Archived Voice Articles
Students, alumni learn to ask the right questions about ag and biotechnology
By Julie Ooms
The word “biotechnology” often conjures images and ideas that are not positive. Some might recall seeing cloned sheep on the news and worry that humans will be cloned next. Others envision couples in comfortably furnished doctors’ offices picking “designer genes” for their children out of glossy catalogues. And, to be sure, Christians and Dordt students—especially those who have taken Gen 300, “Calling, Task, and Culture”—alike have encountered the “dark side” of what humans could be capable of doing with biotechnology.
“There’s nowhere else in the nation where students have the opportunity to witness and observe such cutting edge biotechnology in agriculture,” says agriculture professor Duane Bajema. Dr. Allan Kramer ('74) (left) gives students a tour of the work his company, Sioux Biochemical, does in this area.
Agriculture Professor Duane Bajema and Biology Professor Tony Jelsma would argue, however, that this negative view of biotechnology focuses mainly on the extremes and doesn’t take into account all the benefits biotechnology has on our lives.
“Christians are called to develop creation and take care of what we’ve been given,” says Jelsma, who teaches biotechnology classes to students from a variety of majors—biology, business, and agriculture, to name three. Through the work of professors like Jelsma and Bajema, Dordt students are learning to be informed stewards of creation through their work with biotechnology. And some of these students, past and present, are using their knowledge to help change how Christians view both biotechnology and agriculture.
The first problem Christians run into when thinking about biotechnology is probably defining it. “It’s a weasel,” says Bajema, laughing, when asked to define it in layman’s terms. “It can mean a lot of different things, in many different areas.”
Jelsma agrees, and he describes biotechnology in a series of steps. “At the simplest level, biotechnology is manipulating living organisms for our purposes,” he says. “It could be as simple as planting a garden or farming crops or selectively breeding livestock for a certain trait.”
The next level involves modification, Jelsma continues. “One step up from simply manipulating is genetically modifying plants and animals. An example of this would be what’s called “Round-Up Ready” corn, which has a gene in it to make it resistant to Round-Up weed killer.”
And then there’s one more step: “Another layer of biotechnology, usually involving microorganisms like bacteria and yeast, involves using organisms as molecular machines to do things for humans. For example, yeast is used in the production of ethanol, and scientists have tried to modify bacteria to digest oil so they can be used to clean up oil spills.” Then he laughs. “The funny thing about the oil-digesting bacteria is that most of the time, the bacteria in the water can do a fine job on their own, without any biotechnology at all.”
Biotechnology clearly isn’t all about cloning and harmful genetic manipulation. A lot of the food we eat every day was produced with some kind of biotechnology, in fact. “Most of the corn you buy has been genetically modified in some way,” Jelsma says. But Christians need to be informed enough about biotechnology to be able to ask the right questions, and discern when it’s going in the wrong direction.
“Pragmatism should not take over when we’re dealing with biotechnology,” Bajema says. “We can’t keep doing things with living organisms just because they make more economic sense; we have to remember that we’re dealing with living things.”
Jelsma agrees, and gives two considerations he thinks everyone involved in biotechnology needs to keep in mind. “With things like selective breeding, changes are gradual,” he says. “But with genetic manipulation, we see changes very quickly, in one generation instead of several. We need to always ask whether or not the environment can support this change.” His second consideration involves genetic diversity. “God created the world genetically diverse,” he says, “but when you’re breeding for the perfect cow, for example, you’re ignoring the created diversity of cows. We were created with diversity; why are we getting rid of it?”
When Christians study biotechnology, they are able to ask those kinds of questions, Jelsma and Bajema agree. However, Christians should not just ask questions about biotechnology—they also should be involved in it. Several Dordt students, from graduating classes ranging from 1985 to 2008, are working in or planning to work in agricultural biotechnology. Several of these alumni work at a Sioux Center-based company called Trans Ova Genetics. Trans Ova conducts research and helps its clients improve their herds of cattle through biotechnological processes like in vitro fertilization. (More information about Trans Ova Genetics, its goals and procedures, and the company’s views on animal care can be found online at www.transova.com.)
