Vatican study endorses GMOs for food security
2.Interview with Bruce Chassy
3.African bishop at pro-GMO meet unsure what to believe
EXTRACT: "This is not a 'balanced' meeting, in the sense that you bring every point of view to the table and seek some kind of idiotic consensus." - Bruce Chassy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (item 1)
COMMENT from Dr. Brian John: Chassy was one of the carefully selected "experts" at the Pontifical Academy GM meeting, and here is a splendid interview (item 2) in which he suggests that the anti-GM movement is all a gigantic protectionist conspiracy involving European pesticide manufacturers [GMW: like Bayer and BASF, presumably!], organic farmers, the EU, the "NGO industry", and people "left over from the fall of socialism." This is all wonderful stiff -- thoroughly recommended reading! The word "deranged" springs readily to mind.
1.Vatican study endorses GMOs for food security
By John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter, May 26 2009
Rome - In what seemed largely a foregone conclusion, a May 15-19 study week on genetically modified organisms sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences ended with a strong endorsement of GMOs as “praiseworthy for improving the lives of the poor,” and promising “improved food safety and health benefits, better food security, and enhanced environmental performance in a sustainable manner.”
Although the Pontifical Academy for Sciences is a prestigious Vatican body, it does not set official church teaching, and it remains unclear whether its conclusions will drive the Vatican toward a formal position on GMOs.
While a concluding document from the study week had not been released as NCR went to press, participants who characterized its content said its pro-GMO conclusions enjoyed “unanimous agreement” among the 41 experts from 17 countries who took part.
Organized by German scientist Ingo Potrykus, the inventor of “golden rice,” the study week had beencriticized by anti-GMO activists for including only voices already convinced of the benefits of genetically modified crops. This is the second time that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has endorsed GMOs, following an initial report adopted in 2001 and published in 2004.
Critics charge that GMOs give excessive control over farming practices to large agribusiness corporations, and pose unknown risks to both the environment and human health.
In general, the aim of the academy’s weeklong event seemed less to conduct an objective appraisal of GMOs than to mobilize public support, aiming to overcome what participants see as burdensome regulations and negative public images that sometimes stand in the way of the wider adoption of GMOs, especially in Europe and in parts of the developing world, above all Africa.
Participants told NCR that after the final conclusions from this study week are published, plans call for three other documents:
A set of short versions of the papers delivered at the study week, possibly including PowerPoint versions of the talks;
A book-length collection of expanded versions of the papers, which could be published by winter 2010;
A “white paper” laying out the major conclusions and recommendations of the study week, intended for broad public distribution.
“In light of eight years of experience with growing transgenic crops, many additional field trials, and many additional published research reports, the conference concluded that the scientific evidence is overwhelming that transgenic crops ”¦ improve the lives of the poor and offer additional significant improvements in their lives in the years to come,” said Drew Kershen of the University of Oklahoma, a professor of agricultural law at the University of Oklahoma and a study week participant.
The Academy for Sciences event drew fire from Catholic opponents of GMOs. Irish missionary and environmental writer Fr. Sean McDonagh, who organized a small demonstration in Rome on May 18 to protest the event, charged that its purpose was “to use the prestige of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, its good name, to beat governments so that you can reduce the minimal regulation that we have.”
The demonstration near Rome’s Piazza del Popolo featured a banner reading, “Pontifical Academy of Sciences, do not ally with those who, promoting GMOs, contribute to hunger in the world.”
McDonagh objected that no Catholic critic of GMOs was invited.
"Who are the church's real experts in this area?" McDonagh said. "[They’'e from] aid and development agencies, such as Misereor, Cafod and Caritas. [The academy] thought so little of the expertise in the Catholic church that they didn't invite a single person from any one of those agencies. ”¦ What are they afraid of?"
It's a point that study week participants largely conceded.
“We didn't invite a bunch of naysayers to the table, who are convinced that GMOs don't work or who are going to make fallacious scientific arguments that have been rejected by the bulk of the scientific community and by the regulators who approved them," said Bruce Chassy, a food safety expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"This is not a 'balanced' meeting, in the sense that you bring every point of view to the table and seek some kind of idiotic consensus," Chassy said.
Though the position of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences seems clear, the broader Catholic debate over GMOs appears as yet unresolved.
Two months ago, the working paper for next October's Synod of Bishops for Africa appeared, containing critical language on GMOs. That document asserted that they risk "ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding, and making farmers dependent on production companies."
2.Resistance to GMOs works against the hungry and poor
By John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter, May 19 2009
Professor Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an expert in food safety. He's served as an advisor to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and as chair of the Institute of Food Technologists' Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition. He is among the roughly forty participants in the Pontifical Academy for Sciences' "Study Week" on GMOs, and argues that an "overwhelming scientific consensus" supports the safety and effectiveness of genetically modified crops. For Chassy, this is a moral as well as scientific and regulatory question; he believes that delays in adoption of "golden rice" over the last decade may have cost the lives of as many as ten million children in the developing world. Chassy he sat down for an interview with NCR in Rome on Sunday, May 17.
Q: What's your view of the debate over GMOs?
This really isn't about science. The rejection of GMOs is about politics, about ideology, about trade. It's lots of things, but it's not science. The science is pretty clear.
Q: By "pretty clear," you mean it's pretty clear that GMOs are safe?
That's correct. They're probably safer than conventional foods, and undoubtedly safer than organic foods. It's the exact opposite of the risk hierarchy suggested by those who are opposed to GMOs.
Q: Why do you say that GMOs are safer than organic products?
First, there has never been a safety assessment of organic products of any kind, as is true of many of the conventional foods we have. Second, conceptually, making a GM food is actually less invasive than conventional breeding. It's less likely to produce unintended effects. Third, the claim that organic farming is better for the environment is based on an ideological belief that using natural materials to amend the soil is better than using chemicals. There's actually no evidence of that.
There is a fairly overwhelming scientific consensus about the safety of GMOs.
Q: In the abstract of your paper, you say that resistance to GMOs works to the "extreme disadvantage of the hungry and the poor." What do you mean?
Africa, for example, is very much in the European sphere of influence. Their leaders and intellectuals, including church people, are European-trained. Africa's trade is with Europe. In many cases, there's direct evidence that they're been blackmailed into not using GMOs because they're been told that European companies will no longer trade with them.
I can assure you that if you go out to a poor farmer in Uganda, or Kenya, or anywhere else, and ask them if they would try a corn variety that will produce five times more corn, even when there's a drought, they'll say, 'I'll take it.' If you tell them you've got a seed that will produce a more nutritious corn, so their children won't go blind and die of diarrheal diseases from vitamin A deficiency, the farmer's going to try that. Farmers aren't stupid people. Just because somebody is poor and rural in Africa doesn't mean they're dumb.
There's a very paternalistic, neo-colonial attitude, that comes out of Europe about Africa. They know better what's good for Africa than the Africans themselves do. I've traveled in a number of African countries and have seen the poverty. The problem is that those people have no ability to reach out and get technology for themselves. It has to flow through Europe and the United States, through these various foundations, and if there's a political impasse it will never get to them. That's the tragedy.
Q: Where do you think the opposition to GMOs comes from?
I think this is probably one of the best examples of a nexus between a set of ideological and political views, and corporations, people with various economic interests, getting together ”¦ it's a strange bedfellows sort of thing.
Q: Who benefits economically from blocking GMOs?
There are chemical companies in Germany and France that make pesticides. They don't want pesticide-free crops which proponents argue GMOs could deliver. That's bad for their business. European food manufacturers, and European supermarkets, can charge a higher price for 'chemical-free' foods, well above what it costs them to produce. They take their store brand, which is a discount brand, and they turn it into a premium brand by calling it 'GM-free.' There are lots of economic motives.
