenes, as the Mexican experience with GM corn shows: the wind bloweth where it listeth (John 3:8), and it takes the pollen with it.

So if GM wheat is commercialized, we’ll soon be eating genetically engineered Jesus.  Is that bad?  I think so, but such things are not provable.  In defense of genetically modified communion, one might argue that the whole point of eating bread rather than raw grain is to include in the body of Christ the transformative power of human labor, which has already involved genetic modification of wild wheat through millennia of artificial selection, so why not genetic engineering too?   A sentimental preference for grinding, kneading, and baking as opposed to lab coats and test tubes?  Maybe.  I would respond that not all products of human labor belong in bread; we care whether the labor and its product are appropriate.  So even if GM food is perfectly nontoxic—which is not as flat-out certain as government and industry statements make it out to be11—the question remains: is GM food appropriate?

Father Sean McDonagh of Ireland has argued that GM wheat in communion bread would violate the Catholic canon law that requires the bread to be “wheaten only.”12 Because some GM wheat produces a protein to make the wheat resistant to the herbicide Roundup it is not completely “wheaten,” McDonagh says, so it is not valid communion material.  This doctrinal approach is alien to me, and leads the Catholic Church to such odd results as a ban on gluten-free communion wafers (necessitating exclusion of wheat-intolerant men from the priesthood and preventing all wheat-intolerant people from eating the communion bread).  To my mind, any grain—any food—must ultimately be valid communion material: wheaten bread is customary, not essential.  Or else God is a pickier old coot than I ever thought possible.

I think that GM communion bread would be unfortunate for the same reason that bread produced by industrial agriculture is already unfortunate: because the means of its production entail a badly warped relationship to Nature and thus to its Maker.  That relationship is one of absolute exploitation driven by desire, shaped by pride, and constrained by nothing.  Genetic engineering of crops, which can ubiquitously and permanently alter the deepest patterns of life, is intrinsically arrogant, intrinsically mad.  Non-GM breeding is not intrinsically mad, but it is not magically OK, either: without any help from GM corn, modern agricultural practices based on the large-scale, monocultural planting of hybrid varieties have already annihilated about 80% of the maize landrace diversity that was observed in Mexico in 1930.13 We are already in the sad position of trying to preserve a remnant.

I therefore believe, though I cannot prove, that genetic engineering of crops and the patenting of genes and life forms is, with rare possible exceptions, inherently blasphemous.   It assumes that the material stuff of the world is ours to manipulate without limit and that life itself, even at its deepest level of pattern, where information is borne from the deep past into the deep future, is just more of that stuff, to be re-structured permanently according to our own momentary notions of what is desirable and expedient.

Enough, already.  Keep your transgenes out of my Jesus, Syngenta.  Out of my world.

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I will supply PDFs of all restricted-access articles referenced here on request.

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[Originally published Sep. 11, 2009]

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REFERENCES

1.  Quist, David and Ignacio H. Chapela, “Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico.” Nature, 414 (Nov. 29, 2001), 541–543.

2.  http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/341.genetically_modified_maize_global_area_under_cultivation.html

3.  Ortiz-Garcia, S., et al., “Absence of detectable transgenes in local landraces of maize in Oaxaca, Mexico (2003–2004).”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(33), August 30, 2005, 12338–12343.  Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/102/35/12338.full.pdf.

4.  http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/mexmaize.htm

5. http://vet.osu.edu/assets/pdf/depts/prevMed/extension/externship/MonsantoStudentExternshipProgram2008.pdf

6. http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v24/n3/full/nbt0306-270.html

7.  Piñero-Nelson A., et al., “Transgenes in Mexican maize: molecular evidence and methodological considerations for GMO detection in landrace populations,” Molecular Ecology (2009) 18, 750–761.

8.  http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art8/

9.  http://www.foodnavigator.com/Financial-Industry/Syngenta-moves-closer-to-launching-GM-wheat

10. http://fpi.rutgers.edu/docs/pubs/consumers_desire_for_GM_lables.pdf

11.  http://www.aaemonline.org/gmopost.html

12.  http://www.independent.ie/national-news/eucharist-from-gm-wheat-contravenes-canon-law-1462177.html

13. http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/international/press/reports/maize-under-threat-ge-maize.pdf