Dorene Vander Zwaag found that agriculture jobs include more than farming. She has worked for Trans Ova Genetics for nearly eighteen years.
Dorene Vander Zwaag, a 1985 graduate who majored in ag business, has been working at Trans Ova in Sioux Center for eighteen years.
“I started as an embryologist, doing things like freezing and thawing cow embryos and traveling to bring them to farms. Now I’m a client service representative. I spend three-quarters of the day on the phone talking to potential clients, scheduling cows for in vitro fertilization, giving results, and helping them with questions.” Vander Zwaag likes her job very much. She says she started her years at Dordt as a social work major, but after a summer work-study job at the Dordt farm caring for animals decided she wanted a career with animals. “I remember taking agriculture classes with a lot of guys who knew they were going to graduate and go home to take over the family farm,” she says. “I didn’t have that option, but I quickly learned that there is much more to the agricultural world than just farming.” In 1989, she remembered a field trip she’d taken to Trans Ova, applied for a job there, and got it.
Vander Zwaag says that, if she didn’t have the background in science that she does, she’d be more wary of biotechnology, too “Because I know what goes on scientifically, I know it’s not scary or voodoo-ish; biotechnology is a way of using creation to help people add value and health to their livelihood.”
Three more Dordt graduates, Robyn Blankespoor Kelderman (’02), Jennifer Anema (’06) and Shawna Muilenburg (’07) also work at Trans Ova. Kelderman enjoys her job, both because it is extremely interesting and intense and because it allows her to work part-time while raising her family. “I always liked the scientific side of agriculture,” she says, “and the work I do is very practical for being a mom.” She took a job at Trans Ova shortly after her son was born in 2005. Her job also involves in vitro fertilization for cattle.
While at Dordt, Kelderman started in the pre-veterinary program, but as she took more classes, Kelderman says, “I realized that there’s so much more to ag than just being a farmer or a veterinarian. There’s a science side, a business side, a teaching side—a huge variety.”
When asked how Christian stewardship of creation relates to her work, Kelderman emphasizes the need for an informed perspective. “The biggest thing I learned at Dordt about how to view biotechnology is that I need a well-rounded education so that I can form an informed, Christian perspective on what I do. And we need to always be aware that, whatever improvements and strides we make in this area, we’re called first to study and take care of what’s around us. We also need to remember that God is still in control of these things, not us.”
Another Dordt student—Robyn Van Wyk, a 2008 graduate—also plans to take a job at Trans Ova. She will be working in one of Trans Ova’s barns, caring for in vitro and cloned calves. Van Wyk says that while at Dordt, she’s learned how important it is to evaluate ideas in areas like biotechnology.
“In class, we were introduced to a lot of views and ideas about how agriculture can work,” she says. “As Christians, we need to evaluate these ideas instead of just accepting them because they’re new or because they’re common. I know I need to take a second look at the ag practices I see and evaluate how they fit in with being a steward of creation.”
Bajema’s description of biotechnology as a “weasel” still stands. It’s a difficult area, but one that needs the involvement of Christians.
“I think some people think Dordt, or Christians in general, are against biotechnology. We’re not, but that doesn’t mean we’re afraid to ask the questions others don’t want to ask,” says Jelsma. “Since we’re dealing with living things, there are extra concerns. If you build a bad bridge, you can always demolish it and start over. But when you alter something alive, the consequences last a lot longer. Then again, so do the benefits.”
Bajema and Jelsma agree that the impact biotechnology will have on the future of agriculture and other areas of life will be tremendous. It is because of that impact that Christians need to be involved. “We want our students to be willing to ask the questions others aren’t asking,” says Jelsma. “We need to plant people in industries who are grounded in the Word and know why they need to ask those questions.” And as Christians involved in biotechnology ask questions, they can help companies make sure they are not harming creation, but developing it and caring for it.