It's also an ideological threat. I think the organic people are concerned about losing markets, but they also reject modern technology. There are a lot of small and unprofitable organic farmers who are ideologues, and a lot of giant multinational corporations that produce all of the 'organic' food that we eat in the world. Here's a little known fact: 90 percent of the organic food in the United States is produced by two or three multinationals. All of the big food companies have gotten into this, because it's profitable. They're the ones pushing it into the supermarket shelves. The poor little organic farmer down the street never knew how to do that, but big companies do.
There are interests by European governments, who know that their agriculture can't compete with Australia, Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada ”¦ certainly not in big row crop agriculture, yet they have a lot of row crop farmers in Europe. If you look for a strategy to be competitive, if you block the import of other countries' products because they're GMOs, and keep yourself GMO-free, that gives you a market preference within the EU. The EU is a pretty big market. That's good business, and it also has the effect that European governments have to pay less agricultural subsidies to the extent that their own farmers are able to sell their own produce at high prices.
Q: What are the other factors?
There's a whole other piece that relates to a group of people who are probably left over from the fall of socialism. If you have that kind of mindset, which is very rich in Europe, and which is very present in the church, where do you go? You go anti-globalization, anti-multinational, anti-capitalist. The clever part about the anti-GMO movement is that they managed to get the 'Monsanto and the U.S.' label put on GMOs.
This didn't happen as one grand master plan, but as it evolved, the environmental NGOs, the United Nations Environmental Program, some European governments, a lot of aid foundations, all kind of drifted together in opposition to GMOs. An enormous amount of money was pumped into crafting a set of propaganda messages that framed the debate and defined the issues, somewhere around the mid-1990s. That masterful job of framing the debate is what's in place today, and it's influenced the church.
I don't think people realize that the NGO industry is globally a more than trillion-dollar industry. We have more than 850 corporations in the United States who function in this arena. Their ultimate interest is actually political.
Q: The purpose of this study week is to give voice to the scientific consensus as you describe it?
In part, this conference is Ingo Potrykus speaking out of years of frustration. I've written on his 'golden rice,' and I honestly believe he could have saved a million people a year. You can imagine the frustration of the man. He is a devout Catholic, and he sincerely believes that this is the mission of the church. He got into it for that reason. Very few scientists can say that I picked this project because I saw a huge social ill that I could cure. We generally don't do that. Plus, he's like a bulldog ”¦ he's stayed on it and stayed on it, and it's been frustration after frustration. So, you can imagine that when he picked the agenda, he wasn't going to bring people who are nay-sayers. He knows there is no legitimate scientific objection. So, he brought to the table the people who could describe what the impediments are, how you can remove these roadblocks, and what's being done.
That's a story that critics really don't want told. They want to stop 'golden rice' for a specific reason. 'Golden rice' doesn't belong to companies. It breaks the image that this is an American product that's being foisted on the world by U.S. multinationals. That won't work anymore, because it's not American and it's a public sector work. It's being put into use in India, and in the Philippines, and in Pakistan. It's going to save lives, it's going to work, and they're scared as hell.
Q: At the end of the day, what difference does it make what the Vatican says about GMOs?
I believe the church is a unique position to tackle this issue, first of all because it's so large. It also has as a core value that helping the poor, the disadvantaged, is a good thing. As I travel around the world, I meet so many Catholics who really believe in this mission, and that gives them credibility.
Further, there are no other central voices of moral authority in the world. Most other churches, other religions, don't have a pope. I certainly watched the process of a pope dying and a new pope coming in, as a non-Catholic, with all of my friends. It's clearly the most organized moral force in the world. It gives the church a unique moral authority to speak out on issues that impact the human condition.
Q: If the Vatican were to make a strong pro-GMO statement, do you believe that would reconfigure the debate?
Yes, I really do. First of all, there are many Catholics who oppose GMOs, and it's hard to totally ignore the pope. I also think that if a pope were to do that, especially this pope, he would make a very reasoned argument. I think we can supply that to him.
I don't think that will be the outcome of this meeting. There are some contrary views in the church. I have the impression that the pope wanted this meeting to happen, because it's an important issue to hash out.
A Vatican statement would really disrupt the opposition. Part of the propaganda campaign is to capture the moral high ground. When the church agrees with them, or some members of the church agree with them, that's a nice happy moral high ground. But when the highest moral ground in the world says we think this is a beneficial technology as long as it's used to relieve human suffering rather than just make a profit, that changes the whole formula.
Q: What's the future of GMOs?
This debate is over. The science is very clear. Asia is adopting the technology. The Americas have adopted the technology. The question is when the train will pull out of the station in Europe, and therefore Africa. It's really those two continents that have gotten it all wrong, and they will eventually figure it out, whether it's ten years or 15 years from now. There will come a time when this is not a debate, and we'll all be growing GMO crops. I don't know what the activists will be doing to make a living, though I'm sure they'll have some other issue.
Q: For the record, do you have any financial relationship to the biotech industry?
Q: Do they fund any of your research?
I have no grants. I once gave a seminar that I got paid $1,000 for at Dow. I have no stock. I don't know where my retirement is invested. I'm just not a capitalist. In fact, I'm stupid when it comes to capitalism. It just doesn't interest me. I have no conflict of interest whatsoever.
Q: Bottom line: What's the heart of the moral argument in favor of GMOs?
Using GMOs is not the silver bullet that will solve hunger and malnutrition in the world. Sometimes the opponents of GMOs claim that we're claiming that, and then take that straw man and argue that it can't possibly be true. Actually, I totally agree with those arguments. Hunger exists because poverty exists. Hunger exists because people don't have land or access to markets, because of lack of education. It could be lack of rainfall, civil war, or corrupt leadership. There are a huge number of factors that cause people to be hungry.
Where GMOs fit in is a fairly narrow and fairly technical niche. About 60 to 70 percent of the hungry are rural people, mostly farmers who grow their own food. If you can give them a seed that will produce more food, they can feed their family and have money to bring about the kind of revolution we've seen in India and China. The essence of what we've seen in India and China is that they learned to feed themselves through the Green Revolution. Then they generated rural income, which became the driver for a national economy to improve. They bootstrapped themselves up from improved agriculture.
It would certainly help poor, hungry people to be able to produce more food. There will be innovations in agriculture that have nothing to do with GMOs. People will use conventional breeding to produce better seeds. Somebody will figure out how to get cheap machinery, or irrigation, or good warehousing and good storage or a good preservative. There are so many things you can do to help the poor, and the GMO issue has been blown all out of proportion. The agriculturalists I know who want to use GMOs see them simply as one tool on a tool belt. Why people have seized on that tool and made such a huge global issue defies credulity.
3.African bishop at pro-GMO meet unsure what to believe
John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter, May 20 2009
*Cameroon's Archbishop Nkuo says poor must have priority over profits
Two months ago, as the Pontifical Academy for Sciences was preparing its May 15-19 study week on genetically modified organisms, the working paper for next October's Synod for Africa was released. That document is critical of GMOs, asserting that they risk "ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding, and making farmers dependent on production companies." Organizers of the Academy for Sciences event, who tend to be strongly pro-GMO, decided to invite an African bishop to join them possibly hoping to influence the synod's deliberations in October, or at least to provide their side of the story to the leaders of the African church. The academy contacted the Synod of Bishops, which proposed Bishop George Nkuo of the Kumbo diocese in Cameroon. Nkuo, 56,is the only African bishop, and one of the few non-scientists, taking part in the study week. He sat down with NCR for an interview in Rome.
Q: How did you happen to attend this study week on GMOs?
The only reason I'm here is because I'm one of those [African bishops] who will attend the synod. They were looking for an English-speaking African bishop who could listen, and maybe express the concerns of the bishops on GMOs. I thought there would be other English-speaking people from Africa [at the study week], but I'm the only one.
