Below we reproduce an Open Letter to the Holy See requesting that it does not support genetically engineered food.
It was written by the Columban missionary, Father Sean McDonagh, in response to the Conference: Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology, held in the Gregorian University in Rome on September 24, 2004. The event, it may be remembered, was organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and co-sponsored by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Sean McDonagh was present at the conference and his letter provides both an eye-witness account of what occurred and an extremely well-informed and thoughtful response from a Roman Catholic missionary who has both a deep knowledge of ecological theology and direct experience of agricultural and development issues in the developing world.
As the letter is not yet finalized, Father McDonagh would welcome any comments and suggestions you may have, which we will be happy to forward.
Here are a few excerpts, followed by the full text of the open letter.
Unfortunately the Conference did not encourage dialogue on the crucially important question of how to banish hunger from our contemporary world. To begin with, all the speakers were staunch promoters of biotech crops and no other point of view was welcomed.
In his introductory address ambassador James Nicholson accused those opposed to GE crops of cultural imperialism. He emphasized that, "the worst form of cultural imperialism is to deny others the opportunities we have to take advantage of new technologies to raise up our human condition". I believe that the worst form of colonialism is to deny local communities the freedom to make decisions about their own development.
As in the case with more than 150 other treaties, the U.S. has not become a party to the biosafety protocol. Given this dismissive attitude to international treaties and initiatives and the size and political power of the biotechnology industry, are we now expected to believe that the U.S. interest in GE food is purely altruistic!
The first speaker, Dr. C.S. Prakash is a well-known promoter of genetic engineering. I believe that The Pontifical Academy of Sciences should have checked out Prakash's role in discrediting [critical scientific] research before agreeing to have him invited to speak at the Conference.
The next speaker at the conference, Dr. Peter Raven, was even more aggressive in the way he dismissed anyone who had reservations about GE crops: for him such people are ignorant and morally irresponsible.
He even accused the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) of spreading unfounded fears about GE crops. The CIIR, according to him, was "not officially affiliated to the Vatican and perhaps not even to the Catholic Church". It was obvious that he knew very little about the work of CIIR in Third World countries for the past few decades.
When Dr. Raven accuses those who oppose GE crops of being motivated by questionable motives he ought to be forthcoming about his own connections with big business.
Again the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences should have asked whether it is appropriate to invite someone so closely identified with the biotech industry to speak at a conference on solving world hunger.
In the afternoon of the conference two farmers described how Bt crops had revolutionised their lives. According to them everything about GE crops was bright, positive and modern. One of the farmers, Mr. Edwin Y. Paraluman, is from Mindanao. I was interested to hear his fulsome praise for GE crops which he is growing in the vicinity of General Santos City. I lived with T'boli people in that area for over 12 years and I never heard of SARGEN the non-government organisation which Mr. Paraluman chairs. I do know, however, that the Bishop of the Diocese of Marble, Dinualdo Gutierrez, which includes General Santos, is the most vociferous critic of GE crops among the Philippine Bishops.
I am familiar with many farming organisations in the Philippines... It is legitimate to ask why some of the numerous independent farmers' organizations in the Philippines were not asked to send representatives to the Conference?
Significantly, Caritas Internationalis, the lead Catholic agency in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, was also not represented at the Conference. This body, with decades of first-hand experience in tackling hunger and poverty, issued a statement in conjunction with CIDSE on September 24, 2004 which was highly critical of the theme of the Conference.
I have no problem with a U.S. ambassador using every opportunity to promote U.S. business interests. However, I am dismayed that the ambassador's viewpoint has been uncritically accepted by the Pontifical Academy and other bodies in the Vatican.
The September 24th Conference at the Gregorian University was largely a promotional event for U.S. biotech corporations who are poised to make billions of dollars if GM food is forced on the majority of countries of the world.
Given the cautionary language about GE crops coming from Third World Churches and their leaders the Vatican must take a hard, principled look at GE crops and a strong, uncompromising stand against the patenting of life.
An Open Letter to the Holy See requesting that it does not support Genetically Engineered Food
Written in response to the Conference: Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology (Gregorian University, September 24, 2004).
Sean McDonagh, SSC.
The Conference "Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology" was held in the Gregorian University in Rome on September 24, 2004. The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See co-sponsored the event with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. About 200 people, mainly people living, studying or working in Rome, attended. In the first part of this paper I reflect on the proceeding of the conference and the contribution of the various speakers. In a separate document I will critique the Pontifical Academy's "Study Document on the Use of 'Genetically Modified Plants' to Combat Hunger in the World". This document was made available to the participants at the conference and was seen as another piece of literature supporting GE crops. I end this paper with an urgent call for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to revisit the issue of hunger in our world by convening a new consultation in cooperation with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and other international Catholic agencies that specialize in development issues. The consultation should not only seek to investigate thoroughly the causes of starvation and poverty but it should also be broad-based and inclusive. Such a conference would, undoubtedly, make a contribution to the Church's mission in this year of the Eucharist.
Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology
U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, introduced the Roman conference by stating that feeding the 1.5 billion people who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition is as much a key element of U.S. foreign policy as waging the war on terrorism. According to him, an important way to do this is to make GE crops available to farmers around the world, but especially in Africa. The ambassador chided environmental groups and even European governments who criticised the U.S., government's decision to donate genetically engineered (GE) food to African countries. The ambassador seemed to be unaware that the EU gives three times more food aid to Africa than the U.S. and that the EU provides aid in the form of money and resources so as to enable poor countries to source as much food-aid locally as possible. This approach supports local farmers who, once the drought or emergency has passed, can return to producing nutritious food. The U.S. approach, on the other hand, maintains a policy of shipping in U.S.- produced food, thus transforming its foreign aid into a mechanism for subsidizing U.S. agribusiness. This policy response to hunger and famine often has the effect of undermining the livelihood of local farmers in countries receiving aid, by making them more dependent on imported food.
Questions were not welcome during the morning session of the conference. However, at one stage after the second speaker, I attempted to dispute the ambassador's claim that the U.S was committed to solving the problem of hunger world-wide. I pointed out that the main problem facing agriculture in the next few decades is global warming. I noted that global warming, among other things, is causing glaciers to melt in the Andes and the Himalayas. The Ganges, Bramaputra, Mekong and Yangtze rivers all depend on the Himalayan glaciers. One third of humanity depends on these rivers for their food production. And a rise of one metre-and-a-half will submerge much of Bangladesh. Yet, I reminded the ambassador, the U.S. government has not signed the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, even though its population, a mere 6% of humanity, is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Though the atmosphere at the Conference was not dialogue-friendly I went on to call attention to the fact that the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has chosen 'Biodiversity for Food Security' as the theme of this year's World Food Day. I explained that sustainable agriculture depends on the continuation of vibrant biodiversity all around the world. However, we are now living through the sixth largest extinction of species in the 3.8 billion years of life on earth. The bio-geographer Chris Park, of Lancaster University, estimates that there are possibly 75,000 edible plants in the world and points out that many of these are highly nutritious and could be added to the larder of a much greater proportion of humankind with a minimum amount of research and funding. The Convention on Biodiversity is attempting to protect biodiversity globally. One hundred and sixty eight countries have signed this Convention but the U. S. has yet to sign it. Why? I asked? The reason I believe is that their agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies are involved in what many people now call biopiracy in various countries, and they do not wish to be pressured into disclosing the origins of particular plants, organisms or genetic material. Under the Convention on Biodiversity they may one day have to disclose such information and may be forced to pay royalties to the original 'owners'.
All the carefully chosen speakers at the Conference were at pains to emphasise that biotech crops pose no threat to human health or the environment, despite the fact that other scientists dispute these claims. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which attempts to regulate transboundary movement of genetically modified organisms has been signed by 103 countries. As in the case with more than 150 other treaties, the U.S. has not become a party to the biosafety protocol. Given this dismissive attitude to international treaties and initiatives and the size and political power of the biotechnology industry, are we now expected to believe that the U.S. interest in GE food is purely altruistic!
In his introductory address ambassador James Nicholson accused those opposed to GE crops of cultural imperialism. He emphasized that, "the worst form of cultural imperialism is to deny others the opportunities we have to take advantage of new technologies to raise up our human condition" . I believe that the worst form of colonialism is to deny local communities the freedom to make decisions about their own development - especially through the mechanisms of debt, structural adjustment programmes and the unequal trading relationships embodied in an organisation like the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The first speaker, Dr. C.S. Prakash is a well-known promoter of genetic engineering. He is professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He argued that GE crops were particularly suited to Third World countries and spoke of the favourable results already evident in countries like India and China. There was no reference in his talk to situations in which GE crops had failed, or were local farmer saw them as totally inappropriate for their particular situation. In Dr. Prakash's world the future with GE crops will be bright for everyone, but especially, small farmers.
Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in England, has examined the scientific quality of some of the claims made for biotech crops by Dr. Prakash. In his report 'Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa', deGrassi points out an, "example of advocacy trumping facts is C.S. Prakash's repeated claims that GM sweet potatoes (in Kenya) are a positive example of the benefits of GM for African countries. (Yet) he has confessed to having no knowledge of the results of scientific trials in Kenya".
The sweet potato example was not the only time that Prakash has played a disingenuous role in the GE debate. In April 2002 the Washington Post broke the news that the scientific journal Nature, in an unprecedented move, had disowned the research it had already published by University of California - Berkeley scientists Ignacio Chapela and David Quist. The research had demonstrated the contamination of traditional maize landraces, in a remote part of Mexico by GM maize. Prakash has admitted that AgBioWorld of which Prakash is a Director "played a fairly important role in putting public pressure on" Nature. Prakash in fund-raising messages went further and claimed AgBioWorld's campaign led directly to the disavowal of the research.
AgBioWorld used its data base list to promote and coordinate the attacks on the two scientists. The inflammatory series of e-mails that kicked off AgBioView's campaign came from a Mary Murphy and an Andura Smetacek. The e-mails claimed Dr. Chapela was politically motivated and that his research could only be understood in the light of his collusion with "fear-mongering activists" with whom, it was insinuated, he had designed the research. And just how much money was he getting in expenses from the anti-biotech industry, Smetacek asked.
In time Ms Mary Murphy's e-mails were shown to have been e-mailed from Monsanto's PR company Bivings, while the postings of Andura Smetacek have been traced back directly to Monsanto corporation in St. Louis. The fact that the editor of such a prestigious magazine as Nature succumbed to this kind of pressure has worried many independent scientists. In a letter to The Guardian the researcher in question, Ignacio H. Chapela surmises; "Perhaps the key lies in his tacit acknowledgment, albeit by dismissal, of the enormous pressures on anyone working in or around the biological sciences ever since we were set on a collision course with commercial interests". In the same letter, Chapela went on to sound a chilling note about the future of science and the power of corporations to direct and manipulate research because they are funding it. "The coordinated attempt to discredit our discoveries in the public piazza sends a chilling message to those who would dare to ask important but uncomfortable questions and find their truthful answer. It is an assault on the very foundations of science. " In the light of the above I believe that The Pontifical Academy of Sciences should have checked out Prakash's role in discrediting Chapela's and Quist's research before agreeing to have him invited to speak at the Conference.
The next speaker at the conference, Dr. Peter Raven, was even more aggressive in the way he dismissed anyone who had reservations about GE crops: for him such people are ignorant and morally irresponsible. He condemned anyone who questioned the safety of GE crops or asked whether they are the best solution for world hunger as "being ideologically driven". He even accused the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) which had rejected the claim that GE crops are essential to combating hunger, of spreading unfounded fears about GE crops. The CIIR, according to him, was "not officially affiliated to the Vatican and perhaps not even to the Catholic Church". It was obvious that he knew very little about the work of CIIR in Third World countries for the past few decades. In 2004 CIIR published an action leaflet entitled "What’s wrong with GM? " in which it stated that, "the introduction of GM crops will endanger small farmers' livelihoods, undermine poor people's ability to feed themselves, and increase the pressure on already damaged and vulnerable environments."
Dr. Raven tried to persuade his audience that raising questions about the terminator gene technology was both "emotional and irrational". What Raven did not mention is that critics of what is benignly called a Technology Protection System say that it could have a profoundly negative impact on subsistence farmers and that is why they more aptly dubbed it 'terminator' technology. They argue that the terminator technology alone makes the 'feed-the-world' argument completely spurious. Terminator seeds, they point out, self-destruct after the first crop, thus forcing farmers to return to the seed company year after year to purchase seeds for planting. Given these added costs, this technology, if it becomes widespread, will surely be the death knell for almost 2 billion small, subsistence, farmers living mainly in the Third World. Sharing seeds among farmers has been at the very heart of subsistence farming since the domestication of staple food crops eleven thousand years ago. The terminator technology would effectively stop farmers sharing seeds. Hope Shand, the research director with the Canadian ETC civil society organisation (CSO), is alarmed at such a development . "Half the world's farmers are poor. They provide food for more than a billion people but they can't afford to buy seeds every growing season. Seed collection is vital for them". The obvious intent of terminator technology is to enable corporations like Monsanto to control and profit from farmers in every corner of the globe. It will lock farmers into a regime of buying genetically engineered seeds that are herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant, copper-fastening them on to chemically-dependent agriculture.
At an ethical level I would suggest that a technology which, according to Professor Richard Lewontin of Harvard University, "introduces a 'killer' transgene that prevents the germ of the harvested grain from developing" must be considered a grossly immoral act. This technology is a sin against the poor, against previous generations, who freely shared their knowledge of plant life with us, against nature itself and, finally against the God of all creativity. To deliberately set out to create seeds that self-destruct is an abomination that no civilized society should tolerate. Furthermore, if anything goes wrong the terminator genes could spread to neighbouring crops and wild and weedy relatives of the plant that have been engineered to produce sterile seeds. This would jeopardize the food security of many poor people. No wonder that there are those who consider the terminator technology as a form of biological warfare on subsistence farmers. Interestingly, one result of the worldwide controversy that has surrounded the terminator technology debate is that Monsanto has promised not to use the technology. Nevertheless, the technology still exists and can be used and other corporations have failed to make similar promises not to use terminator technology in their crops.
Dr. Raven never condemns Monsanto. "There is nothing I'm condemning Monsanto for", he says. In fact he praises the company's efforts to win public acceptance for GMOs. The geneticist Wes Jackson, an old friend of Peter Raven, says of him, "I wish Peter was more reflective
.. the fact that living substance germplasm, can become the property of a corporation is going to come at a cost. I think that the boundaries of consideration need to be broader than Peter is willing to make them. In a certain sense he is a paid travelling salesman for Monsanto". Dr. Raven is associated with an initiative called The Garden which is based in St. Louis - the home town of Monsanto. When Raven came to The Garden in 1971 it had 85 employees and a budget of $550,000. Today there are 345 staff members and a budget of $20 million, much of which comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and corporations like Monsanto. When Dr. Raven accuses those who oppose GE crops of being motivated by questionable motives he ought to be forthcoming about his own connections with big business. His wife at one stage was Monsanto’s Director of Public Policy. Again the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences should have asked whether it is appropriate to invite someone so closely identified with the biotech industry to speak at a conference on solving world hunger.
The next speaker at the Conference, Fr Gonzalo Miranda dean of bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum University, made the theological case for promoting genetically engineered crops. Fr. Miranda position was firmly grounded in a 'domination theology' that assumes that all creation is there primarily for the benefit of human beings. He claims that there is an 'ontological' distinction between humans and all other species. Miranda's presentation lacked the insights of Pope John Paul 11 who, in calling for an 'ecological conversion', contrasts a ministerial relationship with creation with that of an 'autonomous despot' who believes he/she has the right to both use and abuse nature. The pope's message is that, "man's lordship is not absolute but ministerial': it is a real reflection of the unique and infinite lordship of God. Hence man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless wisdom and love of God" (Evangelium Vitae, Number 52).
Miranda seems convinced that the case for GE crops is clear and overwhelming if this technology can help feed the world. In contrast many scholars and development workers dispute the claim that GE crops can feed the world. In fact, they argue strongly that the contrary is true since most GE crops are grown for animal feed.
All GE seeds are patented. I argue elsewhere that patenting undermines the biblical view that life is a gift of God to be shared by everyone - humans and other creatures. In his presentation Fr. Miranda never addressed the moral appropriateness of patenting life. From the perspective of ecological theology, Father Miranda's paper showed little knowledge of contemporary developments in ecological ethics. Likewise he seemed to be unaware of other more eco-friendly contemporary ethical perspectives. These take into account the intrinsic value of all creatures, and the "rights" of other creatures not to have their genetic integrity, which has evolved over millions of years, interfered with without very serious reflection and thought.
Miranda did not appear to have read contemporary ecological theology like David Toolan's At Home in the Cosmos (2001), nor Denis Edward's numerous books, and certainly not the recent doctoral thesis at the Gregorian by Cho Hyun-Chul, S.J. called An Ecological Vision of the World Towards a Christian Ecological Theology for Our Age. In my own recent book The Death of Life: The Horror of Extinction I reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in creation and note that it challenges the dualist view of creation which Miranda seems to favour, especially when he assumes an almost unbridgeable chasm between humankind and the rest of creation. In line with much contemporary Trinitarian theology I wrote that, "the role of the Spirit is not just an impersonal power but rather a personal presence within creatures which enables them to emerge and evolve, and also works to strengthen their communion with other species in the ecosystem and the whole biosphere. This view of the Spirit as the one who sustains the web of relationships in creation challenges the traditional dualistic view of creation with its separation of matter and spirit.
The Spirit cares for the community of life. Humans are part of that community of life, intimately linked with all creation".
Fr. Miranda could have also benefited from the presentation which Roland Lessup, S.J. and Peter Henriot S. J. gave at the Study Seminar on GMOs organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in November 2003. The first principle taken from Catholic Social Teaching (CST) which they highlight is "respect for the human person". Both Fr. Miranda and the Fr(s) Lessups and Henriot would share the view that "the economy is for the human person, the human person is not for the economy".
The second principle their paper underscored is the need to respect the natural world. They quote the Encyclical On Social Concerns # 34, 1987which states, "one cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings, whether living or inanimate animals, plants, the natural elements as one wishes, according to one’s economic needs". They argue that when there is a question of potential harm from GMOs to other elements of the created order, then the precautionary principle must be invoked.
They also cite another major concept in traditional CST which is the moral obligation to promote the common good. Given the current social and ecological crisis across the globe, the common good must now encompass "the sum total of the structures and practices of society that make possible the fullness of human life and the integrity of creation". They argue that this demands the subordination of economic interests (e.g. profit maximization, protection of proprietary rights) to the overall improvement of human life. And I would add (as they imply in the following paragraph) the well-being of the wider earth-community as well.
Finally, they focus on a more recent development in CST which is the obligation to promote the option for the poor. They contend that GE crops fail to promote the common good of the poor in the short, medium or long-term. This is also clear from what Church leaders are saying in the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa.
Further, Fr. Miranda was rather selective in his use of papal statements. He quoted a 1989 papal pronouncement which stated that, "we are not yet able to measure" the consequence of an unchecked use of genetic manipulation. He went on to state that he felt confident that during the intervening 15 years there has been enough testing to justify the benefits of GE food. He forgot to note, however, that the purported benefits of this technology have not been realised everywhere and that the risks from the technology are still being evaluated and researched. Nor did he mention that Pope John Paul II in an address to the Jubilee of the Agricultural World on November 11, 2000, reminded people that, "the earth is entrusted to man's use not abuse". The Pope continued, "this is a principle to be remembered in agricultural production itself, whenever there is question of its advance through the application of biotechnologies, which cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of immediate economic interests. They must be submitted beforehand to rigorous scientific and ethical examination to prevent them from becoming disastrous for human health and the future of the earth". Two years later, on November 12, 2002, the Pope spoke to an estimated fifty thousand Italian farmers. He exhorted them to, "resist the temptation of high productivity and profit that work to the detriment of the respect for nature". He added, "when farmers forget this basic principle and become tyrants of the earth rather than its custodians
.sooner or later the earth rebels". Later in the talk the pope returned to this theme and 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, of which we already are seeing worrying signs".
In the afternoon of the conference two farmers described how Bt crops had revolutionised their lives. According to them everything about GE crops was bright, positive and modern. One of the farmers, Mr. Edwin Y. Paraluman, is from Mindanao. I was interested to hear his fulsome praise for GE crops which he is growing in the vicinity of General Santos City. I lived with T'boli people in that area for over 12 years and I never heard of SARGEN the non-government organisation which Mr. Paraluman chairs. I do know, however, that the Bishop of the Diocese of Marble, Dinualdo Gutierrez, which includes General Santos, is the most vociferous critic of GE crops among the Philippine Bishops. Indeed he attended the seminar organised by Cardinal Martino in November 2003 so his position on GE crops ought to be known to the organisers of the September 2004 Conference. Earlier in 2004 Bishop Gutierrez sent a letter of solidarity to Philippine farmers on Farmers Day, May 15th. He wrote: "Under the pretext of solving the country's food insecurity, the government has approved the commercialization of Bt corn. With the policy in place, (our) government offered the country as a market to a product that only multinational companies can produce, given their financial and technological resources. The approval for commercialization came while critics were pondering the safety and soundness of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Our fears may not be unfounded; some members of the B'lann community living near the Bt testing field in South Cotabato appear to be exhibiting symptoms of Bt toxin contamination. While we are awaiting scientific and conclusive findings on the case it becomes necessary for us to take measures following the precautionary principle." Bishop Gutierrez concluded; "Hybrid rice, farmland collateralization, GMOs and charter change will not end the poverty that Filipino Farmers endure. Lasting solution could come from the genuine reform of oppressive structures that cause and perpetuate our farmers' miseries".
The bishop is referring to claims by members of the B'laan tribe (one of the indigenous tribes of South Cotabato) who live near the test fields that they have experience flu-like symptoms - coughing and vomiting. An internationally renowned scientist, Dr. Terje Traavik, of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, has analyzed blood samples from 39 out of the 100 people who became ill. Dr. Traavik concluded that there might be a link between the GE crops and the health problems which the people had experienced. According to him, only further research can establish the facts. But given the fact that international coverage of the incident was extensive - it appeared in The Guardian on March 3, 2004 - I was surprised that Mr. Paraluman did not even refer to it. All of the above raises the question how representative Mr. Paraluman is of Philippine small farmers.
I am familiar with many farming organisations in the Philippines, especially Siyentipiko Para Sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) which are opposed to GE crops. MASIPAG's website recounts that over 1,000 farmers, scientists and members of civil society organizations protested outside the regional office of Monsanto on May 27th 2004. They accused the company of violating farmers' rights to seeds, technology and other genetic resources.
The Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE) also came out against the approval for the commercialization of Monsanto's genetically engineered Yield Gard Bt. Corn in December 2002. It is legitimate to ask why some of the numerous independent farmers' organizations in the Philippines were not asked to send representatives to the Conference?
