Critics slam Vatican-US promotion of GM foods

Philippa Hitchen, Rome - The Tablet - 2 October 2004

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to solve world hunger was heavily promoted last weekend at a conference held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The 24 September meeting, entitled "Feeding a Hungry World: the Moral Imperative of Biotechnology", was organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the American embassy to the Holy See. The conference came under fire from critics of GM foods who said it was hopelessly stacked in favour of the controversial new technology.

The American ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, opened the meeting with a declaration that the key objective of GM technology was to help the 1.5 billion people suffering from hunger and malnutrition, mainly in the developing world. This is an urgent moral issue, he said, because 15,000 men, women and children died each day of hunger-related causes. The biotech industry can solve these problems by discovering ways of producing healthier, more nutritious crops which will help poor farmers grow more and better food using less labour and fewer dangerous pesticides, he added, and the Church's role was crucial in convincing people of this moral imperative.

The ambassador's words set the tone for the rest of the day, with speakers lining up to focus on the benefits of biotechnology in increasing crop yields, providing greater resistance to pests and extreme weather conditions and greatly decreasing the need for pesticides as compared with traditional farming methods. Speaker after speaker insisted that genetic modification of staple foods had been going on for some 10,000 years, ever since humans turned to farming instead of hunting and gathering for survival. Cross-breeding of plant varieties and species and the selection of strains with favourable characteristics has a long history and occurs naturally in the wild as well as in the laboratories, it was argued. Modern transgenic foods - produced by crossing genetic material from one organism to another - are subjected to the most stringent testing and there has not been a single case of illness or risk to human health, the speakers insisted.

The director of the influential AgBio foundation, Dr C.S. Prakash, told the conference that with the global population rising from fewer than 100 million at the time of Christ to a projected 9 billion people in 2050, all countries must find ways of increasing food production. Biotechnology can help tackle dwindling water resources, loss of forests, agricultural land and vital topsoil, as well as a dramatic drop in human resources in countries worst affected by Aids, Prakash argued. GMOs are "not the only answer to the world's hunger problem", he said, but they are an important "tool in the toolbox" available to mankind.

Dr Peter Raven, director of Missouri Botanical Gardens and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, criticised opponents of GMO for using "emotive and colourful language" such as "Frankenfoods" and "Terminator Genes" to describe the biotech industry. He accused the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), which has criticised the new technology, of spreading unfounded fears and politically motivated opposition to GM foods. The CIIR, he said, was "not officially affiliated to the Vatican and perhaps not even to the Catholic Church".

Fr Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the bioethics school at the Regina Apostolorum university, set out the theological case for the use of biotech foods in the developing world. Quoting from Genesis, Gaudium et Spes - the Second Vatican Council's 1965 Constitution on the Church in the Modern World - and selected papal speeches, he outlined his view of man as "the centre and the high point" of Creation, who is called upon not just to "protect" but also to "cultivate" nature according to the means at his disposal.

Fr Miranda did refer to the 1989 papal pronouncement that "we are not yet able to measure" the consequences of an unchecked use of genetic manipulation, but said he felt confident that in the intervening 15 years there has been enough testing for it to be asserted that the benefits of GM foods far outweigh any potentially negative consequences.

Conspicuous by their absence from the conference were speakers from the many religious communities and faith-based development agencies who question the long-term social and economic impact of GM foods on poor communities. Many agencies are deeply disturbed by the prospect of farmers in the developing world becoming increasingly dependent on a few big multinational companies for all their patented GM seeds and fertilisers.

The Columban missionary and anti-GMO campaigner Fr Sean McDonagh, who worked for two decades in the Philippines, told The Tablet that patenting seeds was "a fundamental attack on the understanding of life as a gift from God" to be shared with rich and poor alike. He recalled Pope John Paul II's words for the Jubilee of agricultural workers in November 2000, when he stated that the application of biotechnology "cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of immediate economic interests". And to Italian farmers two years later the Pope said that if modern farming techniques do not "reconcile themselves with the simple language of nature in a healthy balance, the life of man will run ever greater risks".

Some observers asked why, if the meeting was really about the moral and ethical challenge of world hunger, there was no real discussion of other widely held perspectives. If the scientists were so sure of the benefits of their technologies, why were they so unwilling to engage in serious debate with their critics from the faith communities?

A Vatican conference on this same subject last November concluded with an appeal for more study and more cooperative effort to end the "climate of ideological conflict" around the GM debate. By failing to address adequately the concerns of so many church groups working with the poorest people and communities, this latest meeting ran the risk of leaving the two sides more deeply divided than ever.