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.