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Ecumenical Consultative Working Group on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture

The Issue and the Context

Pilars of Christian thought

Points of Concern


Who We Are: The Ecumenical Consultative Working Group on Genetic Engineering in Agriculture is comprised of representatives from mainline Christian denominations, US religious development/relief organizations, a number of grassroots overseas development agencies, and academic consultants. The Ecumenical Consultative Working Group convened in February 2003 and presents this conceptual framework to mainline Christian denominations. We also seek a public dialogue with all stakeholders in the future of food production and consumption.

Purpose: This document is intended for use as a tool for faith-based agencies to assess situations where agricultural biotechnology is being considered as part of the solution to ending hunger and enhancing food production.


Genetic engineering is an important moral issue for the Church for these reasons:

  1. The promotion of agrobiotechnology in private and public research and in the debate about world hunger distracts policies and expenditures away from examining the underlying systemic economic, social, and political causes of hunger and famine.
  2. Research capacity and intellectual resources of Land-Grant Colleges and Universities are being used to the benefit of private genetic engineering companies. This diverts these institutions from serving the needs of rural communities, and from research on existing solutions to hunger, such as sustainable agriculture and agroforestry.
  3. Genetic engineering is a new scientific technology that dramatically increases the capacity for human beings to alter the natural world and the foundations of life itself.
  4. Researchers and practitioners of genetic engineering usually exert proprietary and intellectual property rights over their scientific processes and products. This practice restricts future access to, and consolidates control over, agricultural resources.
  5. Agricultural genetic engineering in crops, fish and animals is not contained and can have tremendous effects on surrounding environments. Disruption of local ecologies compromises the ability of populations to produce food.
  6. Given the exponential growth of the planting and consumption of these crops, it is premature to assert that they have no long-term health or ecological impacts. The Precautionary Principle must be applied here.
  7. International food assistance programs sponsored by the US government which use bio-engineered commodities endanger the natural integrity and food sovereignty of numerous Third World nations.

The Church’s mandate is to apply its ethical principles in considering technological and scientific issues and their implications for society and individuals. That is its responsibility and expertise. Technological and scientific issues are subject to moral scrutiny. Proponents of genetic engineering often brand those with reservations about genetic engineering as immoral and anti-scientific. On the contrary, moral, health, environmental and social concerns, informed by independent scientific knowledge, are foremost in our deliberations. The Ecumenical Consultative Working Group contends that many issues surrounding genetic engineering in agriculture are unresolved.

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Our Christian heritage offers us a set of ethical principles that assist in evaluating the potential advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering.

• Social Justice: Any system of resources, rewards, and opportunities must not favor any one person or group over another. The impact on the poor is the primary measure of justice. If a technology worsens their lot or creates/increases dependency of the poor on the wealthy, it is not just.

• Common good: Each person should act on behalf of the good of all. Evaluation of a new technology is incomplete until it is determined that the advantages and benefits will be distributed in such a way that no person or groups benefits at the expense of the well-being of the whole.

• Human Dignity: All people have a right to life and to the basic necessities of life. These basic necessities include food, meaningful work, health, education, self-determination and the preservation of a communal heritage. The measure of any institution, strategy, or technology is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person and the natural environment that sustains life.

• Sacredness of Life: Creation, with its delicate interdependence, is to be revered. Before implementing any new technology, society must evaluate environmental outcomes and consider possible unintended consequences to the web of life, including human health.

• Stewardship: We are called to provide for the necessities of life without destroying the social and natural systems that sustain life for our and future generations. Humility, caution, and respect must govern any effort to study and alter the world we are given.

• Responsibility and Accountability: The exercise of any and all rights bears with it an equal responsibility and accountability to God and to each other. Any effort, by person or group, to secure the necessities of life must not compromise the abilities of others to do the same. Structures established to pursue the necessities of life must be transparent and open to participation by all who will be affected.

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1) The rapid introduction of commercial genetically engineered animals, seeds, and crops, with inadequate research, testing and regulation, may cause unintended ecological, health, social, economic, and cultural consequences.

The current regulatory processes of risk assessment and management rely upon a narrow definition of risk. Risk refers to probabilities, not uncertainties. Risk assessments are applied only to specific technologies and do not incorporate comparisons to viable alternatives. Farmers have demonstrated that a variety of agricultural techniques (sustainable, traditional, and organic) provide benefits that genetically engineered techniques claim to provide. Risk assessments do not attend to the social, economic or cultural consequences.

Assessments of technology must follow the cautionary principle and, from a social justice perspective, consider:

  1. What are the costs to the poorest?
  2. Has the local community participated in the decision-making and design prior to the introduction of the technology?
  3. What are the effects on social institutions that provide a multitude of services to people?
  4. Have health effects been monitored where these products are being consumed?
  5. What are the effects on cultural traditions that provide a sense of meaning to people and serve as the foundation of a reverence for life?

The principles of Stewardship and Social Justice call for caution and rigorous socioeconomic assessment and evaluation of the potential effects on health and ecological systems prior to introduction to a local ecology/economy. That evaluation must include participation by those most affected by the application.

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2) Genetically engineered animals, seeds, and foods pose an indirect threat to the future well-being of farmers and nations hoping to ensure food security.

Distributing genetically engineered foods to nations facing hunger and famine may solve immediate needs while creating unintended consequences that threaten the long-term viability of their agricultural production system, economically as well as environmentally. Introducing genetically engineered food products without assessment of the short- and long-term impact on local agronomic ecologies can disrupt the very production of food crops and exportable commodities. Many European and Asian countries bar the importation of genetically engineered food. The future of agricultural exporting countries is dependent upon their ability to prevent genetically engineered organisms from contaminating with their existing agriculture and food system.

A nation’s decision to accept genetically engineered food aid in a time of desperation is not the same as democratic deliberations on short- and long-term consequences of adopting a new technology.

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Assessments must consider:

  1. Will the introduction of genetically engineered organisms negatively impact the ability of small growers to produce commodities for the market, domestic or foreign?
  2. Are regulatory systems in place to evaluate the genetically engineered organisms prior to release
  3. Has the effect of introducing the genetically engineered organism in the local ecology/agronomy been studied and evaluated?

The principles of Human Dignity and Common Good call for consideration of long-term consequences as well as short-term benefits when dispersing genetically engineered organisms into development/relief situations.

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3) The majority of genetically engineered crops currently on the market are produced and marketed by large private companies with a primary goal to generate a return for their shareholders’ investments.

From our brothers and sisters in regions around the world, we learn that new and expensive technologies, such as genetically engineered seeds, can exacerbate the inequalities already inherent in the global agriculture and food system. They can also make local farmers dependent on expensive inputs and loans that are necessary to afford those inputs.

Private companies are able to mobilize resources effectively to solve problems and can contribute to the common good. It is the responsibility of concerned shareholders, responsible governments, and an engaged civil society to assure that a company’s responsibilities to its shareholders do not distract it from its responsibilities to the common good. Without such oversight, genetic engineering can exacerbate the agro-food system that discriminates against small farmers and local community-based food systems.

Assessment must consider:

  1. What additional inputs will be required for the greatest realization of the benefits of genetically engineered organism(s) and how will that impact cost of growing food?
  2. How will the autonomy of the local agronomic system be affected by use of the introduced organism(s)?
  3. Is the advantage to the local agricultural system solely short-term or also long-term?

The principles of Common Good and Social Justice require the assurance that local agronomic systems will not be exploited for the short-term gain of for-profit entities.


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4) Private control of genetically engineered agriculture, when coupled with emerging global trade policies that protect the interests of patents rights holders, makes food systems more vulnerable to shifting global economic trends and threatens the sovereignty and very existence of local food systems.

