Friday, February 17, 2012

The Sower and the Seed

“A sower went out to sow.”  Many will recognize this as the opening line of one of Jesus’ most familiar parables.  Versions of it appear in all three synoptic gospels: Matthew 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; and Luke 8:5-8.  Jesus lived in an agricultural society and illustrated his teaching with examples with which his listeners would be familiar.  Other well-known references to seeds and planting include the parables of the Mustard Seed, the Wheat and the Tares (weeds), and the Growing Seed.
Cultural anthropologists tell us that the movement from hunting and gathering to herding and farming marked a huge shift in human development.  When our ancestors learned how to save the seed from edible plants that they had found, then sow that seed and tend it carefully through the following growing season, they were rewarded with a more plentiful and dependable food supply than they had previously enjoyed.  The planting of fields required a more stationary life.  Family groups built permanent homes.  Others joined them to form villages, and towns, and eventually great cities.  Civilization grew from the labors of the farmers.
Over the past two centuries another huge shift has occurred.  In 1790, the time of the first U.S. census, 90% of the labor force were farmers.   A hundred years later, that number had dropped to 43%.  In a population of just under 63 million, an estimated 29.4 million lived on farms.  By 1990, just 2.6% of the labor force were farmers, and slightly more than 1% of our population of 261.4 million lived on farms.  While other industrialized countries have experienced similar changes, subsistence farming is still a way of life for hundreds of millions in the developing world.  It was estimated in 2007 that one-third of the world’s workers were employed in agriculture.
Jesus and his followers understood what was necessary to produce a good crop – fertile soil, rain and sun in proper proportion, careful tending by the farmer.  But they could not have begun to imagine the implements and techniques used by agribusinesses today.  And the concepts of genetic manipulation and patents on seeds would have been totally incomprehensible.  (Please note that I am referring here to the human Jesus who lived in first century Israel, not the risen Christ to whom all things are known.)
The development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) in recent decades has radically changed the processes of planting and harvesting.  It has also raised serious theological and ethical questions about food security for the seven billion humans and hundreds of billions of other creatures who now inhabit our planet.  These are questions which, unfortunately, are not yet being engaged in the average local congregation.  Recognizing that the issues are many and complex, I want to highlight two broad areas of concern.
The first is the practice of permitting huge multinational corporations to patent the genetic content of the seeds they sell.  Most cultures have concluded that it is ethically permissible for humans to claim ownership of other life-forms, but in virtually every instance that ownership is limited to individuals or aggregates of individuals.  For instance, a farmer might own a cow, or a herd of cattle.  Ownership is assumed to extend to the offspring of the owned cattle.  Thus the farmer has the ethical right to breed the cattle, and to keep or dispose of the resulting offspring as seems appropriate.  The farmer may conclude that proper herd management requires disposing of some offspring, either by sale or by slaughter, and retaining others to be bred in turn.
With genetically modified seeds, however, the farmer is granted no such right.  The chemical corporation that sold the seeds retains, by virtue of its patent, ownership of the genetic material in the resulting plants, and stands ready and willing to enforce its ownership claim by every legal means available.  Needless to say, most family farmers lack the resources to defend themselves against Monsanto, DuPont, or Cargill, three of the largest purveyors of genetically modified foods.  Farmers are thus locked into abandoning traditional agricultural practices and purchasing new seeds for each planting season.
How do those of us who worship Creator God respond to these corporate claims to ownership, not just of individual life forms, but of the genetic material of an entire species?  The proliferation of such artificially-produced species demands our theological and ethical consideration.  And the ways in which corporate ownership claims are made against “the least of these” requires special attention.
Our reflection might well be informed by this statement from the World Council of Churches: “We believe that God’s economy of solidarity and justice for the household of creation includes the promise that the people of the world have the right to produce their own food and control the resources belonging to their livelihoods, including biodiversity. It is therefore the right and responsibility of governments to support the livelihoods of small farmers in the South and in the North. It is their right to refuse the demands of agribusinesses that seek to control every aspect of the cycle of life. Such an approach requires respect for indigenous spiritual relationships to land and the bounties of mother earth.”
The second consideration is that of the safety of the foodstuffs resulting from the cultivation of GMO’s.   While manufacturers and distributors maintain that genetically engineered foods are safe for human and animal consumption, a number of independent researchers have revealed significant levels of toxicity.  Adequate independent testing is made difficult by an international pattern of harassment and threats directed at researchers, and suppression and sabotage of their studies.  The organization Physicians and Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science and Technology documents many disturbing incidents on their website 
Meanwhile much of the world’s population is kept deliberately uninformed about the potential for serious negative health effects.  In the United States and Canada, labeling of GM foods is voluntary.  In many instances consumers are unaware that they are eating genetically engineered items, and those who desire to eliminate GMO’s from their diet are not given adequate information to allow them to do so.
What is our responsibility as people of faith for the safety of the food on which life depends?  What does scripture teach us regarding stewardship of land and care for creation?  What is required of us to maintain the integrity of God’s gifts of seed and soil?  It is critical that we give these questions prayerful consideration.  The answers we give today will affect future generations for many years to come.
For additional information, please see the work of Dr. Vandana Shiva on her blog Navdanya, and this article with numerous links on the Global Issues website.


  1. One of the rather nasty side effects of the Iraq war was that Cheny/Monsanto had a clause written into the new Iraqi constitution that farmers MUST, BY LAW use GMO seeds owned by that company.

    That is Bio Imperialism.

    Contrast that to Norman Borlaug - the inventor of Dwarf Wheat - which is credited with saving over a billion lives world wide. This amazing agricultural development was given away to the world free.

    1. Thanks for this information. I was not aware of the situation in Iraq. For readers who want more detail, here is a link to an article by GRAIN, a small international non-profit working to support farmers: