African bishop at pro-GMO meet unsure what to believe

A farmer and his son inspect their harvest in Uganda. Could they benefit from genetically modified food crops? (CNS file photo).

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?

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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?

That's it.

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.

Earlier stories:

Vatican science academy pushes GMOs as safe way of feeding the hungry

By John L Allen Jr
While many church leaders from the grassroots to bishops are against the spread of genetically modified crops for environmental and justice reasons, the Vatican Academy of Sciences is increasingly in favor what it calls "life-sustaining and lifesaving technologies."

Fr. Sean McDonagh: GMOs are going to create famine and hunger

Professor Bruce Chassy: Resistance to GMOs works against the hungry and poor

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