Both the developed and developing worlds are facing a critical moral choice in the controversial issue of genetically modified food, also known as genetically modified organisms and genetically engineered crops. Critics of these modifications speak dismissively of biotech foods and genetic pollution. On the other hand, proponents like Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown, authors of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods (2004), promote genetically modified organisms (G.M.’s or G.M.O.’s) as “the miracle of seed science and fertilizers.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of U.S. diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, in cooperation with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, hosted a conference last fall at Rome’s Gregorian University on “Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.” Archbishop Renato Martino, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and has been a strong and outspoken proponent of G.M.O.’s, told Vatican Radio: “The problem of hunger involves the conscience of every man. For this reason the Catholic Church follows with special interest and solicitude every development in science to help the solution of a plight that affects...humanity.”
Americans have grown accustomed, perhaps unwittingly, to G.M.O. products. In the United States, for example, 68 percent of the soybeans, 70 percent of the cotton crop, 26 percent of corn and 55 percent of canola are genetically engineered. G.M.O.’s represent an estimated 60 percent of all American processed foods. A recent study by the National Center for Food and Agriculture found that farmers in the United States investing in biotech products harvested 5.3 billion additional pounds of crops and realized $22 billion in increased income. Most of the world’s beer and cheese is made with G.M.O.’s, as are hundreds of medications. In an article published last October, James Nicholson, then U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican and an aggressive promoter of U.S. policy in Vatican circles, wrote that “millions of Americans, Canadians, Australians, Argentines and other people have been eating genetically modified food for nearly a decade—without one proven case of an illness, allergic reaction or even the hiccups.... Mankind has been genetically altering food throughout human history.” And according to its supporters, biotechnology helps the environment by reducing the use of pesticides and tilling.
The World Health Association recently reported that more than 3.7 billion people around the world are now malnourished, the largest number in history. To this, opponents of G.M.O.’s reply that the “real problems” causing hunger, especially in the developing world, are poverty, lack of education and training, unequal land distribution and lack of access to markets. The moral point they advance is that distribution, not production, is the key to solving hunger.
Another significant moral issue relates to “intellectual property policies” and the interest of companies in licensing potentially valuable discoveries. The Rev. Giulio Albanese, head of the Missionary News Agency, insists that unless the problem of intellectual property is resolved in favor of the poor, it represents a “provocation” to developing countries: “The concern of many in the missionary world over the property rights to G.M. seeds...cannot but accentuate the dependence of the poor nations on the rich ones.” In response to this concern, a proposal was made recently (reported in Science magazine on March 19) that research universities cooperate to seek open licensing provisions that would allow them to share their intellectual property through a “developing-country license.” Universities would still retain rights for research and education and maintain negotiating power with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Catholic social ethics would support this type of proposal, since it places the good of people over amassing profit.
Three moral paths suggest themselves:
1. Favor the use of G.M.O.’s. Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, who developed the Green Revolution wheat and rice strains, recently wrote: “Biotechnology absolutely should be part of Africa’s agricultural reform. African leaders would be making a grievous error if they turn their back on it.” Proponents at the Rome conference agreed, arguing that the use of G.M.O.’s decreases pesticide use, creates more nutrient-filled crops that require less water and have greater drought resistance, produces more food at a lower cost and uses less land. One small-scale South African farmer concluded, “We need this technology. We don’t want always to be fed food aid. We want access to this technology so that one day we can also become commercial farmers.”
This position concludes that the use of G.M.O.’s amounts to a moral obligation.
2. Condemn the use of G.M.O.’s. Many Catholic bishops take an opposing stance. Perhaps the clearest statement comes from the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil and their Pastoral Land Commission. Their argument is threefold: the use of G.M.O.’s involves potential risks to human health; a small group of large corporations will be the greatest beneficiaries, with grave damage to the family farmers; and the environment will be gravely damaged.
The bishops of Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland agree: “We do not believe that agro-companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century.” Roland Lesseps and Peter Henriot, two Jesuits working in Zambia who are experts on agriculture in the developing world, state their opposition on principle: “Nature is not just useful to us as humans, but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in Christ.... The right to use other creatures does not give us the right to abuse them.”
In a similar but distinct criticism, the executive director of the U.S. National Catholic Rural Conference, David Andrews, C.S.C., feels that “the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has allowed itself to be subordinated to the U.S. government’s insistent advocacy of biotechnology and the companies which market it.” Sean McDonagh states: “With patents [on genetically engineered food], farmers will never own their own food....” He believes that “corporate greed” is at the heart of the G.M.O. controversy. Biowatch’s Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss agrees: “With G.M. crops, small-scale farmers will become completely reliant on and controlled by big foreign companies for their food supply.”
This position concludes that the use of G.M.O.’s is morally irresponsible.
3. Approach the use of G.M.O.’s with caution. Two years ago Pope John Paul II declared that G.M.O. agriculture could not be judged solely on the basis of “short-term economic interests,” but needed to be subject to “a rigorous scientific and ethical process of verification.” This cautionary stance has been adopted by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in urging its government to postpone authorization of G.M.O. corn until comprehensive studies have been made: “We have to be careful because, once it is there, how can we remedy its consequences?”
In 2003 the Rural Life Committee of the North Dakota Conference of Churches also called for “rigorous examination” to understand fully the outcomes of the use of G.M.O.’s. This document endorses the “Precautionary Principle” formulated in 1992 by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in order to avoid “potential harm and unforeseen and unintended consequences.”
This view mandates restraint and places the fundamental burden on demonstrating safety. The arguments are based on three areas of concern: the impact on the natural environment, the size of the benefit to the small farmer if the owners and distributors are giant companies like Bristol-Myers and Monsanto and the long-term effects of G.M.O.’s on human and animal health and nutrition.
This position concludes that the use of G.M.O.’s should be approached with caution.
While the “Precautionary Principle” seems prudent, there is simultaneously a strong moral argument that a war on hunger is a grave, universal need. Last year, 10 million people died of starvation. Every 3.6 seconds someone dies from hunger—24,000 people each day. Half of sub-Saharan Africans are malnourished, and this number is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2010. It was a moral disgrace that in 2002 African governments gave in to G.M.O. opponents and returned to the World Food Program tons of G.M.O. corn simply because it was produced in the U.S. by biotechnology.
The Roman conference gives solid reasons that G.M.O.’s are useful, healthful and nonharmful. After all, organisms have been exchanging genetic information for centuries. The tomato, corn and potato would not exist today if human engineering had not transferred genes between species.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that we have a duty to “make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life.” The very first example given is food. In Populorum Progressio (1967), Sollicitude Rei Socialis (1987) and Centesimus Annus (1991), Paul VI and later John Paul II forcefully insisted that rich countries have an obligation to help the poor, just as global economic interdependence places us on a moral obligation to be in solidarity with poor nations. Likewise, The Challenge of Faithful Citizenship, published by the U.S. bishops in 2004, argues that the church’s preferential option for the poor entails “a moral responsibility to commit ourselves to the common good at all levels.”
At the same time, it is critical that farmers in developing countries not become dependent on G.M.O. seeds patented by a small number of companies. Intellectual knowledge must be considered the common patrimony of the entire human family. As the U.S. bishops have stated, “Both public and private entities have an obligation to use their property, including intellectual and scientific property, to promote the good of all people” (For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food, 2003).
The Catholic Church sees deep sacramental significance in wheat and bread, and insists on the absolute imperative to feed and care for the poor of the world. A vital way to promote and ensure the dignity of every human being is to enable them to have their daily bread.