Ross Smith grew up knowing he would farm. Born to a fifth-generation farmer in northern Indiana, Smith in his younger years worked alongside his dad and grandfather. He studied agricultural economics at Purdue University and learned about the technological advancements in agriculture that defined the 20th century and boosted crop efficiency.
But Smith and his wife also began a small vegetable and hog farm in Hendricks County, Indiana, that sold directly to consumers through on-farm purchases and farmers’ markets. Schooled in modern agriculture, Smith felt the tension of operating an old-fashioned (if currently in vogue) business, “caught between a love of a capitalistic economic system that awards efficiency and an intense love of God’s created world that I believe to be often damaged by ‘efficiency,’ ” he says.
Smith has navigated two competing visions of how we are to subdue the earth and its every seed-bearing plant in the 21st century. One approach maximizes production and crop yields through the power of human innovation, arguing that genetic seed modification and GPS-guided harvesters are God’s provision to feed a growing population in a complex world. The other approach sees organic production and the local food movement as guardians of true flourishing, warning us not to overindulge human creativity at the expense of God’s original creation: our bodies and the land.
Unsurprisingly, disagreements between proponents of each view—whether farmers or home cooks—have often become polarized. Watchdog documentarians infiltrate the shocking “factory farm” that nourishes a paycheck-stretching Walmart shopper, while a farm-share member packs $7 cartons of eggs into her Volvo.
On the surface, the local-organic crowd seems to occupy the moral high ground. Majorities of both liberal and conservative Americans, for example, frown on eating foods grown with pesticides, according to Pew research. Most US adults, including Protestants, are suspicious of genetically modified foods, or GMOs (blacks and Hispanics are especially wary).
But agricultural technologies, from robotic farming to gene splicing, are quickly progressing toward all kinds of noble ends, addressing human health and environmental problems such as pest and weed control and drought-resistant crops.
What if Christianity offers a vision for farming that embraces both human ingenuity as fulfillment of the creation mandate and a calling to care for land and health? In Scripture’s narrative arc from a garden that culminates as a city, there are signs that agriculture in the New Jerusalem is not just a return to the simplicity of cultivating Eden. There may be room in that city for modern agricultural innovation, even GMOs.
Today’s conversations about creation and our stewardship of it are often oriented toward Eden. Evoking farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry, they harken back to a world lacking advanced technology like tractors, businesses, and GMOs.
Reflecting on his boyhood in Henry County, Kentucky, Berry writes:
The farms were generally small. They were farmed by families who lived not only upon them, but within and from them. . . . There were small dairies, the milking more often than not done by hand. . . . That they were repudiated as the stuff of a hopelessly outmoded, unscientific way of life . . . is a work of monstrous ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of the experts and politicians, who have prescribed, encouraged, and applauded the disintegration of such farming communities all over the country.
Berry’s words resonate with Smith, who now works for an organic dairy co-op. Small-scale farming “lends to a higher level of symbiotic interaction with God’s created world,” he says. Smith favors the economic model embraced by the agrarian movement, which builds farmer-to-consumer relationships through things like farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs), as farmers essentially ask for a higher price in exchange for the accountability and personal connection. He is concerned about ag companies that prioritize financial interests and undervalue biological and ecological systems.
Mourning the paradise lost of Eden is understandable, and critiquing systems that choose profit and power over people is necessary. But in longing for the farming of old, we should be careful not to conflate the recent past with the sinless early days of Eden. The farmers of Berry’s writings also tilled a fallen earth.
Smith doesn’t believe the only right approach will come from small farms. Neither does Nathan Nieuwendorp, a 20-something who lives and farms in Inwood, Iowa, with his family, raising hogs and growing genetically modified corn and soybeans. What Nieuwendorp grows feeds families beyond his Iowa town, traveling across the nation and abroad. Nieuwendorp sees his approach to agriculture, and specifically his use of GMO technology, as its own way of fulfilling the Genesis 2 commands to work the garden and take care of it.
“GMOs are one of the ways we accomplish those tasks. They’re a way man uses his innovative power,” Nieuwendorp says. “To improve upon fallen nature. To feed hungry people. To steward what we’ve been given and to make life better.”
Like Nieuwendorp, Aaron Hummel, a research scientist at a family-owned seed-technology company, understands stewardship in context of what happened after God gave the creation mandate.
“Adam had eaten luxuriously just by harvesting the bounty of the garden of Eden,” he says. “But as a consequence of Adam’s sin, the ground was literally cursed by God. Suddenly, eating required hard and painful toil and a constant struggle against weeds, pests, and many other challenges. Because of this, agriculture as we know it is completely different from what would be required in the Garden.”
In other words, agriculture since the Fall has largely been a human quest for technologies to relieve the toil and overcome creation’s brokenness.
But we don’t just live under the weight of the Fall. We live in the knowledge of God’s redemptive work that will come to completion in the New Jerusalem, and we await and work toward this reality. It’s been a favorite topic among Christian writers over the past decade, imagining how what began in the Garden of Eden will someday become the New Jerusalem.
