The Genetic Engineering Debate

Dr Neil Vaney
Issue 7, August 2002

The Biblical meaning of the Land

The Old Testament is a story of the gift of good land and the loss of that land. At the start of the first millennium before Christ, the sacred writer reflected on the history of tribal squabbles, of migration and of conquest out of which the Jewish nation was born. From the first he saw it as a story of disharmony between men and women, between shepherd and farmer. Interwoven in this story was the battle of the people to find good soil and become rooted in it.

At the heart of this growing understanding of land was the notion of covenant. The covenants made with Abraham (Gen. 17.1-21) and Moses (Ex 31.12-17) were far more than personal or even racial. Each of these set out to restore harmony and balance in relationships between God, human beings and the earth, and among humans themselves and with all the other creatures of the land. The cosmic covenant between God and Noah is foundational to all other covenants that followed it. Yahweh promised the entire earth community never to obliterate life from the face of the earth again. This solemn promise was made "...between me and you [Noah] and every living creature that is with you, for all generations." (Gen. 9.12). This pledge is also made "between me [Yahweh] and the earth." (9.13)

The first effect of this treaty is that the Jews must use the land in certain ways or they will lose it. They must see themselves more as tenants than owners, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants." (Lev. 25.23.) Whether in war or peace, in planting crops or settlements, the new tenants of the land of Canaan must keep before their minds that God has plans for this land. These plans have a sweep far grander than Jewish national aggrandisement. For Yahweh is not just a tribal deity attached to a certain plot of land, "All the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex 19.5-6.) For the Jews are also the instrument of God's far wider hopes - to bless other nations and to teach them his love, so ultimately bringing all peoples back to his word and worship (Gen. 12.1-3, Is 42.1-4).

Since this land belongs to God and not the Jews, they have duties as tenants. The first is that of gratitude. "... when you have eaten your fill, you must bless the Lord, your God, for the good country he has given you." (Dt. 8.10) They also have particular obligations to the animals, plants and people already living there. They must be neighbourly, showing kindness to one another, generosity to strangers, and honesty in trading. The Torah, the law, even prescribes the correct way to treat animals e.g. Dt. 22.6-7,

"If, while walking along, you chance upon a bird's nest with young birds or eggs in it... and the mother bird is sitting on them, you shall not take away the mother bird along with her brood; you must let her go, although you may take her brood away. It is thus that you shall have prosperity and a long life."

Though Yahweh would never reverse his promises, it was all too possible for the people to forget theirs. In this case, creation would unravel; animals would die in the reverse order to that in which they had been created, and the harmony between the land and its inhabitants would be shattered (Hos.4.1-3, Joel 1.16-18).

Aotearoa/New Zealand : also a Treaty/Covenant Land

At the time of their principal settlement (possibly 12th-13th century) Māori found a land covered in dense forests (c. 85%). It abounded in birds, seals and seafood. Apart from a couple of native bats there were no mammals. Instead a staggering variety of birds flourished: swan, pigeon, falcon, rails, snipes, even the largest eagle ever identified (Haast's giant eagle). The people do not seem to have brought their own pigs or chickens with them, expecting the same lush fertility as in the other Polynesian islands they had settled. Though favourite foods such as breadfruit or taro would not grow here, in some regions yams and kumara survived. At first it must have seemed like paradise. The flightless birds, like the eleven species of moa, had no enemies, apart from the occasional giant eagle. Remains of moa found in burial middens point to somewhere between 100,000 – 500,000 killed and eaten.

Such hunting and the taste that the Polynesian rat, kiore, and the village dogs developed for both eggs and chicks led to the annihilation of many species: the native swan, giant goshawk, coot, crow, rails, snipe, wren. Early Māori burned off large tracts of lowland forest, particularly on the East Coast of the South Island, places where moa were numerous and it was possible to grow the sandy gardens the iwi favoured. Huge fires burned continuously both on lowlands and on mountain slopes from 1400-1550. Surrounded by such plenty, the settlers may well have been surprised by how rapidly moa populations became non-sustainable and collapsed. By the end of the 16th century survival had become much more difficult.

As a result, scattered groups of iwi coalesced to share their labour and resources better and to defend them against other raiding groups. At the same time there seems to have been a deepening awareness of the spiritual links between the people and the fruits of the land. To preserve the vital life force of the land (mauri), rules concerning tapu and rahui were developed and intensified. They put certain sources of food and places out of bounds during some periods, so respecting their need for rest and protection. Such times and places had their own spiritual guardians (kaitiaki) to ensure their inviolability. It is not hard to see similarities between such notions and the Jewish ideas of a covenant with the land.