Significantly, Caritas Internationalis, the lead Catholic agency in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, was also not represented at the Conference. This body, with decades of first-hand experience in tackling hunger and poverty, issued a statement in conjunction with CIDSE on September 24, 2004 which was highly critical of the theme of the Conference. It stated that:
"Caritas and CIDSE's interest in the debate on GMOs and hunger is not limited to the scientific debate on the longer-term effects of GM crops on food production and availability and on public health, but also takes in the economic, social, legal and environmental issues involved. Our main concerns relate to the food security implications for poor farmers and their communities in developing countries. We are concerned, inter alia, with poor farmers becoming dependent on agri-business as far as their capacity for producing and cultivating seeds is concerned. The companies that are promoting GM crops are essentially looking for new markets. We are concerned that GM crops are a technology in search of a market, rather than a market in search of a technology.
Since the early 1980s, large Trans-National Corporations have become the driving force behind genetically modified food, the global spread of industrialized agriculture and the privatization of knowledge. Today’s regime is biased towards protecting the narrow interests of a handful of TNCs, partly as a result of the TRIPs Agreement. The power of biotechnology companies in the global system is enormous and growing. Large-scale adoption of GM technology gives seed and agrochemical companies unprecedented control of the food chain; they both sell the seed and agricultural chemicals with which they are paired".
Not a single one of these crucially important concerns, nor a single voice critical of genetic engineering was heard at the September 24, 2004 Conference which took place in the Gregorian University.
The World Food Summit in Rome in November 1996 recognised that poverty was the main cause of hunger and malnutrition. Poverty is caused by global and local economic and social policies. People are hungry because they do not have access to food production processes or the money to buy food. Those who wish to banish hunger should address those social and economic inequalities that create poverty and not claim that a 'magic bullet' technology will solve all the problems. The real issue has to do with unjust global distribution systems and the privatization of the gene pool can only exacerbate, not rectify, the injustice.
My experience as a Columban missionary is informative. I lived in Mindanao in the Philippines during the El Nino-induced drought of 1983. There was a severe food shortage among the tribal people in the highlands. The drought destroyed their cereal crops and they could no longer get food in the tropical forest because of clear-felling during the previous decades. Even during the height of the drought an agribusiness corporation, Dole Pineapple, was exporting tropical fruit from the lowlands. There was sufficient rice and corn in the lowlands but the tribal people did not have the money to buy it. Had it not been for food-aid from NGOs many of the tribal people would have starved and died.
Do the proponents of GE food think that agribusiness companies will distribute genetically engineered food free to the hungry poor who have no money? There was food in Ireland during the Great Famine in the 1840s but those who were starving did not have access to it or money to buy it. Those who claimed they owned food did not share it with those who were starving and dying. As a result almost one million people died and another million were forced to emigrate. All this took place in what was the richest country in the world at the time - Great Britain and Ireland.
The September 24th Conference at the Gregorian University was largely a promotional event for U.S. biotech corporations who are poised to make billions of dollars if GM food is forced on the majority of countries of the world. As the former European commissioner for the environment, Margot Wallstrom said in London in October 2003 that, "far from developing GM crops to solve the problem of starvation in the world, as they claimed, the biotech companies did so to 'solve starvation among their shareholders'".
I have no problem with a U.S. ambassador using every opportunity to promote U.S. business interests. However, I am dismayed that the ambassador's viewpoint has been uncritically accepted by the Pontifical Academy and other bodies in the Vatican. The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen quotes a statement from U.S. Holy Cross Brother David Andrews, executive director of the country's National Catholic Rural Life Conference, saying "that the Pontifical Academy of Science has allowed itself to be subordinated to the United States government’s insistent advocacy of biotechnology and of the companies which market it".
The Way Forward
Unfortunately the Conference did not encourage dialogue on the crucially important question of how to banish hunger from our contemporary world. To begin with, all the speakers were staunch promoters of biotech crops and no other point of view was welcomed. The week before the conference I e-mailed the Rector of the Pontifical Academy and asked for a short period to make my views known. The request was not granted.