Intellectual property rights and patents have been established to encourage entrepreneurs to invest their time, money, and talent to find innovative solutions to problems. However, property and patent laws must not be enforced at the expense of the common good. The aggressive pursuit of genetic engineering is putting the benefits of science into the hands of a few very large transnational corporations and beyond the reach of small farmers and entrepreneurs. Genetic engineering in agriculture stands on traditional knowledge that utilizes the rich biodiversity of the earth’s goodness. Part of humanity's common heritage over countless generations, agricultural genetic resources rightly belong in the public domain. Global trade agreements that limit access to common goods, undermine people’s ability to meet their basic necessities, and threaten democratically established policies should be revoked. When rights are granted to innovators, a system should be in place to ensure that the responsibilities for unintended consequences are also assigned to the innovator.

The implications of the emphasis on proprietary rights, that self-interested competition yields more social benefits than altruistic cooperation, are fundamentally at odds with the teaching of the Christian Church. This reasoning also ignores the immeasurable contributions that public sector institutions, such as governments and universities, have made to society throughout history.

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Assessment must consider:

1. Do global trade agreements, by strengthening patent rights, threaten democratically established policies, undermine people’s ability to meet their basic necessities, and limit access to common goods?

2. When rights are granted to innovators, are responsibilities for unintended consequences with the innovator?

The principles of Responsibility and Accountability require that companies and individuals should not be granted patents and exclusive rights to products and processes that are in the public domain. Governments, companies, and citizens must ensure that protecting the reward system for innovations does not impede the distribution of the necessities of life.

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5) Genetically engineered seeds and crops are promoted as solutions to world hunger and malnutrition. There are valid reasons to question whether a technology will end world hunger without also considering the political and socio-economic context.

Malnutrition, hunger, and famine persist in a world wrestling with the problem of agricultural overproduction. Furthermore, malnutrition, hunger, and famine often occur in nations that are not suffering from food shortages. Therefore, how does genetic engineering address these questions about the cause and nature of hunger:

  1. Is there equal access to land, water, and seeds necessary to grow food?
  2. Is lack of money the primary reason for lack of food?
  3. Do international trade policies and practices protect the agricultural exports of developed countries while requiring developing countries to remove trade protection for local agriculture? Furthermore, do developed nations dump their surpluses on world markets, a practice which devastates local markets in developing countries and devalues human labor and ingenuity as inputs to agricultural production?
  4. Do the policies and practices of international financial institutions contribute to the national debt of developing countries and exacerbate their poverty and hunger?
  5. How much do civil strife and political corruption disrupt food production and distribution processes?

The principle of Social Justice calls for the intensification of efforts to correct economic and social structures before promoting a technology that at the present time is an extension of the existing structure.

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6) Non-segregated and unlabeled genetically engineered crops put farmers at risk of losing highly profitable markets, fail to protect the consumers from agricultural products whose safety is not yet proven, and prevent the consumers’ right to choose.

The testing protocols for genetically engineered foods are not transparent and current testing protocols of genetically engineered products do not account for varying states of health. In relief situations, the consuming population may already be nutritionally vulnerable.

Assessment must include:

1. Are results of tests for allergenicity made public to the recipient population?
2. Have considerations of local nutritional needs been factored into the risk assessment?
3. Have the actual foods been tested, or only the introduced proteins?
4. Is the product segregated and appropriately labeled?

The principles of Responsibility and Accountability require transparency of labeling so that dietary needs and nutritional considerations can be attended to and if warranted, epidemiological studies can be done.


Food is not merely another market commodity. Food is essential to life and is sacred culturally to all peoples. Food, just as water, is a global common good. It has yet to be demonstrated that agricultural genetic engineering, as it exists in the current system, safeguards the common good, human dignity, the sacredness of life and stewardship. The use of this new technology must be responsible, accountable, and socially just. It is the responsibility of the Church to assess and monitor developments and educate its membership according to these principles.

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