The flip side of concern about the earth’s climate and global sustainability is angst about population growth. Where these issues collide most prominently is in the question of food. Can the earth’s food supply possibly keep pace with a global population estimated by some to top 8 billion by the year 2020 and 9 billion by 2030? A recent article in the journal Science examined the challenge of sustainably feeding a new generation of inhabitants. As the authors pose the problem:
A threefold challenge now faces the world: Match the rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and more affluent population to its supply; do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable; and ensure that the world’s poorest people are no longer hungry. This challenge requires changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed, and accessed that are as radical as those that occurred during the 18th- and 19th-century Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions and the 20th-century Green Revolution. Increases in production will have an important part to play, but they will be constrained as never before by the finite resources provided by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere.
These are complex issues that defy simplistic analysis. But one aspect of the population and sustainability challenge that is nearly universally acknowledged is the need to increase crop yields on finite, and increasingly limited, arable land. And at the forefront of these efforts are companies dedicated to altering crops to accentuate desirable characteristics through genetic modification.
That’s one reason why agricultural giant Monsanto was recently selected as Forbes magazine’s company of the year. Robert Langreth and Matthew Herper write, “By marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering, Monsanto aims to produce more food for less money on the same amount of land.”
According to Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, these traditional methods “allow crop scientists to create hundreds of seed varieties tailored to different soils and weather. Monsanto’s research budget is now split equally between genetic engineering and conventional breeding.” As Langreth and Herper report, “If you have incredibly brilliant biotech and extraordinarily average seed, you will end up with average crop yields,” Grant says. “The thing the [genetic engineering] does is protect that preprogrammed yield.”
For Christians, moral questions about the validity of genetic-modification of creatures are raised within the framework of stewardship. On the biblical account, God placed human beings created in his image in dominion over the earth, as stewards of the world’s natural resources, including plants and animals. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15 NIV).
With the Fall into sin, however, the created relationships were upset, marred by enmity and distress. Part of the curse on human sinfulness is the difficulty that marks human efforts at cultivation in a fallen world: “Cursed is the ground because of you; / through painful toil you will eat of it / all the days of your life. / It will produce thorns and thistles for you, / and you will eat the plants of the field. / By the sweat of your brow / you will eat your food / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken; / for dust you are / and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-19 NIV).
It is within the context of this world corrupted by sin and death that famine and hunger reign. And as long as we live in this world of sin, hunger, poverty, and sickness will remain (Matt. 26:11). But as stewards of God’s creation, human beings are called to work to mitigate the effects of sin wherever possible.
So in the realm of agriculture and food, the call to bring forth the fruitfulness of the earth endures from creation to our fallen world. Efforts to minimize the effects of the curse in our lives do run the risk of aggravating our offense against God if they lose sight of our responsibility as stewards behind an emphasis on our liberties as autonomous tyrants.
Thus our stewardship must be cast in terms of obedience to God’s will. As biblical theologian Eugene F. Roop writes in the NIV Stewardship Study Bible, “While virtually all things are possible in God’s garden, not all things are beneficial, and some things are not permitted. Nevertheless, we are genuinely free.” We are free to make use of the land, for good or ill.
The biblical account makes it clear that plants were given to provide sustenance for the creatures of the world with “the breath of life” (Gen. 1:29-30 NIV), including human beings. And so as stewards of God’s creation we have wide latitude to, as Roop puts it, continue “finding new ways to nurture the soil back to life.” Increasing crop yields through technological advances like genetic modification appear to be will within the boundaries of God’s ordained freedom for human stewardship.
A chastened view of stewardship recognizes that we are only caretakers, called to an important task, but nevertheless dependent on the power of God to make the new heavens and the new earth. While growing more food for the earth’s inhabitants will not eradicate hunger this side of Christ’s return, we can understand our own efforts here as reflections, however blurry and indistinct, of the new creation. It is with God’s own rule manifested in heaven that we will finally realize the day in which the Tree of Life will bear its fruit, and “no longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22:3 NIV).