Playing God? The Morality Behind the GMO Debate

by Brian Liberatore


The perils of playing God have weighed on humanity’s conscience  for millennia – from Icarus’s fateful flight to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  But hubris is seldom a straight-forward moral issue.  And the faster science races forward, the more complicated these issues grow.  Few have sparked so much controversy among environmentalists as the question of genetically modified food.

With the recent retraction of a provocative study linking the impact of GM corn on health, it’s time again for environmentalists to ponder the implications.

Last month the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a 2012 article which linked the consumption of Roundup Ready corn to ill health effects.  “Post-publication members of the scientific community have challenged the paper, citing serious concerns about the study design, data presentation and related issues,” the editors wrote.  The debate is far from over, but the retraction adds a new element.

The Economist, an influential British weekly, has come out in favor of GM foods, despite Europe’s general disdain of the practice.  In a recent article, the publication’s writers site the retraction and link environmentalists opposed to GM foods with “unscientific and dangerous” climate-change deniers.  Strong words certainly, but food for thought.  GM plants, the publication argues, are more productive.  If a farmer can grow the same yield on less land, it follows this would be an environmental benefit.  If GM crops require less fertilizers, fungicides, or pesticides it also follows that the earth benefits.  And if these plants are more productive they can help feed the world’s hungry – a problem that will only grow with the population.

Those opposed to the practice, have as fodder decades of deadly agricultural practices deemed safe at the time – think DDT – and the arguably immoral behavior of GM practitioners like  industrial food giant Monsanto.

This is a moral issue.  It’s also a spiritual issue.  Vatican officials are largely supportive of GM crops.  The Episcopal Church has resolved to address its concerns about the practice’s impacts on ecological sustainability and global economic justice.  Amish farmers have been using GM corn for years on the basis that it uses less land.

As environmentalists – perhaps with no religious affiliation – who rightly see the planet’s health as an ethical issue, this is something that warrants a closer look.  The debate over GM foods is not one to be solved overnight, but it something that can’t be ignored.

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About the Author

Brian Liberatore was a newspaper journalist for 10 years before joining the Peace Corps in 2011. He and his wife served in the northern Peruvian sierra. Brian has been a lifelong environmentalist. Humanity cannot survive without a healthy planet. Brian sees it as our moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth.