Farming for Shalom
A place for biotechnology?
By David S. Koetje '85

“If this was a perfect world, do you think we’d need to be doing agricultural biotechnology?” The question, posed a few years ago by a Dordt College student, intrigued me. I had just presented a Christian perspective of agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) to a group of faculty and students at the college. My talk had concluded both with biblical tenets from the creation-fall-redemption theme that seem to promote agbiotech and with others that seem to restrain it. For example, the fact that we are accoutable to God in caring for creation ought to restrain us for abusing the land, as it should also comel us to work in ways that promote the flourishing of its inhabitantsThe fact that we are accountable to God in caring for creation ought to restrain us from abusing the land, as it should also compel us to work it in ways that promote the flourishing of its inhabitants.(human and non-human). This had led me to acknowledge that, although agbiotech has great potential for good or evil, a cautiously optimistic stance is in keeping with Christian stewardship. I’d suggested that “critical engagement” of agbiotech could be a fitting way to seek shalom, the rationale behind our program in biotechnology at Calvin College. But what of the student’s question about whether agbiotech would be appropriate in shalom? It led me to reflect on my own underlying motives for pursuing this field and how I’ve since tried to deal with its controversies.

As a student at Calvin in the mid-1980s, I felt called into the emerging field of plant genetic engineering. It seemed to offer so much potential for improving crops and maybe even helping to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. This idealistic vision compelled me to pursue graduate research at Purdue University, working on a new project to develop genetic engineering strategies for rice. There my first task was to isolate tissues, to propagate cells, and to regenerate whole plants from them by manipulating plant hormone levels. This work would lay the foundation for others to attempt to introduce foreign genes into the cells, giving rise to transgenic plants. But our early attempts were hampered by only a rudimentary knowledge about basic plant developmental processes. How do cells coordinate their growth? How do they become specialized? What triggers some cells in plants to revert back to an earlier embryonic state so that they become competent to regenerate? (And I can tell you that despite the interesting parallels, my Reformed theological perspective of regeneration offered no insights into its biological counterpart.) It seemed at the time that we just didn’t know enough basic plant biology!

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What is agricultural biotechnology?

Although we did eventually manage to optimize the regeneration and genetic transformation processes, I gradually grew more enamored with the fascinating world of plant responses to stresses in their environment. For example, when a caterpillar starts chewing on a leaf, the attacked plant responds by producing chemicals that are toxic, to give the insect a bad case of indigestion or deter it in other ways. Plants are even capable of warning their neighbors and summoning parasitoid wasps to lay their eggs on the pesky caterpillars, and devour them upon hatching. (Try fitting that into a Reformed vision of shalom!) Over the past ten years students in my course on biotechnology investigations have had the joy of discovering a number of such stress-induced genes in soybean plants.

How do we apply this growing knowledge about how plants deal with environmental challenges? Biotechnologists typically seek to improve crop resistance to insect pests by developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But there are other ways to approach this problem, too. An in-depth understanding of the ecology of caterpillar populations usually suggests other means to reduce crop damage — namely, integrative pest management. While most biotechnologists acknowledge this approach, they pay little attention to it. It isn’t in their area of expertise. Furthermore, many are highly skeptical of organic farming, in large part because some of the strongest attacks against agbiotech have come from organic agriculture proponents. But are these two approaches mutually exclusive? As currently construed, they certainly embody very different worldviews.

Agbiotech, if it maintains its current trajectory, is the heir apparent of industrial agriculture. The predominant paradigm in North American agricultural policies, industrial agriculture holds production and efficiency as its highest ideals. It has provided the impetus for unparalleled technological innovation and intensification. We’ve witnessed the wonders of hybrid seed, fossil fuel–based fertilizers and high-tech machinery, which together have yielded record high farm outputs year after year. With new genetic technologies in hand, biotechnologists now promise to extend those benefits by addressing some of the “genetic glass ceilings” that still impede our productivity: crops that are more resistant to drought, weeds, insects, diseases and spoilage; livestock that more readily convert feeds to biomass and are more disease resistant. The benefits don’t end on the farm; agricultural biotechnologists also promise consumers more nutritious and convenient fast foods, cheaper pharmaceuticals (produced in plant and animal “bioreactors” grown on segregated “pharms”) and a host of technologies to promote better land stewardship to offset a continued human population surge. A faith in human ingenuity and progress underlies all of these efforts.

David Koetje
David Koetje in Calvin's greenhouse.

