African priests criticise Vatican GMO conference
By Philip Pullella
ROME, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Organisers of an international Vatican seminar on genetically modified foods came under fire from their own on Tuesday when African priests said it should have included more Church members critical of the crops.
The seminar, attended by experts from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa, is intended to help the Vatican decide whether GMOs (genetically modified organisms) eventually get its backing which could affect the views of millions of Catholics.
The gathering, which was closing later on Tuesday, had already come under fire on its opening day from two speakers who said it was biased with scientists who favour GMOs.
"We are concerned that several voices of Church leaders around the world are not represented on these panels," two Jesuit priests said in a joint written presentation.
The priests were Roland Lesseps, senior scientist at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, and Peter Henriot, director of Lusaka's Jesuit Centre of Theological Reflection.
They pointed to recent statements by Church leaders in the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa, which they said had expressed "deep concerns based on practical experiences" and were not reflected at the seminar.
In their paper, the priests quoted Pope John Paul, who has said the world was not ready to assess the biological disturbance that could result from what he called "unscrupulous development of new forms of plants and animal life."
The European Union on Monday postponed a decision on whether to allow the import of a type of genetically modified maize that would have tested its de-facto ban on the crops.
SMALL FARMS THREATENED?
The two priests said the current design of commercially promoted GMOs was based on an industrial model of agriculture that favours large farms at the expense of family farms.
They warned it would "introduce a serious dependency of small-scale and mostly poor farmers on large multinational corporations for seeds and complementary necessities."
They said there also was a risk that alternative agriculture, such as organic farming, would be severely limited by the use of GMOs and abrogate the tradition in many developing countries of saving seeds each year for replanting.
The seminar of 67 scientists, plant experts and Catholic Church representatives, was organised by the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with development issues.
It is closely watched by political, business and scientific communities because the Vatican's position on GMOs could affect the views of millions of Catholics across the world.
They said the assertion that GMO crops would lessen the problem of world hunger through increased productivity "is open to direct challenge."
Doreen Stabinsky of the environmental group Greenpeace again criticised the seminar, saying it included "an overwhelming presence of GMO advocates" and few critics.
"In our view, this seminar adequately addresses neither the issue of GMO (problems) nor that of solving world hunger. The question posed in the title of this seminar -- 'GMOs: Hope or Threat' - will not be answered here," she told the group.
The Vatican organisers and other scientists have rejected assertions that the balance was intentionally biased against GMOs. They said sides would be taken into consideration when the Vatican position on GMOs is eventually formulated.