GM Foods: The Christian Perspective

My recent posts have evaluated the perspective of genetically modified foods from a religious perspective, namely, seeing where Judaism and Islam stand on the issue. In the post below, I will explore the position of Christian theologians on the subject.

Christian theologians and scholars find themselves conflicted on the issue of GMOs. Not surprisingly because one of the tenets of Christianity is to help those in need and to feed the hungry. However, certain of the Church’s Social Teachings, found in scripture, in theological reflection, in ecclesiastic documents and in the witness of individuals and communities, stress respect for human rights and respect for the environment. Because there are unknown risks with GMOs with respect to health and the environment, and because there are many other considerations such as corporate ownership and control of the GM seeds that many say will enslave poor farmers to the GM companies, many Christian theologians either advocate following a precautionary principle or reject the use of GMOs entirely.

That is why I was surprised to learn that Pope Benedict XVI’s scientists have given their blessing to genetically modified cropsas a possible solution to world hunger and poverty. In the face of contradictory information, which, at a minimum, raises concerns about the impact of GMOs on human, animal and ecological safety, the Vatican’s approval is hasty and begs the question as to its motives. Also interesting is the fact that the United States government has been wooing the Vatican scientistsfor many years. As the recent news has revealed, those lobbying efforts has bourne fruit.

The Vatican has not always held this position and in fact Pope John Paul II advocated a precautionary principle where GMOs are concerned. The precautionary principle in its simplest form means that when one is embarking on something new, one should think very carefully about whether it is safe or not, and should not go ahead until reasonably convinced it is. For example, as early as 1990, in a message on World Peace Day, Pope John Paul II stated:

“[w]e can only look with deep concern at the enormous possibilities of biological research. We are not yet in a position to assess the biological disturbance that could result from indiscriminate genetic manipulation and from the unscrupulous development of new forms of plant and animal life, to say nothing of unacceptable experimentation regarding the origins of human life itself. It is evident that in any area as delicate as this, indifference to fundamental ethical norms, or their rejection, would lead humankind to the very threshold of self-destruction.”

The current Vatican’s approval of GMOs, however, is not shared by other religious and secular organizations that focus their activities on the problem of world hunger. Groups, such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledged, Science and Technology for Development, a global UN-backed think tank that last year rejected GM as a solution to hunger. In addition, Oxfam UK and Christian Aid, a British ecumenical group, have been sharply critical of genetic engineering, as has another British group, Action Aid. In the United States, both Agricultural Missions, an arm of the National Council of Churches and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference have been critical of GMOs. These groups recognize that the root cause of hunger is poverty – and poverty is a complex phenomenon the roots of which lie in injustice. As such, addressing hunger by throwing GMOs at it will not solve it.

The May 2009 Action Aid report concisely summed up the inefficacy of GMOs as a solution to world hunger:

“in the few developing countries where GM has been introduced so far, the use of pesticides has increased, soil fertility has been reduced, soil erosion has increased, and land ownership has become more unequal. Poor farmers’ traditional practice of seed saving is threatened as farmers are required to sign ‘use agreements’ with GM seed suppliers. This in turn makes farmers more vulnerable to debt and exogenous shocks as they become more dependent on expensive external inputs.”

In the face of such concerns, I wonder if the Vatican’s acceptance of GMOs as a solution to world hunger is immoral and disingenuous.

UPDATE: A new collection of essays gathered in Acceptable Genes: Religious Traditions and Genetically Modified Foods, Edited by Conrad G. Brunk and Harold Coward (SUNY Press, 2009), further explores different religious perspectives on GMOs.  See Brittany Shoot’s discussion of the essay collection.

  • Sean McDonagh

    Greetings,

    My name is Fr. Sean McDonagh. I have written extensively on GM crops. A book I wrote in 2004 is entitled Patenting Life? Stop! Is Corporate Greed Forcing Us To Eat Genetically Engineered Food. In recent months my column in the Catholic newspaper called The Universe has been directed to challenging the position of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on GM crops.

    The fact that the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences has endorsed GM crops does not mean that the Vatican has accepted that position. It hasn’t. If the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace headed by Cardinal Martino had endorsed GM crops or Pope Benedict had made a positive statement on GM crops you could then say that GMOs had been endorsed by the Holy See (Vatican) To date they haven’t.

    sincerely,

    sean mcdonagh

  • http://www.gmo-journal.com Deniza

    Thank you for your post and your interest. It is true that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is considered an independent and influential body within the Holy See. The role of the Academy of Sciences, as discussed in a Discovery Magazine article from September 2008, is to help the Church on scientific matters and advise them on their policies. (As an interesting aside, I find it intriguing that corporate interests seep their way to influence members of the Academy but this is a story for another day).

    At this time, the Pope has not officially endorsed the use of GMOs. However, based on some of the comments from Vatican – particularly those of Cardinal Martino – it cannot be said that the Vatican is entirely silent on the issue either. Over the years, Cardinal Martino made repeated statements in interviews to suggest to many that the Vatican either endorses the use of GMOs or, at a minimum, welcomes the idea of using GMOs as a way to address world hunger.

    And it is also worth pointing out, that even if the Academy has independently endorsed GMOs, why hasn’t the Pope either condemned the position, questioned their acceptance, or came out and clarified the position of the Vatican on the issue if in fact it is different than that held by the Academy? Instead, the reverberations from those close to the Pope suggest an implicit (if not an actual explicit) approval of the use of GMOs.

    Again, thank you for your comment. It’s a fascinating topic and I hope to do another post on Christianity and GMOs soon.

    Best regards,
    Deniza

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  • Waiting…

    Catholic does not equal Christian! Many of us bible-believers hate this idea, but we do not get the press the Vatican does unless someone does something that gives us a black eye.

  • anthony

    i think genetically food a a great solution and should continue

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