Vatican accused of skewing conference on food production
John Hooper in Rome                                           
November 13, 2003
The Guardian

The Vatican looks set to lend its vast moral authority to the cause of genetically modified crops, despite a row over the alleged "packing" with pro-GM delegates of a conference convened to help the Pope's officials make up their minds.

A thumbs-up from the Vatican would have far-reaching repercussions in the developing world, on a par with those generated by its teaching on birth control.

Church leaders are divided between those who see GM crops as a possible solution to world hunger and those who fear they could increase dependence of the poor on the rich.

At a press conference in Rome, Cardinal Renato Martino, the head of the Vatican ministry that deals with development issues, put himself firmly in the enthusiasts' camp. He said the Vatican City conference had shown GM foods "should not be abandoned, even if they still need a lot of cures".

He added that no date had been set for a pronouncement on the issue by the Vatican and that it could take years.

But, in a joint statement, two American priests who work in Zambia accused the organisers of skewing the composition of the event in favour of an endorsement.

The environmental group, Greenpeace, made a similar claim.

The development seminar was attended by experts from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Father Roland Lesseps, a senior scientist at the Kasisi agricultural training centre in Lusaka, and Peter Henriot, the director of Lusaka's Jesuit Centre of Theological Reflection, said: "We are concerned that several voices of church leaders around the world are not represented."

Roman Catholic prelates in Brazil, the Philippines and South Africa, have all expressed doubts about the use of GM crops. The American priests said these were "deep concerns based on practical experiences". They said GM crops, as currently marketed, would "introduce a serious dependency of small-scale and mostly poor farmers on multinational corporations for seeds and complementary necessities". They added that there also was a risk that alternative agriculture, such as organic farming, would suffer.