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.
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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’re 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.”
John Allen interviews:
Fr. Sean McDonagh: GMOs are going to create famine and hunger
Professor Bruce Chassy: Resistance to GMOs works against the hungry and poor
Bishop George Nkuo of the Kumbo diocese in Cameroon: Lone African bishop at pro-GMO meet unsure what to believe