Unfortunately, industrial agriculturists often fail to acknowledge the social and environmental costs of their practices. In the first half of the twentieth century, when laborers were needed in the growing manufacturing sector, labor-saving machinery on farms facilitated migration to our growing cities, where the middle class blossomed. But as the trend continued, many who sincerely wanted to farm were forced out. The small, 100- to 200-acre farm that used to support a family on a diverse cache of crops and livestock now relies on non-farm earnings to pay their farm debts. Large farms account for over half of U.S. agricultural income, a share they maintain through lucrative contracts with food wholesale and retail conglomerates. As agricultural counties continue to experience out-migration, schools, churches, banks and grocers are forced to close shop. Rural communities disintegrate.

Meanwhile, as farms grow in size, animal manures once considered an invaluable nutrient resource have become an environmental menace. Ironically, this feeds our food system’s reliance on fossil fuels. Instead of spreading manure on pastures, concentrated livestock operations rely on processed feeds produced using fossil fuel–derived fertilizers and usually imported from hundreds of miles away. Before the foods reach our grocery shelves, they are usually trucked hundreds of miles more from processing plants to centralized wholesale warehouses to retailers. Crop rotations once used to manage pests and diseases on farms have also been largely abandoned, victims not only of farm subsidy policies enacted to save farmers from overproduction and but also of biotechnologies that have provided profitable alternatives. Clearly, biotechnology alone cannot reverse these trends, nor will it contribute to agricultural sustainability until we reconsider its underlying industrial worldview.

Organic agriculture tends to espouse a more traditional agrarian worldview. Thomas Jefferson lauded agrarian ideals as crucial to a democratic citizenry. On farms, he argued, one would learn to value self-sufficiency and would develop moral character in harmony with nature and society. Years ago, these ideals were promoted in agricultural schools and 4-H clubs; today, it is the organic agriculture movement that most obviously embraces them. In this view, raising and eating foods does more that just provide sustenance; it is imbued with spiritual, cultural and ecological significance. Our relationships with food reflect our relationships with the land and one another. Thus, organic farmers have adopted technologies and practices that harmonize with natural ecological cycles and have rejected those that do not. They have also typically sought out close relationships with their customers; many have ventured into community supported agriculture. Their wariness of agbiotech is, therefore, quite understandable. Agbiotech and organic farming tend to operate with contrary views of nature and economy, a more deep-seated issue than the oft-cited health and environmental safety concerns. (Ironically, with the advent of USDA organic certification, agribusiness conglomerates have become major players in the organic food sector. Many farmers now designate different portions of their land for organic farming, for conventional agriculture and for agbiotech crops. Buying organic products at the supermarket does not guarantee support of agrarian ideals.)

Despite the current controversies and trends to the contrary, I contend that agbiotech and agrarian farming do not have to be diametrically opposed. A place-based approach to agriculture and agbiotech could help to bridge current ideological and practical divisions. How so? Place is a rich geographical concept that encompasses the ecological and cultural contexts of human enterprises: fields, farms and their watersheds; growers, processors, consumers and their economies. Since globalization tends to “thin out” these places until we lose sight of all the complex interrelationships that sustain them, those who advocate place-based agriculture emphasize local food systems, or “foodsheds.” This is not to say that those of us in temperate climates have to give up pineapple in our fruit salad; rather, it urges that locally grown and processed foods be given preference in local markets. If a local source cannot exist for ecological or cultural reasons, importation may be acceptable.

In essence, place-based approaches conform to key ecocentric ideals:

• being attentive to local ecology;
• heeding needs and knowledge of local communities;
• letting local cultural values inform agendas for research, practice and policy-making;
• cultivating precaution, caring and conservation;
• collectively forging technologies, practices and policies that enhance agriculture's embeddedness in local foodsheds.

Ultimately, because it is decentralized, employs more local people, and fits local environments, such a food system would be more resilient against external disturbances — even terrorism. In this way, emphasizing place enhances agricultural sustainability.

What, then, would be the role of agbiotech in such a place-based approach? With cues from a community’s social and ecological factors (see diagram), biotechnologists could ply their trade to enhance resilience and interdependence (embeddedness). In combination with crop rotations, polycultures (such as intercropping), and integrated pest management, agbiotech may help thwart emerging crop diseases. It may help “close the loop” in recycling nutrients from city waste streams back to farms. It may, in essence, enhance organic farming.

“If this was a perfect world, would we need to do agbiotech?” Perhaps not. Or perhaps we would use it as a means to better understand and delight in God’s good creation. Meanwhile, until shalom is ushered in, let’s advocate a precautionary approach that explores the appropriateness of agricultural biotechnologies within their local cultural and ecological contexts. God created us, after all, to be caretakers of intricate and delightful places. Responding to that call requires us to be more intentional about restoring our relationships with and in these places.

David Koetje is a professor of biology at Calvin, specializing in biotechnology. With funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, David Koetje and Uko Zylstra are currently writing a book dealing with this subject in more depth. They have also received support for their research from Calvin’s Seminars in Christian Scholarship.