World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Gene technology

13 November 2003

Short review presented by Christine von Weizsäckerat the EKD-Brot für die Welt-eed conference on gene technology in food and agriculture for developing countries

13th November 2003, Brussels

The existing small Working Group on Genetic Engineering of the World Council of Churches has members from many countries and churches around the world, e.g. Kenya, South Africa, South Pacific, Philippines, Brazil, USA, Canada, Scotland, Russia, Germany. There is a focus on theological contributions. And the WCC's work on "Caring for Life" is explicitly focusing on the weak and easily victimized partners in the debate. Since I, myself, come from a scientific background and have been a member of Working Groups on Biotechnology and of the Chamber on Development and Environment of the Protestant Church in Germany, my professional expertise and background give me more of a supportive than a central role in this working group which I very willingly and humbly accepted. I will therefore refrain from using my presentation for my personal views on bioethics in food and agriculture. I will present an overview of the work that is in progress and add some quotations from this work that are fitting contributions within the context of today's conference.

The World Council of Churches pioneered work on biotechnology and genetic engineering through initiatives of the Department on Church and Society during the seventies and eighties of the last century. This work culminated in a study document that was received by the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, i.e. its main governing body, in 1989. Ecological and health impacts, the relevance of patents on life for rural communities were already discussed in this document. The additional urgency of ethical, anthropological and theological challenges posed by genetic engineering due to further rapid developments in science, on the one hand, and in public debate and national and multinational legal initiatives, on the other hand, created an urgent need for an updated statement and for an ecumenical platform for common discussion and engagement by churches..

In 1999 the Programme Committee of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches drew the attention "to the spiritual dimensions of caring for life, particularly as these relate to ethical questions arising from biotechnology.......". The Advisory Group of the WCC's Justice, Peace, Creation Team took up this recommendation in 2000 and suggested work on agriculture and genetically modified foods as an entry point for a study process on genetic engineering that concentrates on underlying ehtical concerns and the vision of life. A small working group on genetic engineering discussed the proposal and produced a background document for last year's Central Committee Meeting. The debate on genetically modified crops and food aid became a major issue in 2003, following the rejection of gmo-corn as food aid by some Southern African Countries, e.g. Zambia. This concern is now taken up by Action of Churches Together (ACT), the Lutheran World Service (LWS) and the World Council of Churches. This year, the working group produced a small background document for the discussion on human applications of genetic technologies.

The Programme Committee II of the Central Committee noted that there are significant gaps in the legal or regulatory frameworks, that there are grave concerns about military applications, that there are very powerful interests and an imbalanced distribution of resources, and that the understanding of the human being and its place in creation are at stake. I quote from the recommendations that were passed in this year's session:

1. That the WCC create a platform for exchange and discussion for the churches concerning issues related to genetic engineering.
2. That the WCC encourage member churches to engage with the issues at stake in listening to people working in the field, to those most affected, and to the witness by other churches.
3. That the WCC present a study document on genetic engineering building on the 1989 guidelines that takes note of the different theological and ethical approaches by different member churches, but also highlights common concerns and initiatives; the work on the study document should include representatives of people working in the field and of those most affected, e.g. Indigenous Peoples and people in the agricultural sector.
4. That the WCC bring these concerns to the next assembly in the framework of the churches' engagement with issues of science and technology.

The most palpable result of this WCC process consists in increased communication and discussion of church initiatives wordwide. The gap between the challenges posed by genetic engineering and patents on life and the active participation of civil society in the debate is noticeable. This applies even more to the voices of churches and faith communities. However, they increasingy learn more about each others approaches and are encouraged to better cooperate at different levels.

May I quote from Ecumenical News International of 3rd May 2003: "Ecumenical church and relief organizations haved called for guidelines on the use of genetically engineered food in their emergency aid operations, says the Lutheran World Federation. A team of experts from the LWF, the World Council of Churches and Action by Churches Together (ACT), a humanitarian aid network - all with headquarters in Geneva - is being set up to address food safety, justice and theological issues arising from the use of modified food in countries facing famine and other emergencies.

Concerns and statements by member churches, but also by civil society groups are being widely circulated. Out of the many communications let me just mention a few examples:

  • The theological affirmations which ground United Methodist policy on the issue of genetics
  • The Final Statement which resulted from a Bioethics consultation in the Pacific in 2001 focusing on resistance against biopiracy, patents on life and biosafety.
  • The result of independent studies on GMO contamination in the center of genetic diversity of maize in Mexico and the call for a moratorium on GMO releases in such centres of critical food crops.
  • The Protestant/Catholic Joint Position Paper from the Commissioners for Environmental Questions in the Protestant Regional Churches in Germany, the Commissioners for Environmental Questions in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Germany, the Protestant Services for Rural Mission and the Catholic Rural People's Movement called "Questions not solved - Promises not kept. Ten Arguments against the use of genetically modified plants in food and agriculture", which is available at this conference.
  • The Response of the Interchurch Commission on Genetic Engineering (ICC) to the Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in New Zealand.

The WCC work is based on the assumption that a technology which often consist in unilinear technological end-of-the pipe-fixes should not be accompanied by equally unilinear ethical end-of the-pipe fixes. Ethical considerations have to start further upstream, including cultural, socio-economic, but also technological alternatives, branch out into the experiences, values and contributions of all people concerned, and also have a look downstream into the consequences for those far away in space and time. Spiritual wisdom and cultural experience taught communities that they can speed up life-saving learning processes by listening to the voices of their most vulnerable, victimized and neglected members.

Let me sum up some of the discussions which led to the background document "Caring for Life: Biotechnology and Agriculture" prepared last year by the small working group on genetic engineering for the Policy Reference Committee II of the World Council of Churches' Central Committee. There were considerations on the relationship of food, spirituality and politics and theological reflections on "Our Daily Bread". There were lines of arguments which show that science and technology are no neutral tools, but linked to power and the promotion of a reductionist word-view. Risks to biodiversity, human health, and social and economic well-being were discussed, with special attention to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the UN Convention on Biological Diversiy. There were strong indications that inequality and food insecurity are fostered by a combination of gene technology with recent trade and IPR agreements. We spent some effort on differentiation and describing the backgrounds, interests and influences of major actors, like farmers and social movements, indigenous peoples, scientists, transnational corporations and financial markets, governments and politicians, consumers. An underlying theme was the fact that there are alternatives and other ways are possible: Let me conclude with some quotations that you may consider useful for today's conference:

  • "If the assumptions of genetic engineering, its cultural genesis and its programme are put to the test and carefully examined, it may become clear that we are confronted with a point of divergence where we must carefully choose between profoundly different trajectories of history, caring for life, for diversity and just and sustainable relationships."
  • "Assuming that Creation is abundant, and that there is sufficient for all, but not enough for accumulation and concentration, a culture of sharing and solidarity becomes the more important and more promising project, which resonates with the paradigms of Manna and the Eucharist as powerful Biblical symbols for it."
  • "Opposing an oppressive and utilitarian attitude toward Creation there is an alternative horizontal model, not based on the supremacy of a single species and class, but on complexity and diversity. Every organism, every plant and animal, has a place and a function, however limited. Mutuality and interdependence are characteristics of this horizontal cosmology, which resonates so much with the Biblical witness and the teachings of the early church."
  • "Food aid becomes a means to compensate economically for consumer rejection of genetically modified food and prevent the prices from falling."
  • "To counter fatalism and injustice, there is a tradition in many cultures of conscientious objection. It can be a redefiniton of power, even a redefinition of language and meaning, "problems" and "solutions"."