Here's Father Sean McDonagh's critique of The Pontifical Academy's "Study-Document on the Use of Genetically Modified Food Plants to Combat Hunger in the World", which was made available to each participant at the September 24, 2004 conference - A Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.
We will be happy to forward to Sean any comments and suggestions you may have on the critique, which is not yet finalised.
A Critique of the Pontifical Academy's 'Study-Document on the Use of Genetically Modified Plants to Combat Hunger in the World'
Sean McDonagh, SSC
The Pontifical Academy's 'Study-Document on the Use of Genetically Modified Food Plants to Combat Hunger in the World' was available to each participant at the September 24, 2004 conference - A Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology. Though the president of the Pontifical Academy raises issues about "rigorous scientific and ethical control (of GE crops) to ensure they do not give rise to disasters for t he health of man and the future earth", the tenor of the document is support of GE crops. In this paper I will critique and challenge many of the scientific and ethical assumption and assertions in the Study Document.
The Study Document's Recommendation Number 1 states that, "The rapid growth of the world population requires the development of new technologies to feed people adequately; even now an eighth of the world's people go to bed hungry. The genetic modification of food plants can help meet part of this challenge".
The document presents no evidence to support the claim that GE food will help alleviate hunger. It fails to deal with the issue of distribution. The Caritas and CIDSE critique, as cited above, points out that many countries where poverty and hunger are endemic actually export food. "Brazil, for example, is the third largest food exporter in the world, but a fifth of its people (32 million) do not have enough food. About 100,000 children die of hunger each year. Clearly, hunger is not due to lack of food but is caused by both the highly unequal distribution of wealth and the huge number of people who are landless. Adopting a purely 'technology can fix it' approach to hunger problems can create more hunger and more food at the same time".
Most missionaries and development workers know this but the authors of the Pontifical Academy's document seem to be unaware of it. In May 2004, more than 60 groups from 15 African countries, including environmental and development organisations and farmers and consumer groups, wrote an open letter to the World Food Programme denouncing the way in which hunger is being cynically used to impose GE crops and food on developing countries .
Recommendation Number 2 states that, "Agriculture as it is currently practiced is unsustainable, as is indicated by the massive losses of topsoil and agricultural land that have occurred over the past decades, as well as by the unacceptable consequence of massive applications of pesticides and herbicides throughout most of the world. Techniques to genetically engineer crop plants can make an important contribution to the solution of this common problem".
It is true that conventional agriculture, which is very dependent on petrochemicals, is unsustainable, partly because of the damage it is doing to soils but mostly because fossil fuels are limited. The so-called Green Revolution led to a massive increase in the use of petrochemicals in agriculture. We know that within a decade or two fossil fuel will become expensive and scarce. However it is fallacious to argue that GE crops will be less dependent on fossil fuel. Many GE crops are specifically designed to resist the effects of specific proprietary agi-chemicals, such as Roundup which is a glyphosate. Planting such crops ensures the continued use of chemicals, such as Roundup, and, as resistance develops, this will guarantee the use of even more toxic chemicals to protect the crop. All of this is good news for the agribusiness companies who sell both the seeds and the chemicals. Further, those plants that are genetically engineered to kill pest insects may end up killing non-targeted insects as well.
Scientists and other interested parties are now beginning to challenge the claim that GE crops will lead to less use of chemicals in agriculture in the long-term. Charles Benbrook, the Head of Northwest Science and Environment Policy Center at Sandpoint, Idaho carried out a comprehensive study using U.S. government data on the use of chemicals on GE crops. He found that when GE crops were first introduced in the mid-1990s they needed 25% fewer chemicals for the first three years. By 2001, however, between 5% and 30% were sprayed, compared to conventional crop varieties. Dr. Benbrook stated that: "the proponents of biotechnology claim GE varieties substantially reduced pesticide use. While this is true in the first few years of widespread planting it is not the case now. There's now clear evidence that the average pound of herbicide applied per acre planted to herbicide tolerant varieties have increased compared to the first few years".
I strongly recommend that the author(s) of the Pontifical Academy's Study Document read Colin Tudge's book So Shall We Reap (Penguin Books 2003). He exposes the devastating fallout of today's relentless drive for maximum food production at rock bottom cost, as health scares spiral, rural workers are driven off the land and poor nations are forced to export their goods in a cut-throat marketplace. In his book he looks at the global food industry and shows how - without resorting to GE crops - we can take back control from the corporate barons, feed the world and, ultimately, ensure the survival of humanity. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences should be talking to independent scientists like Colin Tudge and not only to the promoters of GE technology and crops.
Recommendation Number 3. "Virtually all food plants have been genetically modified in the past; such a modification is, therefore, a very common procedure".
This statement is a classic half-truth. It is true that most food plants have been genetically modified since the beginning of agriculture, but not by the present technique of genetic engineering. This type of modification is a new and radically different technique that has no resemblance to any previous breeding methods used by humankind. Genetic engineering circumvents the barriers that exist between completely different species. It involves risks that may be different in kind, frequency, and degree of predictability and familiarity from those associated with breeding methods used in the past.
Recommendation Number 4. "The cellular machinery of all living organisms is similar; and the mixing of genetic material from different sources with an organism has been an important part of the evolutionary process".
Unfortunately, this is another misleading half-truth. Under conventional breeding methods it was only possible to mix the genetic material of closely related species most of the time. Recombinant gene technology makes it possible to transfer any gene to another species no matter how distant they are in the evolutionary scale. A gene from a flounder fish has been engineered into a tomato. Once again such transfers create the possibility of unique and unforeseeable risks.
Recommendation Number 5. "In recent years, a new technology has been developed for making more precise and specific improvements in strains of agricultural plants, involving small, site-directed alterations in the genome sequence or sometimes the transfer of specific genes from one organism to another".
The reality is that current recombinant gene technology is neither precise, nor site-specific. It is random, as the transgene usually integrates itself into the genome of the recipient plant's genome in an unpredictable way. For one viable artificial mutation, anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 experimental gene insertions need to be undertaken.
The 'science' of genetic engineering claims that each gene codes for its own unique protein. There are approximately 100,000 proteins in the human body so it follows that, if one gene corresponds to one protein, there would be 100,000 human genes. In fact there are only 30,000 genes in the human genome. This single fact: namely that one gene can give rise to multiple proteins negates the claim of this recommendation that genetic engineering is precise.
Furthermore 'engineering' does not necessarily improve the plant that is 'engineered'. There are those who suggest that the real reason for promoting the technology is to improve the bottom line profits of those companies that hope to sell their GE products to the Third World.
Unfortunately, an improved corporate financial bottom-line is not necessarily matched by an improved bottom-line for small farmers. Early in 2003 Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University published an analysis of the GE crops which biotech companies are developing for Africa. Cotton, maize and sweet potato were among the crops studied. He discovered that conventional breeding procedures and good ecological management produced a far higher yield at a fraction of the cost of genetic engineering. The GE research on sweet potato is now approaching its 12th year and has involved the work of 19 scientists at a cost of $6 million. The results indicate that the yield has increased by 18% [this was claimed but when the actual results were published they are said to have shown yield]. On the other hand, conventional sweet potato breeding, working with a much smaller budget, has produced a virus-resistant variety with a 100% yield increase. And, perhaps more important for small farmers, the non-transgenetic sweet potato has not been patented.
Recommendation Number 6. "Genetically modified food plants can play an important role in improving nutrition and agricultural products, especially in developing countries".
Once again the document of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences does not offer any evidence to support such a claim. Over the past few years as GE crops have been commercially grown the bulk of GE corn and soya during the past few years has been fed to animals. If people in the First World and the middle class in the Third World continue to increase their consumption of meat the problem of world hunger will be exacerbated, not solved. Already most of the GE soya and maize grown in Argentina is exported as animal feed and is not used to feed hungry people at home. The Catholic Church could more efficiently achieve its goal of playing an important role in alleviating world hunger by promoting abstinence from meat and recommending a vegetarian diet on a number of days each week rather than promoting GE crops. Instead of the traditional fish only meal on Fridays the Church needs to be aware that, at this point in time, fish stock are depleted in almost every fishing ground across the globe. This is why opting for a mainly vegetarian diet is so important if we wish to see that 8 to 10 billion people can have enough food each day to meet their basic needs.
Recommendation. Number 7. "The scientific community should be responsible for the scientific and technological research leading to the advances described above, but it must also monitor the way it is applied and help ensure that it works to the effective benefit of people".
This aspiration is laudable but reflects little knowledge of the forces that are driving GE technology. As I noted in my book, 'Patenting Life? Stop! Is corporate greed forcing us to eat genetically engineered food?' corporate power has increased in recent decades and with it the power of agribusiness. In making this recommendation, the Pontifical Academy acts as if it were unaware that GE crops are being promoted by a mere four giant corporations Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Aventis. The needs of the shareholders of these companies, not altruistic motives about feeding the world, are what drives this whole enterprise. The duty of the CEO is to make as much profits for his corporation. Executives who fail in that respect are replaced. In addition, as I make clear in my book, there are currently no adequate mechanisms for monitoring transnational corporations (TNCs) because these institutions have opposed regulations at every turn in the road.
A recent case in New Zealand is highly instructive. In the latter part of 2000 Novartis Jubilee brand sweet corn was imported into New Zealand. (The agribusiness company Novartis and the agrochemical company Zeneca merged to form Syngenta at about the same time. This premium seed, normally destined for EU countries because of its guaranteed GE free status, was alleged to be contaminated. The ensuing scandal, which had a major impact on the general election in 2001, led to a full inquiry by a Government Select Committee. However, the inquiry was frustrated because Syngenta, citing commercial sensitivity, refused to allow the laboratory that performed the test to release the relevant data on the seed. Instead, the information is currently being held in Germany. This incident points to the global power of TNCs and their ability to snub even rich countries like New Zealand and undermine the work of an important inquiry.
What is currently happening in Iraq is a another clear example of how the U.S. government is facilitating the growth of agribusiness in that country even though it is obviously not in the best interests of the Iraqi people. Before the "transfer of sovereignty" in June 2004, the former administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Paul Bremer 111, left behind 100 executive orders. Order 81 on, "Patents, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety", rescinds Iraq's 1970 patent law which prohibited the private ownership of biological resources. The new, U.S.- imposed patent law introduces new monopoly rights over seeds through Plant Variety Protection (PVP) orders.
PVPs do not protect the rights which Iraqi farmers have exercised since the beginning of farming to save, share and replant their seeds. The PVP-protected seeds now become the property of the breeder and nobody can plant or use them unless they pay the breeder. Naturally, the agribusiness corporation will benefit hugely. These initiatives turn on its head the call by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that research effectively benefit small farmers in Iraq and around the world.
Recommendation, Number 8. "There is nothing intrinsic about genetic modification that would cause food products to be unsafe. Nevertheless, science and scientists are - and should further be employed to test the new strains of plants to determine whether they are safe for people and the environment, especially considering that current advances can now induce more rapid changes than was the case in the past".
I find the logic in this recommendation somewhat questionable. On the one hand the Academy is claiming that there is nothing intrinsic about GE food that would render it unsafe. On the other hand it is calling for an ongoing regime of testing to ensure that GE food is safe. But to date, food based on GE plants has been (A) Largely untested, particularly on human populations. (B) Not independently tested and (C) Rarely monitored once it reaches the market. Food need not be tested for safety if they are deemed to be 'substantially equivalent' to conventional foods. There is no scientific basis for this position, which claims that gross similarity is a sufficient criterion for establishing food safety. If superficial testing reveals no significant difference between the GE food and its natural counterpart, no further food testing is required. To decide if food is substantially equivalent, only a limited set of characteristics, (selected by the manufacturer) need to be compared.
The very few independent risk-assessments of GE food have indicated that potential dangers have not been addressed. In such a situation the precautionary principle should have been applied because the consequence of a mistake could be horrific. Thus when proponents of the technology point to a lack of evidence of any danger to human health from GE food, they are merely exhibiting their ignorance of the fact that, in logic, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Until this research is done we will not know whether specific GE foods are safe or not.
The are eminent scientists who question the belief that GE foods are safe. The following is just a brief sample of what is being said:
* "We have such a miserably poor understanding of how the organisms develop from its DNA that I would be surprised if we don’t get one rude shock after another". (Professor Richard Lewontin, professor of Genetics at Harvard University).
* "This technology is being promoted in the face of concerns by respectable scientists and in the face of data to the contrary, by the very agencies which are supposed to be protecting human health and the environment. The bottom line in my view is that we are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has even known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought what-so-ever to its consequences". (Dr. Suzanne Wuerthele is a toxicologist who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)).
