The Vatican Enters a GMO "Palaver"

By Marshall Matz

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Supports Use of Biotechnology

By: Marshall Matz with Peter Matz                            

“Palaver” is a wonderful word used in Africa to mean a patient and thorough exploration of a major problem.  It is a process that brings together all stakeholders to respectfully examine all facets of a complex issue. 

When Ambassador Ken Quinn selected the theme of “The Next Borlaug Century: Biotechnology Sustainability and Climate Volatility” for this year's World Food Prize, we all expected a vibrant discussion. From the Borlaug Dialogue to the shadow events hosted by opponents of biotechnology to the press coverage, no one was disappointed as all points of view were very enthusiastically presented.  Indeed, the Borlaug Dialogue became an African palaver. 

In the long run, however, it was the presentation of Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which may have the most profound impact.  Cardinal Turkson directly addressed the controversy surrounding biotechnology and genetic modification in the production of food using Catholic thought and Vatican II as his reference points.  Quoting Pope John Paul II, he concluded: “The findings of science must be put to use in order to ensure a high productivity of the land in such a way that the local population can secure food and sustenance without destroying nature.”

 

Cardinal Turkson's remarks were based in part upon the findings of a select group of 40 scientific experts from around the world who were convened by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences to examine all available evidence on transgenic plants. Their conclusions included the following:

·        GE technology, used appropriately and responsibly, can in many circumstances make essential contributions to agricultural productivity by crop improvement, including enhancing crop yields and nutritional quality, and increasing resistance to pests, as well as improving tolerance to drought and other forms of environmental stress. These improvements are needed around the world to help improve the sustainability and productivity of agriculture.

·        GE can be of major significance for resource-poor farmers and vulnerable members of poor farming communities, especially women and children.

·        GE technology can combat nutritional deficiencies through modification that provides essential micro-nutrients.

·        There is a moral imperative to make the benefits of GE technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments.

Although Cardinal Turkson suggested ethical guidelines for the use of GMO's, including the need for transparency, communication and labeling, he was adamant that the use of science should not be put to a vote.  “The world's food security challenges are not to be overcome with a referendum on science.” “…The Church is not anti-science.  Nor do we wish to promote a referendum on technology or biotechnology.”

It was the Cardinal's discussion of genetic engineering, however, and its relationship to food security, justice and theology, that was truly riveting. It was clear he traveled from Rome to Iowa to address the moral imperative of embracing sound science in order to combat global hunger.  While there is much more to agriculture than seeds, given the extraordinary importance of the Cardinal's comments to pending state initiatives in the U.S., international trade agreements and global food security, let's return to them at greater length: 

Comments of Cardinal Peter Turkson

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Holy See, The Vatican

October 17, 2013

 

Hunger in the world is a very serious injustice that shows fundamental disrespect for human dignity. Pope John Paul II called it "the first and fundamental form of poverty".

 

The earth, as Scriptures tell us, was created as the home of the human family. The earth is beautiful, good and perfect in serving its purpose of giving sustenance to human life.

 

In Catholic thought, then, “nature” is neither sacred nor divine, neither to be feared nor to be revered and left untouched. Rather, it is a gift offered by the Creator to the human community to be lived in and used, entrusted to the intelligence and moral responsibility of men and women. Therefore it is legitimate for humans with the correct attitude to intervene in nature and make modifications. In the words of the Compendium as applied to biotechnology: “For this reason the human person does not commit an illicit act when, out of respect for the order, beauty and usefulness of individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem, he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties.”

 

There are no a priori limits on the notion of “intervening by modifying”. It does not even preclude actions taken on what may be considered as the most intimate part of living organisms: the genome.

 

Blessed John Paul II, in a speech to the members of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, expressed support for genetic research…..he then applied the same research to food production, saying “Finally, I wish to recall, along with a few cases which I have cited that benefit from biological experimentation, the important advantages that come from the increase of food products and the formation of new vegetal species for the benefit of all, especially people in most need.”

 

Again, addressing the 24th General Assembly of the FAO, where he observed how hostile climate affects food production in poor countries, he said: “The findings of science must be put to use in order to ensure a high productivity of land in such a way that the local population can secure food and sustenance without destroying nature.”

 

Finally, at a study week of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tropical Forest and the Conservation of Species, John Paul II referred to how “other plants possess value as sources of food or as a means of genetically improving strains of edible plants.”

 

At this point in the conversation, and in the light of the above, we should rejoice in the memory and achievements of Dr. Norman Borlaug.

 

*        *        *

 

For a complete transcript of Cardinal Turkson's remarks, click here.

 

 

Marshall Matz was formerly General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee.  He founded the World Food Program---USA and now specializes in agriculture at OFW Law.  Peter Matz is the Senior Legislative Assistant at OFW Law.  

 

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