European impact on the land was immensely greater than that of the Māori. Kauri forests once covering 1.5 million hectares were reduced to 7,000 ie 99.5% destruction. Settlers also clear felled most of the remaining lowland podocarp hardwood forests, leaving just 15%. They destroyed almost without trace the great kahikatea tracts of swampy areas such as Thames Valley and Horowhenua. What little forest remained was soon profoundly altered by introduced species such as deer and possum. Flocks of sheep and cattle spread over the paddocks of clover and grasses sown for their coming.

Whatever the mixed motives and different understandings of the signatories of the various treaties of Waitangi, what is of great significance is that both people, Māori and pakeha, tried to create a covenant to enshrine the status of land, forest and fisheries. However it is conceived of, the notion of rangitiratanga or dominion is much deeper than just who has the power to make financial deals. It touches upon the deepest spiritual links between Māori and the land in which they were rooted. That is why Crown failures to defend the treaty go beyond legal ties of justice. Land and much of what lived in and on it were devastated in some areas. Destruction of habitat and species, pollution of major waterways, land subsidence and flooding, and contamination of traditional coastal seafood areas are still the legacy of this failure.

The Issue of Genetically Modified Food and Organisms

We can never return to our pristine land, a land clothed with forest from mountain to sea. But we can learn from the mistakes that our ancestors, both Māori and pakeha, made. We can also learn from the covenant model of relationship between God, the people and the land that we observe in the Jewish scriptures. Humans have always shaped the dominant ecosystems to their own needs and that also is part of nature. Yet both peoples must acknowledge and reflect upon the needless scars they have inflicted upon the earth. We have destroyed forty-one species of birds, some of the most unique forms that had evolved on our planet. At this time there are still about five hundred native plants and animals still considered at risk. The GE debate must be conducted in the light of this history.

In respect of both genetic modification and engineering the questions most commonly asked are: why is this procedure necessary or beneficial? What dangers are involved? Who benefits? In the light of our reflections so far, a fourth question must be added, will GE increase or diminish the respect we owe to this unique land and its life-forms that is God's gift to us?

The commonest justifications for GE are development of our world food sources, and research, especially medical. The first of these is important in a world where 18% of the population are still constantly hungry. Sadly though it is becoming increasingly clear that the main problem here is not one of production. Both Kofi Anan and the FAO have recently stated that there is ample food to feed the entire planet. The problem is that because of internal policies such as farm subsidies in the European Union the 800 million who hunger cannot afford to grow or buy their own food. In some parts of Africa in particular endemic social strife and wars intensify this problem for hapless local farmers, making growing and delivery of food almost impossible. Raising productivity eg by testing to see whether an introduced gene can inhibit wet rot in potatoes may be commendable. If our dominant motivation is economic eg catering to well-developed consumer or niche markets then it is necessary to acknowledge that honestly and to face the other questions such as, at what risk? for whose benefit?

GE research is often touted as the great hope for producing a cure for appalling diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Huntingdon's chorea. Again, who could possibly question such goals. Yet long experience of efforts to find cures for cancers and AIDS have pointed to the need for long trials, turning up multiple drugs and procedures that bring about gradual incremental improvements. It is true that entirely unexpected breakthroughs have arisen from purely theoretical research in the past. In an era, however, of contested and precisely targeted funding this becomes less and less likely. In such scenarios we have to ask whether in the long run it is pharmaceutical firms that will be the main beneficiaries.

This leads us to the question, at what risk? The danger of accidental release of transgenic organisms or cross contaminations of crops is minimal but cannot be totally discounted. The same may be said of a totally unpredicted transgenic hybrid, the sort of event that forms the basis of Paul Adam's frightening novel, Genesis II. In such examples haste to get a product on the market for commercial advantage proves a key factor.

In our New Zealand situation if the moratorium on the public release of GE is to be lifted, the stipulations of the Royal Commission must be adhered to strictly, that is, case by case consideration with meticulous analysis of risks and benefits. Among the goods to be defended must be the protection of the last remaining pockets of wilderness in New Zealand and our unique species. This is not just an economic and aesthetic preference. This is a treaty value whose defence may help to deepen a bond between Māori and pakeha, one built on the sense of tapu and guardianship, the sense of the holy and protected in the midst of the profane. For pakeha New Zealanders, especially Christians, this is a chance also to rediscover the spirituality of land hidden in the bible. Beyond the battles and injustices that have divided the two peoples may lie a new unity founded upon a common determination to treasure the land that now sustains us all. For such a hope to be deeply rooted, it cannot rely merely upon financial expediency but must rest on a deeper spiritual vision.


Dr Neil Vaney is a Marist priest and lecturer at Good Shepherd College, Auckland