* "The fundamental problem of the way in which GM foods have been approved is that they haven't really been tested properly at all. All that is happening is something which I would characterise as an exercise in wishful thinking". (Dr. Erik Millstone, Sussex University).
* "If you look at the simple principle of genetic modification it spells ecological disaster. There are no ways of quantifying the risks; the solution is simply to ban the use of genetic modification in food". (Dr. Harash Narang, microbiologist and senior research associate at the University of Leeds, who originally pointed to the possible link between mad cow disease (BSE) and CJD in humans).
In November 2004 a Commission on Environmental Cooperation, an agency established in the U.S., Canada and Mexico on the environmental impact of free trade, found no evidence of risk to Mexican crops from GE corn being imported at this point in time. However, they warned of future threats. They recommended that to ensure that imported GE corn does not get planted and thus contaminate Mexico's native corn, all imported GE corn should be milled upon arrival in Mexico. They also recommended a moratorium on the commercial planting of GE corn until more safeguards are in place. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) condemned the report saying that it was 'fundamentally flawed and unscientific'.
There is particular concern about the next generation of GE plants which produce drugs (vaccines, antibodies and therapeutic/diagnostic proteins). By 2002 four proteins for use in research and diagnostics were being produced commercially in the United States by a company called Prodigene. These included avidin4, B-glucuronidase, aprotinin and trypsin. There has been very little research on the potentially harmful impact of these biologically active compounds on the environment, although avidin is known to have insecticidal qualities. No containment measures have been used and the movement into food is possible over time if there use is extended and controls are lax. The National Academy of Sciences in the United States has criticized the lack of regulation in this sector.
Recommendation, Number 9. “The methods used for testing the safety of new genetically modified strains (or more precisely, cultivars) of plants should be publicly available, as should the results of these tests, in both the private and public sectors“.
Everyone would agree with this recommendation. However, testing regimes are often ineffective, poorly resourced and, as we saw above in the case of New Zealand, corporations cite commercial confidentially for their data commercial confidentiality as a way of not cooperating with public laboratories and regulatory authorities. Chapter 5 of my book, 'Patenting Life? Stop! ' is devoted to what I call the 'Unholy Trinity Regulatory Agencies, Biotech Corporations and Governments'. As constituted now, the interests of the biotech corporations take precedence over everything else. There is no mechanism for making public the methods used or the results of safety tests carried out by these companies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States is not even allowed to make public the submissions of companies.
In 1997 two reporters from The Guardian criticized the relationship between governments and the regulatory agencies. They found:
- revolving doors between the US government and the biotech industry.
- Heavy lobbying to rewrite world food safety standards in favour of biotechnology.
- New laws protecting the US food industry from criticism.
- Unexpected environmental problems.
- Local contracts locking farmers into corporate control of production.
- Attempts by the world's leading PR companies to massage the debate in favour of genetic engineering.
- The use of world organizations like the World Trade Organisation to challenge governments opposing genetically modified crops.
- Consumers being given no effective choice of food.
- Widespread concern that the economies of developing countries will be affected .
Recommendation Number 10. “Governments should have the responsibility for ensuring that the tests and their results are conducted in line with the highest criteria of validity. Protocols of evaluation should be made widely accessible“.
Again most people would agree with this recommendation. Unfortunately, this noble aspiration overlooks the fact that many governments, under pressure from biotech companies and the U.S. government, are now actively promoting GE crops. Given the enormous amounts of money at stake, is it realistic to expect that data which might be unfavourable to people accepting GE foods would be widely disseminated? In pages 126- 129 of 'Patenting Life? Stop! ' I give an account of how the biotech industry dealt with the biochemist Dr. Arpad Pusztai when his research raised questions about the impact of GE potatoes on rats. He lost his job in the Rowett Institute in Scotland and he was harassed in numerous ways by pro-biotech scientists. Would a younger scientist with a mortgage on a house and a family to support have the courage to stand over his/her conclusions if s/he was subjected to similar pressures and faced the prospect of being made unemployable? Sadly, the above reflects the current ignoble reality of elements of the biotechnology industry. Dr. Pusztai was not the only scientist ruined by sharing his conclusions.
Recommendation Number 11. “Governments should increase their funding for public research in agriculture in order to facilitate the development of sustainable productive agricultural systems available to everyone“.
The sentiments express in this recommendation are laudable. However, I am afraid that it may reflect a lack of awareness of what has been actually happening to public research during the past 20 30 years. Since the Reagan-Thatcher eras governments have been reducing public research budgets under the mantra that private enterprise delivers such research in a more cost-effective way. As public funding is reduced, university departments and researchers are forced to seek funding from private sources. This money often comes with strings attached. For example, restriction may be imposed on publication and dissemination of the research results. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that much in the current situation will change despite the exhortation of the Pontifical Academy. The Academy ought to wake up to the implications of the current situation especially when it is dealing with something as important as food production and food security for every society.
Recommendation Number 12. “Intellectual property rights should not inhibit a wide access to beneficial applications of scientific knowledge. In the development of this modern genetic technology for agriculture, efforts should be made to facilitate cooperation between the public and private sectors and to secure the promotion of solidarity between the industrialized and developing worlds“.
Here again I would agree, though the recommendation is not clear on whether it supports patenting life or not. I would hope that an Academy, with organic connections with the Catholic Church, would not countenance the legitimacy of patenting living organisms. I am reminded that one could not patent life until 1980 when the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision decided in the Diamond versus Chakrabarty case ruled that a genetically engineered microbe could be patented. In that decision the majority ruling stated that the, “relevant distinction was not between living and inanimate things but whether living products could be seen as 'human-made inventions'“. This ruling is not based on the vision of life that is enshrined in the Bible or the constant teaching of the Church. Life in the Bible is seen as a gift from God which is to be received with gratitude and humbly shared with all creatures. In fact, the Biblical view challenges the hubris of the patenting claim that, somehow or other, a scientist or corporation creates life and, therefore, can legitimately claim ownership of biological resources. Living organisms should not be patented for much the same reasons that humans should never have been enslaved by other human beings. Other mechanisms can be designed to compensate those who invest expertise and money in developing new crops. The authors of these initiatives must not forget the labours of million of peasant farmers who over thousands of years gifted the world with tens of thousand of varieties of rice and over five thousand varieties of potatoes to mention just two common crops. The descendants of these people are still farming and have a right to be compensated for the diligence of their ancestors.
Patenting of the living world was introduced to the world stage through the lobbying of First World corporations in Europe, the US and Japan as a way of maintaining their competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Their success was enshrined in the Trade Related Intellectual Properties (TRIPs 27. 3 (b)). The impact of that section of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) - if allowed to stand unchallenged - will create permanent Third World dependency on the industrial world's corporations for the most important necessities of life food. The Church, if it is concerned about life and the mechanisms that impoverish the poor, should oppose patenting life in every forum. Otherwise her pro-life protestations could be seen to be very selective and unconvincing.
Recommendation, Number 13. “Special efforts should be made to provide poor farmers in the developing world with access to improved crop plants and to encourage and finance research in developing countries. At the same time, means should be found to create incentives for the production of vegetable strains suitable to the needs of developing countries“.
Again I would agree, but I recognize that in the current economic climate dominated by corporations this aspiration is a pie-in-the-sky. What will happen around the globe is what currently is taking place in Argentina where previously sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry has been replaced by large-scale monocrops of GE soya and GE maize. This change has benefited large landowners, agribusiness companies and some middle men. The poor, previously sustainable rural communities, and the environment have lost out. No wonder Argentina's leading agronomist, Jorge Eduardo Fuli said in 2002 that; “our brief history of submission to the world of bio-technology giants has been so disastrous that we fervently hope that other Latin American nations will take it as an example of what not to do“. I am certain that the Pontifical Academy would not wish to see the Argentinean experience replicated anywhere else.
Recommendation Number 14. “Research to develop such improvements should pay particular attention to local needs and to the capacity of each country to engage in a necessary adaptation of its traditions, social heritage, and administrative practices in order to achieve the success of the introduction of genetically modified food plants“.
Again, I can agree with this statement provided the 'research' referred to is not taken to mean merely 'research involving genetic engineering'. If the reference is to genetic engineering alone then, at this point, the Study-Document on the Use of 'Genetically Modified Food Plants' to Combat Hunger in the World, will be clearly seen to be a straight hard sell for GE crops. In my opinion this is not the proper role for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The biotech industry had enough PR agencies. The Pontifical Academy should not allow itself to be used by corporations.