Our concern is how the multi-national corporations and GMOs will affect poor farmers. If you were to introduce GMOs, how will that affect, positively or negatively, the ordinary farmers in Africa? To be honest, all the other gymnastics that go on around this issue ”¦ the politics, the science ”¦ I had no clue. It's been an eye opener, I must say.
Have you heard anything that's persuaded you GMOs are a good thing?
There's so much involved. Objectively, if this technology really makes a plant more productive, if it's accessible to the poor, and there are no obvious dangers to health or the environment, then I think there's nothing wrong with it.
Do you think those things are true?
I really don't know. That's my problem. I don't understand how the science can be so confused. I thought there was supposed to be objective evidence, but the science seems to be in conflict. I think it's amazing how divergent the opinions are. There are pro-GMO people and anti-GMO people, and they're all scientists. How is the common man to know the truth?
I also have the impression that, quite apart from the science, there are also other forces in play ”¦ political and economic forces. For example, if the GMOs are effective, it would put some of the chemical industries out of business. It also seems that there's some kind of in-fighting, or cold war, between Europe and America. America has gone very far with GMOs, while Europe is very slow in introducing it. I was surprised to see that Africa is not opening [to GMOs] because Europe is standing in its way. Somehow, Europe controls Africa [on this issue]. African scientists are pro-Europe. Whether this is just politics, I don't know. I honestly don't know.
What also came across to me very strongly is that India has gone very far [with GMOs], as well as China. There's been a Green Revolution. India has taken it up with cotton, with wheat, with other things, and they seem to be doing pretty well.
I really don't know where the problem lies. If things are truly as those who are pro-GMO say, it could be a salvation for Africa. We see how the poor farmers struggle, the difficulties they face. Of course, the problem is much bigger than GMOs. Farmers have problems getting their products to market, our roads and infrastructure need to be developed. We need better refrigeration and storage. We need better resistance to insects, and so on.
My basic question would be: How can this new technology be at the service of the poor? When I see the politicians, economists, and industrialists in the private sector, all the interests at play, I don't think they have the service of the poor on their agenda.
I've been listening carefully, because really I had no clue what GMOs were. Now I'm pretty well informed, but I'm still not sure what to think. The pro-GMO people say these plants are environmentally friendly and pose no threats to health. The anti-GMO people say they are dangerous and there's a problem of safety. What am I to believe?
Why is the working paper for the Synod for Africa critical of GMOs?
I wouldn't say it's critical. We approach it from the point of view of poverty and justice. If these biotech products are a means for the poor to climb up the economic ladder, then they should be open to them. But if they are manipulated by so many political, economic and social forces, what chance have we got to alleviate poverty through GMOs? That's the question. If we are to go forward full-scale, what happens to the ordinary farmers? Will they just die out? Will the introduction of GMOs actually make a difference to the reality of poverty? If the multinationals just come in and take over, where does the profit go? Do the poor benefit from it? Those are the questions we want to ask.
The pro-GMO people charge it's European multinationals that are keeping GMOs away from your people.
That's what they say. I find that difficult to believe, but that's one of the things we must consider.
Are there are any anti-GMO people at this meeting?
I'm not sure there are. What the pro-GMO people say is that this is a new technology that works, that's at the service of the poor, and should be used. They've also spoken about regulations, precautionary regulations, and how they're an obstacle to GMOs. I think that they're very concerned about these regulations, which are not favorable to GMOs.
Do you feel like you're being lobbied?
I don't think I'm being lobbied. Anyway, why would they lobby me? What force have I got behind me?
Some might like to see more friendly language on GMOs at the Synod for Africa next October, or at least avoid a negative statement.
Maybe, though I would hate to think I'm being lobbied. As far as the synod goes, my preoccupation would be to find out where the truth lies and to see how GMOs can be at the service of the poor. I have been thinking about what I want to say at the synod already.
Will you speak on GMOs at the Synod?
If I can help raise awareness, I would love to do that. I haven't made up my mind yet. I wanted to have the experience of this week, and then I will make up my mind about whether I'll talk about this subject or some other relevant issues for the African church, matters of justice and peace and so on.
