Vatican Hijacked by GE Lobby

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 32, Lent 2005
by Peter Murnane OP

On September 24 2004 a conference was held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. It was convened by the US Ambassador to the Vatican with help from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Its pretentious title was Feeding a Hungry World: the moral imperative of biotechnology.

Even before the conference began, objections were raised by experts in biotechnology, Catholic environmental groups and bishops’ conferences. The Australian Columbans expressed ‘major concerns’ about the scandal that the US Embassy was using the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to endorse genetically engineered (GE) foods for profit in a spectacular public relations coup by the GE corporate lobby.

Columbans work among the poor in many cultures. They pointed out that most cultures abhor the prospect of manipulating life-forms or subsequently patenting them. This conference’s agenda was failing to address the real moral question of biotechnology’s impact on the whole web of life.

It was also throwing aside the Precautionary Principle, important in medicine and health, which warns that it is not sensible to take risks until we have adequate knowledge of their effects on people. For GE involves huge risks. Scientists do not know the long-term consequences of ‘engineering’ the intricate DNA at the heart of living cells, nor of swapping genetic material between unrelated species.

Perhaps the Columbans’ strongest objection was that the conference title spoke of ‘feeding a hungry world’ with GE food, but ignored the real roots of hunger and famine – social inequalities that can be remedied. Malnutrition will not be cured by selling super seeds to the poor. Are corporations likely to give them away? It will be cured by land reform and by helping small farmers find cheap credit.

Brother David Andrews, director of The National Catholic Rural Life Conference ( pointed out the sad irony that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was abandoning its original purpose – research and dialogue – for unsophisticated advocacy. He showed that the conference ignored Catholic teaching, which has already analysed causes and possible solutions of world hunger, disregarding the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference document For I was hungry and you gave me food (2003) and clear statements on biotechnology’s moral perspectives from Bishops’ Conferences in South Africa, Philippines, Brazil and other places.

Pope John Paul II over the years has been cautious about the alleged benefits of biotechnology, warning that it ‘cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of immediate economic interests’. It ‘must be submitted beforehand to rigourous scientific and ethical examination’, lest it become ‘disastrous for human health and the future of the earth.’ This is far from calling biotechnology a ‘moral imperative.’!

Andrews showed that the conference ignored Catholic rural movements representing millions of farmers in dozens of countries; and Pontifical Councils like Cor Unum which already works for hungry populations. It’s attitude tramples the principle of collegiality which the Second Vatican Council strongly encouraged in the world-wide Church.

The Philippines Bishops’ Commission on Social Action challenged the Conference to take seriously the ethical study of food by promoting sustainable agriculture ensuring that biotechnology’s benefits reach the poor; and promoting integral, holistic development as Pope Paul VI taught in the Encyclical Populorum Progressio.

The conference was not listening. It scorned all these requests based on genuine moral imperatives. Its biased list of speakers presumed a moral imperative for using GE foods as the only way to solve hunger. Using the language of politics and advertising, they accused opponents of GE of propagating ‘myths’. Renowned international environmentalist, Columban Fr Sean McDonagh, called the conference ‘a disgrace; a sustained exercise in propaganda for GE seeds’, since no voice was heard from the development community and there was none of the dialogue so essential in science.

One of its speakers was Dr C.S. Prakash, a lobbyist for international GE corporations, who travels the world using dubious claims to promote their technology. In Tanzania he claimed that GE crops ‘double production’; in the Philippines, that they reduce farmers’ losses because they have longer shelf life. He cited Kenyan GE sweet potatoes as a shining example of how GE can help Africans. In fact, trials now show that these all failed miserably.

Recently Prakash told poor farmers in Vietnam that adopting GE crops will create jobs for 60 percent of the labour force. But the herbicide-resistant GE crops he promotes seriously damage the environment, actually reduce the need for labour and so worsen rural unemployment and increase poverty! Another conference speaker, Peter Raven, although a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has been described as ‘a paid travelling salesman for Monsanto.’

It is now well recognised that GE corporations, by funding research scientists, universities and even food-testing organisations are corrupting their research and forcing them to endorse the agenda of their corporate backers. Sadly, it now seems that this infection is spreading even to the heart of the Catholic Church.

Peter Murnane O.P. lives in Auckland. This article first appeared in Tui Motu, November 2004

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