Here I would add that I dispute the claim on page 9 that “we know a great deal about the DNA in organisms“. To begin with, we have very little knowledge of the living world. We do not know to a factor of 5 or 10 how many species share this planet with us. It could be 5 million or 50 million or even 100 million. We just do not know what is there, and yet we are told that tinkering with life at a fundamental level carries no risks. We have only a vague idea of how genes work together, of the epigentic mechanisms and of the interaction between genes and the environment. The genomes of plants and animals have developed over 3.8 billion years through selection and adaptation in a co-evolutionary way. Every living organism is exactly the way it is because it has proved to be appropriate for its specific environment and ecosystem. Otherwise it would have become extinct. And now one species - homo sapiens - ourselves a product of evolution, believe we are much smarter and are better able to improve the basic building blocks of life than the creator. This to me smacks of technological arrogance and religious people would do well to be very wary of such hubris.
The zoologist, Colin Tudge, articulates these concerns in a very clear way. I believe he is worth quoting at some length because it presents a clear account of how complicated the world of genes and genomes is and how little we know either. He writes; "Genetic engineering, even at its simplest, implies the ad hoc introduction of exotic genes into the genomes of established organisms; and this, in principle, immediately suggests a hierarchy of possible problems.
Most obviously, the newly introduced gene could disrupt the host genome in undesirable and quite unpredictable ways. The theoretical problem can readily be seen through an analogy. It's often said that the genetic code is 'digital', so in a general way it is. Each gene and so, by implication, each functioning length of DNA, corresponds to some specific 'bit' of information. We get closer to reality, though, if we compare genes to language as in the title of Steve Jones's 1993 book: 'The Language of the Genes'. Individual genes are then compared to words. But the meaning of individual words is not to be captured in the stripped-down, dictionary, definition. Anyone who tries to speak a foreign language out of a dictionary knows how droll the natives find such efforts. The meaning of words depends very much on their context what words they are surrounded by. Behind the dictionary definitions of individual words lies the syntax of the language, and the actual use of it: the colloquialism, the cross-references, the historical allusions, the puns. Genes work in this way too because genomes evolve, trailing their history behind them. They are not simply 'digital', but work to rules that are in part logical and in part a matter of historical accident. If genes are compared to words, then the genome of any particular creature as a whole should be compared to literature. Genetic engineering is not really engineering. It is more like gardening, in which you plant and then stand back, and watch; or, to pursue the present metaphor, it is more like editing. Every writer knows that the injudicious alteration of a single word can change the import of a text absolutely, and prays for a gentle and competent editor
At present, after 100 years of formal Mendelian genetics and a few decades of genomics, we have some small insight into the function of a few genes in a few genomes (including a few human genes). For some organisms, in short, we have the beginnings of a dictionary. But the genome of an organism any organism might be compared in literary terms, to some sacred, poetic text written in a language of which we have virtually no inkling: medieval Tibetan, or Linear B. Would you, or anyone who was halfway sane, undertake to edit such a text if all they had to guide them was a bad dictionary?".
A few pages later Tudge reflects on the fact that engineers and architects often, even after exhaustively exploring the physical properties of their building materials often get things wrong. "How much more will we get it wrong in biology, he writes, where the complexities are multiplied by orders of magnitude, and - relative to that complexity almost nothing is known? We drop novel genes into genomes, and exotic organisms into ecosystems, at our peril our's and the world's. There is simple no way of knowing, a priori, what will happen".
Tudge goes on to argue that GE crops will not feed the world. "The startling truth is (at least I think it's startling, in view of the hype) that genetic engineering has contributed nothing of significance to world food security - that is, to issues that really matter - and is not likely to do so in the foreseeable future. As far as human survival goes its contribution is precisely zilch. In reality, it is locked into and is designed to promote an economic strategy that is already proving pernicious, and in the longer term could well prove disastrous. The net contribution of genetic engineering to human well-being is negative".
What about the 'yellow rice' which is rich in carotene - the raw material from which the body synthesizes vitamin A? Deficiency in this vitamin can cause xerophthalmia (dry eyes leading to blindness). On this topic Tudge writes; "Vitamin A-rich rice therefore is surely a godsend, and only the effete, afflicted only by the long sight of genteel middle age, would presume to protest.