After you leave this meeting, will you do more research on GMOs?
One of the great advantages of this meeting is that I've been in touch with many scientists. They've shared their research, we've exchanged e-mails, and so on. They will keep me abreast of many things. I want to openly search for the truth, and in order to do that effectively, I also need to know what the anti-GMO people have to say. What have they got against GMOs? I want to find out. ”¦ I thought their voice was missing. The Pontifical Academy should have invited both parties to listen to one another.
Some of those at the Pontifical Academy meeting would say that they didn't invite both sides because there is no scientific debate about GMOs.
I wonder if the scientific debate is truly over. The anti-GMO people aren't just politicians and economists. There are also scientists, and I think I should listen to them as well. Some say that it's medically proven that certain genes can have this or that side effect, and therefore there's a risk to health from GMOs. I admit, my knowledge of science is limited, but I think we must hear these voices.
Would you say that at the end of this meeting, you're better informed but you still haven't made up your mind?
Yes. I'm better-informed, but I want to know more, especially from the point of view of the anti-GMO people. That would help me to make up my mind.
Would you say that GMOs are a big concern for African bishops?
I don't think it's a big concern. The larger point is how science and technology can be at the service of the poor. If this new science comes in and totally ignores the real life situation of the poor, then there's a reason for the bishops to speak up. Always, we take the side of the poor, defending the rights of the poor. For the same reason, if this new science could truly be at the service of the poor, but there are people standing in the way for their own reasons, then we should speak about that too.
It's not that the bishops are for or against GMOs, but that you are in favor of the poor?
If you could be persuaded that GMOs are no risk to human health or the environment, and that they could help feed the hungry, you'd be in favor?
Definitely, I'd be in favor. But these are precisely the points about which I can't make up my mind, because I hear conflicting ideas. There are strong interests on both sides, which makes it even harder to know what to think. ”¦ For example, during one of our sessions an Indian scientist gave a very clear presentation in which he showed that some of the factories in India in the chemical industries went out of business after GMOs arrived, because the chemicals they were producing were no longer needed by the farmers. Obviously, this sort of thing means that there are economic forces on all sides.
Anything else you think is missing from the Academy for Sciences meeting?
I would have liked to hear an overview from theologians or social scientists, to get a sense of what they think about this. ”¦ I am not a scientist, so I found myself alone. It's hard for me to know whether what is being said is verifiable or not. Perhaps if they wanted a voice from Africa, it would have been better to get an African scientist.
They probably don't want the Synod for Africa to condemn GMOs, so they're trying to provide their side of the story.
The church has taken no stand on GMOs, and of course this group is not the church. We bishops will make a reflection on it, and make up our minds whether it's beneficial for our people or not. I also am looking at this in terms of Cameroon. I said, let me come to Rome, and then we'll see if this is an important enough issue to be addressed by our episcopal conference.
Many of the pro-GMO people say that Africa is too influenced by Europe on this issue. Do you think that's true?
I was shocked by what they said. When the issue was raised by the Americans, the Europeans didn't disagree. I was surprised. Immediately, I raised my hand to ask, 'Is this true?' Of course, I know that in some ways we are still under the colonial banner of Europe, very much so. No doubt, there are very powerful political forces that are under the tutelage of Europe. Cameroon is a good example; we are continually under the eye of France. That's clear.
But I also know that there are many African countries that have reached out to America, in search of American technology for the good of Africa ”¦ or to China, or wherever. I'm aware, of course, that some suppliers of technology want to make us eternally dependent. That's the argument put forth at this meeting as to why Africa is subservient to Europe. If that's true, it's neocolonialism at its peak. But I find it hard to believe, because I know our scientists also benefit a lot from American technology and so on. I'm not sure we're still quite so much under the bondage of the European colonial masters.
In any event, my concern is that Africa make the right decision for Africa, not the right decision for Europe, or America, or anywhere else.