“It is widely understood that when God tells Adam and Eve to ‘have dominion’ and ‘fill the earth’ he is directing them to build a God-honouring civilisation,” Tim Keller wrote in “A Biblical Theology of the City.” “They are to bring forth the riches that God put into creation by developing science, art, architecture, human society.”
The Bible, however, offers scant details on exactly how much “God-honouring civilisation” will make it into the New Jerusalem. What qualifies as the “splendor” of kings and the “glory and honor of the nations” that Revelation 21 says will be brought in after the first earth passes away? Would GMOs make the cut? Would tomatoes?
It’s unclear from Scripture just what role human hands will have in building the New Jerusalem and what’s left to the divine, given phrases like “we do not have an enduring city” (Heb. 13:14). But the little we do know certainly engages our imaginations to consider how scientific endeavors and modern economics could fit within the creation mandate that points, in some way, to a new earth.
For Hummel, the New Jerusalem will be a place where his work is brought to fruition and the far-reaching effects of sin are done away with. “It will be very exciting to see a perfected agricultural system in which the challenges we face every day here will simply not exist,” he says.
For all our Sunday school images of streets paved with gold, perhaps the most striking detail from John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is the city’s sheer size: nearly 1,400 miles long on both sides, 2 million square miles, large enough to fill the entire middle of the United States. It may be figurative language, of course, but the takeaway is clear. There will be lots of people in that city. And while there may not be death or hunger, there will definitely be food for those masses (God did put food front and center in Eden).
In that, we might find the theological guidance we need to make sense of “Big Ag” in our world. In the New Jerusalem, we’re not met with a perfect garden but a city, a place where creation has not been simply preserved but imaginatively stewarded for the flourishing of an unprecedented portion of the population—all of it.
Mysteries remain, of course, about what agricultural challenges would need to be solved in the New Jerusalem. In light of the Revelation promise to bar impure things from New Jerusalem, it seems a safe bet there will be no second-earth pests. And without pests, who needs pest-resistant plants?
Be that as it may, if the New Jerusalem will have as-yet-unseen cultural diversity—the best of what humanity has to offer, as some scholars imagine it—then we can enter into conversations about agriculture recognizing that diverse thinking is a gift and grows from good theology, instead of falling prey to either nostalgic or divisive language. If agricultural technologies like genetic modification are to be a historic tool for both human flourishing and stewarding creation, it will require that consumers, scientists, and farmers collaborate.
After all, critics worry primarily about the unintended consequences that those corporations might miss in their quest to rush genetic technology to market and gain market share. But if the proverbial purveyors of corporate greed (John called them “anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful”) will be outlawed on the new earth, then we can assume that any GMOs making it through New Jerusalem customs will be managed with utmost wisdom
This is cause for hope. While we long for a future world where the “thorns and thistles” of today are no more, we must remember that this hope is undergirded not just by a redemption of technological and creative development but by redeemed people learning to value and love their neighbors, even those we disagree with.
A Christian vision of agriculture is a kinder approach—but it isn’t only one that balances the needs of feeding the world’s growing population, caring for the environment, and aiding the success of local economies. It also views diversity of opinion not as a competitive threat but as instructive.
“I fall into one camp, which I admit has not done everything right, and am critical of the other camp, which I admit has done many things right,” Smith says. “Having the two thought processes hold each other accountable inherently brings a better product to the consumer.”
Often our personal preferences fail to see the faults of our chosen tribe. Conventional ag ignored the discourse of organic enthusiasts in the 1970s on soil, nutrients, pollinators, and beneficial insects, but now is moving toward more conservation practices.
Meanwhile, the organic movement often relies on misinformation about the health and safety of modern genetic and chemical technologies—and questionable moral claims—to market many of its products.
If we don’t listen well, these farmers feel, we won’t find the common good in modern agriculture. As people oriented toward a new creation reality, it’s possible to lead farmers and ag producers to find shared values.
“If localism is your preference, that is not a problem,” Nieuwendorp says. “If Big Ag is your preference, okay. However, there are areas where each one is clearly better than the other.”
Hummel sees diverse thinking as a benefit when perspectives are grounded in scientifically sound information, and he believes it’s an advantage that people are innovating in big operations and small operations, in Big Ag companies and startups. He wants all to work toward ensuring that people, regardless of geography and socioeconomic class, have access to affordable, nutritious, convenient food that is produced in ways that are environmentally sustainable.
Smith, for his part, looks to the future and hopes someday to return to farming full time and continue his family’s agricultural legacy. But he says the way he farms, and convincing others of the “right” way to farm, will not be his most important legacy. The way he loves will be. “I attempt to extend grace, and hope for it to be extended to me as well,” Smith says.
Abigail Murrish writes and hosts a podcast about food, agriculture, and faith from Norwood, Ohio, where she lives with her husband.
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