But carotene is one of the commonest molecules in nature. It is the yellow pigment found in yellow fruit such as mango and papaya but also -much less exotically and expensively - in green leaves of all kinds, including spinach. Traditional farming always included horticulture. The vegetable patch and the occasional fruit tree were and are standard; taken for granted, like chairs and tables. So long as people have horticulture, they have all the vitamin A they need. Obsessive monoculture, in which there is no room for local produce to feed the local people, is a modern aberration, another example of obsessive commercialism. It is in many ways pernicious, socially, economically, ecologically; and the blindness of children is only one of the consequent evils".
It is important to emphasize that Colin Tudge is not against genetic engineering per se. His approach can be judged best in his commentary on sorghum, the staple crop of the people of the Sahel region of Africa. Tudge points out that sorghum is resistant to drought and heat but not resistant enough. Scientists from ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics) have searched international gene banks for relatives of sorghum that could be crossed with sorghum to provide the requisite gene(s) for the necessary super-toughness. They have been unable to find such genes. They are now looking for genes from other sources - possibly groundnuts - which are very tough indeed. "But groundnuts are legumes (relatives of beans) while sorghum, a cereal, is a grass. So the necessary genes could not be introduced by conventional breeding. Genetic engineering would be necessary. Here (if it can be made to work) is a prime example of the highest technologies deployed to help the world's poorest people. For people in some of the harshest environments, such science could, in principle, be a godsend", Tudge says before adding a word of caution about the limits of our present knowledge.
I have argued that the above document from the Pontifical Academy has many inaccuracies and questionable assertions. The issues of whether to promote GE foods as a way to solve world hunger is so important that it is incumbent on the Rector of the Pontifical Academy to initiate a new consultation on GE crops before there is any attempt to promote them as totally safe and a viable solution to world hunger.
1.This document was made available to the participants of the September 24th Conference in Rome: A Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.
2.What's Wrong With GM? CIIR Environmental Action Leaflet, October 2004.
3.Richard Manning, "The OIL WE EAT", Harper's, February 2004, pages 37 - 45.
4.John Vidal, "GM crops linked to rise in pesticide use", The Guardian, January 8, 2004, page 45.
5.George Monbiot, "Force-fed a diet of hype", The Guardian, October 7, 2003, page 25.
6.Report of the Local Government and Environment Committee, Inquiry into the alleged accidental release of genetically engineered sweet corn in 2000 and the subsequent actions taken. (October 2004). See especially nos 289-292, http://www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz/content/selectCommitteeReports/1.9A.pdf
7.Iraq's new patent law: A declaration of war against farmers: Focus on Global South and GRAIN, www.grain.org/articls/index.cfm?id, page one and two. October 2004. See also Patenting Life?Stop, pages 206 to 220 for a discussion of Plant Variety Protection, patenting, TRIPs and biopiracy.
8.For more on substantial equivalence see my book, Patenting Life? Stop! pages 117 - 120.
9.For a discussion on the safety of GE crops for humans and the environment see Sean McDonagh' Patenting Life? Stop, pages 78 - 114.
10.Article from www.GMWatch, May, 29, 2004, page 1.
11.Hugh Dellios, "Report urges precautions on biotech corn: U.S. officials, firms cites study's flaws", Chicago Tribune, November 9, 2004, page3.
12.GeneWatch, Genetic Modification: The need for special regulations, Briefing Number 21, January 2003, page 2.
13.National Academy of Sciences (2002), Environmental effects of transgenic plants, The scope and adequacy of transgenic plants. National Academy Press. Washington DC.
14.John Vidal and Mark Milner, "Big Firms Rush for Profits and Power despite Warnings" The Guardian, December 15, 1997, page 4.
15.Andrew Kimbrell, 1993, The Human Body Shop, Harper, San Francisco, page 193.
16.See chapter 6 of Patenting Life? Stop!
17.Sue Branford, "Why Argentina Can't Feed itself; How GM Soya Is Destroying Livelihoods and the Environment in Argentina", The Ecologist, October 2002, page 23.
18.Colin Tudge, 2002, So Shall We Reap, Penguin, London, page 255.
19Ibid, page 261.
20.Ibid, page 268.
21.Ibid, page 269.
22.Ibid, page 254.