Vatican Conference Examines Merits of Genetic Modification of Crops

VATICAN CITY — As the world's population increases, so, of course, does the demand for food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that, over the next 25 years, global food production must increase by 60% to accommodate the estimated population growth of about 2 billion people. Yet 740 million people already go to bed hungry each night.

This is why the Vatican has joined national governments and other organizations in looking at biotechnology, or genetically modified organisms. The science, which manipulates the genetic makeup of crops, is seen as a particularly effective method of increasing agricultural productivity and efficiency.

Yet, questions remain, particularly in Europe, over the ethics and safety of genetically modified organisms, also called GMOs, used widely in North and South America.

On Sept. 24, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences brought together scientists, farmers and Vatican officials for a conference at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University entitled “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.”

In his opening remarks, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, mentioned the “tremendous potential” of genetically modified organisms and said it is essential the international community meet its obligations in combating food shortages because “hunger and malnutrition are an affront to human dignity.”

Fighting hunger, Nicholson said, is the “foremost objective” of U.S. foreign policy because it “will make our world more peaceful and secure.”

One major argument raised by Catholic critics is that the focus should be on food distribution, not food production. In other words, causes of hunger such as social injustices and restrictive trade practices, which are also an offense against human dignity, must first be addressed before resorting to this technology.

However, Dr. C. S. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics at Alabama's Tuskegee University, dismissed the argument as “disingenuous.” If everyone shared the wealth, Prakash agreed, there would be no poverty, but it's clear that's never going to happen. Meanwhile, not only is food demand growing as populations increase, but water is also becoming a rarer commodity.

Yet critics say there are still no assurances that the technology is sufficiently safe, with no adverse effects to the environment such as diminished biodiversity. Prakash and other speakers countered this by saying that, so far, no single case of illness resulting from consuming foods produced by genetically modified organisms has been recorded, and that biodiversity will actually be conserved and enhanced rather than negatively affected.

What's Moral?

Still, there are other ethical debates concerning the multinational corporations involved. Genetically modified organisms have patents belonging to just a few large corporations, potentially giving them enormous control over farmers.

As one commentator put it, genetic modification is “colonizing the food chain” — food is a common good needed by all to be shared, but now it is becoming another for-profit commodity.

Jesuit Father Roland Lesseps, an American agricultural scientist based in Lusaka, said that in Zambia, there are “better, cheaper, more sustainable and more suitable options for resource-poor farmers” than GMOs. Multinationals promoting genetically modified organisms are, therefore, creating an unnecessary dependency, he argued.

“Surely, a clear moral imperative for us is to research and develop these methods of sustainable agriculture,” Father Lesseps said, adding that failure to do so by these corporations is a “serious moral fault.”

But for Dr. Peter Raven, pontifical academician and director of the St. Louis-based Missouri Botanical Garden, the European opponents of GMOs are committing a much graver error when they persuade African countries to reject them. “Whatever policy might be adopted for Europe, persuading governments responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of starving people in Africa to forego food aid on the basis of politically or economically motivated disinformation seems to me to constitute a serious crime against humanity,” he said.

That Europeans were willing to prevent starving Africans from receiving biotech foods despite the fact that GMOs are found in European beer, cheese and drugs “seems to me to be truly obscene,” Raven said.

Farmers' Viewpoint

Arguably, the strongest presentations at the Gregorian University conference were given by two farmers. Sabina Khoza, a South African who described herself as a “very, very proud indigenous woman in agriculture” made the point that she had flown to the conference and that “if it weren't for technology, I'd still be walking to get here.”

Edwin Paraluman of the Philippines illustrated with photographs the effect of genetic modification on his maize crop.

“I was really amazed,” he said. “Since I was small, I saw so much damage, but now it is clear.”

Paraluman said the increase in quality and quantity of his yields enabled him to buy a new refrigerator one year and a motorcycle the next.

But for Father Lesseps, much more research still needs to be carried out. “We've so often done what we've thought to be okay but which turned out to be disastrous,” he said. “We only have to think of tragedies like thalidomide, DDT and CFCs. It's still too early to tell.”

Ambassador Nicholson admitted that genetically modified organisms are “not a perfect solution,” nor are they a panacea, but present the best option available.

Catholic critics of GMOs were upset that, unlike an earlier conference on the subject held by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace last November, they were not invited to give a presentation.

So far, the Vatican has been equivocal on the issue, preferring to wait until more is known. However, according to some GMO skeptics at the Gregorian University gathering, Rome is considered likely to issue a yellow flag rather than a red one — meaning “proceed with caution.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.