I believe that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Gregorian University, the site where the conference was held in September 2004, have a moral obligation to organize a real consultation on hunger and how to combat it. Because the matter is so serious and pressing the consultation should take place in 2005 and last at least a few days so the issues involved might be thoroughly investigated by a broad range of experts and development workers with experience of dealing with hunger. The consultation should include scientists without links to agribusiness and people from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP). Front line workers from agencies like Caritas, Cafod, Trocaire and missionary societies who, over the years, have built up an expertise in dealing with these issues should also be invited. Most important of all, those who are affected by poverty should be invited. Both members of Christian communities in Third World countries and their leaders ought to be involved in choosing competent delegates.
Those organising the consultations should recognise that a lot of work has been done by Church groups around the world. For example, South African Council of Churches (SACC) held a consultation in May 2004. The participants expressed concern about:
1. The manner in which complex issues on GMOs are treated by proponents of GMOs and South African legislation in a purely 'technical' manner, delinking science from ethics, values, economic and political ideology, and our African communal spirituality about life.
2. The link between the promotion of GMOs and neo-liberal economic globalization with its inherent unequal power relations.
3. The scientific uncertainties related to the long-term economic, nutritional, health, ecological risks of gene transference technologies in view of the irreversibility in the release and use of GE products.
4. The overriding profit motive and supremacy of the market over issues such as human and environmental safety and health, and food supply.
In November 2000, the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference expressed similar concerns about genetic engineering in agriculture and food production. The Archbishop of Durban, Cardinal Wilfred Napier, said that GE is an imprecise technology and that the long-term health effects of consuming GE good have not been fully assessed. "Because we do not know whether they are any serious risks to human health or the environment, to produce and market genetically modified food is morally irresponsible. The precautionary principle should apply as it does in medical research".
At the launch of the Compendium of Social Doctrine in October 2004, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, said that, "perhaps the next edition (of the Compendium) will have that famous position on genetically engineered organisms, a question that the council is in the midst of studying, particularly in relation to agriculture and food".
This makes the call for a thorough, open and competent consultation all the more imperative especially since the Cardinal seems to be supporting GE crops. In November 2003 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace ( PCJP), of which the cardinal is the president, organized a 2 day seminar entitled 'GMOs: Threat or Hope?' Even before the conference Cardinal Martino seemed to be leaning in favour of GE crops. He said that he lived in the United States and that, he "ate everything that was offered to me, including genetically modified products. They had no effect on my health. This controversy is more political than scientific". The reality is that most of the GE crops grown in the United States are fed to animals and that there were very few GE crops available during most of the time that the Cardinal was assigned in the United States.
The Cardinal's bias in favour of GE crops was further evidenced by the fact that most of the, approximately 20, speakers invited to the study seminar supported the use of GE crops in agriculture. Only three speakers, including Fr. Roland Lessups SJ of the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in Lusaka, Zambia, and the Italian minister for agriculture spoke out strongly against GE crops. Interestingly, most of the pro-GE speakers received their invitation to the seminar at least a month in advance of the date. Fr. Peter Henriot SJ of the Lusaka's Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, on the other hand, only received his invitation two weeks before the seminar. This gave very little time to prepare for the presentation.
Another indication that the PCJP is biased towards promoting GE crops came from the composition of the press conference organized by the PCJP. Only selected speakers, excluding anyone who opposed GE crops, was invited to attend the press conference with Cardinal Martino.
Given the cautionary language about GE crops coming from Third World Churches and their leaders the Vatican must take a hard, principled look at GE crops and a strong, uncompromising stand against the patenting of life.
In the final paragraph of my book, Patenting Life? Stop, I wrote, "Food and life are at the heart of the Christian message. In the Eucharist we break bread and share it in the memory of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our celebration of the Eucharist challenges us to work for a world where food is readily available for all and where it is produced in an environmentally sustainable way. Genetically engineered, patented food does not meet these criteria". In the words of Colin Tudge the contribution of GE crops to solving world hunger is "zilch" and in the view of Margoret Wallstrom GE crops are all about promoting the corporate bottom-line.