National Catholic Register


U.S. Holy See Embassy Wades Into Genetically Modified Crops Debate

The Holy See invited three American professors to present eight years of research on genetically modified crops and their effect on farmers, industry and the environment.


Register Correspondent

October 29-November 4, 2006 Issue | Posted 10/25/06 at 9:00 AM


ROME — The use of genetically modified organisms is a controversial topic these days — even in Rome.

As part of its ongoing efforts to stimulate debate about the issue, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See invited three American professors to Rome on Oct. 5-6, to present eight years of research on genetically modified organism (GMO) crops and their effect on farmers, industry and the environment.

The professors’ visit was timely. A network of Christian and environmentalist groups recently spearheaded a campaign warning of “Terminator Technology” (genetically modified seeds that could be programmed to die and so protect intellectual property rights of the corporations that engineer the seeds).

And in August, anti-GMO campaigners destroyed a French farmer’s genetically modified corn — the first time a commercial farm using genetically modified crops had been targeted.

Biotech companies, meanwhile, have been continually accused of applying heavy-handed tactics to force farmers to use their products.

In September, the non-profit Public Patent Foundation filed a formal request for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to revoke patents issued to one biotech multinational, St. Louis-based Monsanto. The foundation alleges that Monsanto is using the biotech patents “to harass, intimidate, sue — and in many cases bankrupt — American farmers.”

For its part, the Vatican has expressed awareness of the technology’s great potential in reducing hunger, but has offered no definitive judgments on its use.

Pope Benedict XVI has not spoken on the issue, and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences have advised scientists to “proceed with caution.”

The three professors who spoke this month in Rome offered some compelling arguments about the merits of genetically modified organisms. Between 1996 and 2004, the researchers found substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to a total of $27 billion.

The technology had also reduced pesticide spraying by 380,000,000 pounds and significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture — the equivalent, the researchers said, of removing five million cars from the roads.

Furthermore, none of the professors had come across a single case of negative health effects on human beings from using or consuming the genetically altered products.

What gave added weight to their findings was the neutrality of the academics.

All three were former Peace Corps volunteers whose research focused on the humanitarian aspects of GMO science. And all three said they had no direct ties to biotech multinationals, although one does belong to an organization that receives some funding from Monsanto.

“We’re just public sector employees,” said Professor Greg Taxler, an Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology lecturer at Auburn University in Alabama. “We usually like to run these things down, run them to the ground.”

The professors advocated more genetically modified organism research targeted towards developing countries and the small-seed market, and more public-sector investment in biotechnology research.

Apart from a few government-directed projects, most commercial genetically modified organism products are sold by Monsanto and three other multinationals.

But the researchers debunked the claim, often made by anti-GMO campaigners, that profiteering multinationals make poor rural farmers dependent on genetically modified seeds that aren’t beneficial to the farmers.

These “paternalistic” arguments imply that farmers are not clever enough to be able to discern the advantages of one crop from another, the researchers said.This “misinformation” — particularly prevalent among European environmentalist groups — prevents farmers in developing countries from being able to make good choices because propaganda has caused some regulators in developing countries to prohibit genetically modified organism products.

“The regulators always tend to say No,” said Professor Lawrence Kent, director of International Programs at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, “but in the meantime agricultural productivity goes down, poverty goes up, and people aren’t finding a solution.”

Particularly frustrating for Prof. Kent is that his organization has teamed up with biotech multinational Monsanto to offer free modified seeds to poor farmers, but many African governments won’t look at them.

The professors also accused their opponents of spreading myths about damage caused to the environment by biotech crops.

Carl Pray, professor of agricultural food and resource economics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, cited documentation of genetically modified organisms from China that actually showed a “dramatic” drop in nausea and signs of pesticide poisoning when farmers used genetically modified crops that contain their own internal pesticide mechanism.

Pray also highlighted research indicating that genetically modified white corn in South Africa has reduced toxins related to cancer and miscarriages.

Cardinal Martino

The Vatican has persistently warned of two temptations regarding genetically modified crops: thinking that only genetically modified organisms can solve the problem of hunger; and falling into the trap of providing superficial information, fueled by over-enthusiasm or unjustified alarmism.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, has taken a particular interest in the debate.

During a two-day seminar on genetically modified foods that the council hosted in November 2003, Cardinal Martino said the Vatican is a “student” in the debate about genetically modified foods and will continue to study the issue for some time before making any moral pronouncements on the technology.

“I continue to say what I have said in the past: We must feed the hungry,” Cardinal Martino told reporters at the end of the 2003 meeting. “You do not do that by giving them a meal of genetically modified food, but by giving them an opportunity to improve their lives, perhaps even using genetically modified crops.”

(CNS contributed to

this article.)

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.