GMOs are going to create famine and hunger
GMOs are going to create famine and hunger
John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter (NCR), May 19 2009
[extract only, full interview at the url above]
While the Pontifical Academy for Sciences discussed the pros of genetically modified organisms on Monday, Columban Missionary Fr. Sean McDonagh was across Rome making the case for the "con" point of view. McDonagh organized a small demonstration near the Piazza del Popolo, which was joined by a few left-of-center political movements in Italy.
A large banner read, "No to GMOs, yes to food security," and a smaller sign addressed the Vatican gathering: "Pontifical Academy of Sciences, do not ally with those who, promoting GMOs, contribute to hunger in the world. Listen to the words of the Holy Father!"
A well-known writer on environmental themes, McDonagh is a veteran Irish missionary who spent more than 20 years in the Philippines. He's an outspoken critic of GMOs; in 2003, he published 'Patenting Life? Stop! Is Corporate Greed Forcing us to Eat Genetically Engineered Food?'
McDonagh spoke to NCR on the margins of the demonstration.
Q: Do you believe the Pontifical Academy for Sciences is being exploited?
Mcdonagh: It is. This is the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, so let's start with the 'pontifical' part. It's a Catholic organization. Who are the church's real experts in this area? I would say people like myself. I would say particularly the aid and development agencies, such as Misereor, Cafod, and Caritas... They thought so little of this expertise in the Catholic church that they didn't invite a single person from any one of those agencies.
Further, anyone who ever claims to be a scientist should hear the other side. That goes back to Plato. What are they afraid of? Why didn't they set up a decent colloquium over there? Also, why don't they take into account numerous independent studies in the last three years which have concluded that the way to food security is not through GM crops? Why just discard all that? There's a very recent study from Africa on the yields from organic farming, saying this is the kind of thing we should be promoting. I would consider this gathering grossly incompetent.
Q: Why do you believe they're doing it this way?
Mcdonagh: They want to get rid of the very minimal regulations that we have at the moment. They said it in the introduction to the study week, and every one of them says it in his abstract. That's their goal. Bishop Sanchez Sorondo (chancellor of the Pontifical Academy) has said that the purpose is to examine whether GM crops are safe, but I'm sorry, that's not it. The purpose is to use the prestige of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and its good name to beat on governments so that you can reduce regulation.
I would also claim that they want to use something like the Potrykus rice [Golden Rice] as a battering ram against the regulatory process. The strategy is that if you get it through once, you've set the precedent. They say they want it for altruistic reasons, but this language of talking about the poor and about development is grossly misleading. I'm a professional anthropologist who has been working in the area of development economics, I think it's patronizing.
Q: Proponents of GMOs suggest that you're guilty of neo-colonialism, in the sense that you presume to know what's best for the poor in Africa and other places.
Mcdonagh: Let them come to where I was in the Philippines, and ask there. Let's go to the southern part of Brazil, or Argentina, where this is being pushed on people. Let's do a real empirical study, and I think you'd find that the people who are affected by it are very negative towards it. I took up this issue only because I saw the impact it's had on people living there. I believe I have a better take on what's happening in the Philippines, for example, than anyone in the study week... including the only person from the Philippines there, the director of the International Rice Research Center, but he's an American.
I was not against GMOs at first. When I arrived I taught anthropology and linguistics at the University of Mindanao in the Philippines, the biggest agricultural university in the region. At that stage, I thought, if you can plant crops as far as the eye can see, why not? It was only as I began to see the other aspects, including wiping out genetic diversity, that I changed my mind. I looked back at my Irish experience. We used to have these massive potato fields, and then suddenly in 1845, one pathogen wiped them out. I began to learn a lot about the importance of biodiversity.
The pro-GMO argument is comparable to what we used to hear from the bankers. They used to tell us we need a light touch with the regulations, because we're the entrepreneurs, we're the people who create wealth that sends the boys and girls to school and puts the Euro in the collection plate on Sunday. If a banker came to you today and tried to say that there shouldn't be any regulation, we'd all laugh. We wouldn't even engage him intellectually. The same is true with these lads. The tide has gone out on what they want, and rightly so, because we're dealing with very serious issues.
Humankind has a very bad record of moving biodiversity around to the wrong places. It's like the guy who brought rabbits out to Australia with disastrous results. This is biological science, which is different from architecture or engineering. If those guys get something wrong and the building collapses, too bad, but you can fix it. Biology reproduces. The Australian government can't fix the rabbits. The level of regulation should be multiple times more stringent than it is.
Q: The study week invited an African bishop. What's your sense of where African Catholics stand on GMOs?
Mcdonagh: I've had conversations with African people, including religious orders, working in this area. We just had a conference in Assisi on ecology and integrity of creation at the heart of Christian mission. There are all sorts of efforts by religious to build up organic agriculture in Africa... I feel this man shouldn't have come here. If they'd invited me, I wouldn't go. You just give them legitimacy, and it's not properly structured. I'm not a geneticist or a plant biologist, but based on the expertise I have as a missionary, I know this is not the way to go for sustainable agriculture. If it was, they'd have the right people at this meeting.
Q: Are you worried that the Vatican is going to come out with an official pro-GMO statement?
Mcdonagh: Not at all. We were more concerned back in 2003, when Cardinal Renato Martino began to talk about how maybe GMOs could feed the world. We were very worried then, but not so much now. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, for example, may not yet have assessed the science, but they have begun to see the impact on developing countries. On January 1, there was an article in L'Osservatore Romano, in which Martino was quoted on that side of it.