Pope's Inner Circle Supportive of GMOs

Vatican City Coat of Arms

Vatican City Coat of Arms

After writing about the Christian perspective on GMOs, I’ve received an interesting comment questioning whether the Vatican has in fact endorsed GMOs. This prompted me to explore the subject further.

In the previous post, I focused on the position of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which recently endorsed the use of GMOs as a way to address world hunger. It was brought to my attention that the fact that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences endorsed GMOs does not necessarily mean that this position is shared by the Vatican.

It is true that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is considered “an independent and remarkably influential body within the Holy See.” The role of the Academy of Sciences, as discussed in the Discovery Magazine article, 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 those in the Pope’s inner circle – particularly those of Cardinal Martino – it cannot be said that the Vatican is entirely silent on the issue either. As a President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Martino is, arguably, one of the most influential members of the Pope’s inner circle and comments made by him can be either explicitly or implicitly attributed to the Pope. It should not be surprising, therefore, that comments made by Cardinal Martino, as described more fully below, suggest to many that the Vatican has either endorsed the use of GMOs or, at a minimum, welcomed the idea of using GMOs as a way to address world hunger.

As early as 2002, the UK Monsanto branch claimed that, based on Cardinal Martino’s comments, the Vatican supported the use of GMOs. The Monsanto article quotes Cardinal Martino as saying: “I lived 16 years in America and I ate what came from the market, what was given to me,” including, he said, genetically modified foods. “So far I have had no ill effects.”

Martino said he “wouldn’t make such a big deal” about food being genetically modified. “When you’re hungry you eat everything.”

Additionally, in a 2003, an Associated Press article quoted Martino as saying that he is open to the technology, although the Vatican has not yet taken a stance on it. The article went on to say:

Martino has often spoken out about the potential benefits of GM foods as a way of alleviating world hunger and says the church has a duty to follow any new science that might benefit mankind.

Martino said Tuesday he still believed that GM foods offered hope to the hungry, despite having heard from critics that it offered no such benefits and that the only way to alleviate hunger was to address its underlying causes: poverty, unequal land distribution, and lack of access to markets, among others.

In Martino’s opening address at the Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology in Agriculture in 2003 he reiterated the imperative to feed the hungry and the need to continue exploring GMOs as a solution. The views expressed in the opening statement cannot be deemed objective because objectivity requires, at a minimum, a presentation of both sides of the issue. Martino, however, doesn’t even acknowledge serious questions concerning GMOs and its effects on health and the environment.

Many also thought that the Vatican was going to endorse GMOs in 2003. Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez of the Diocese of Marbel expressed alarm over reports that the Vatican was planning to endorse genetically modified organisms in a letter sent to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that could be seen seen republished here along with a reprint of a related article from MindaNews. Martino was also cited in this Ottawa Citizen article as saying that the Vatican would publish a report next month endorsing genetic modification of plants as the best way to feed the world’s starving and that when it comes to dealing with world hunger, “there is no room for the ideological argument advanced by the environmentalists. The Pope ardently desires to do something for the billions of people who go to bed hungry every night.”

Martino’s more recent comments, made earlier this year, are puzzling, if not ironic. Martino is quoted saying to an Italian newspaper that he is concerned with the distribution of food around the world. Specifically, Martino is reported as saying,

Famine and lack of nutrition are to be blamed on the poor distribution of plentiful foodstuffs, not overpopulation.

The responsibility for the food crisis is in the hands of unscrupulous people who focus only on profit and certainly not on the well-being of all people.

A more just system of distribution and not the manufacturing of genetically modified foods is the key to addressing the problem.

If one wants to pursue GMOs (genetically modified organisms) one can freely do so, but without hiding that it’s a way to make more profits.

Utilizing genetically modified foods calls for “prudence” because genetically modifying organisms can increase yields in some instances, …, but people must not abuse their power to be able to manipulate nature.

Can these comments be characterized as a lopsided retraction of his earlier position or is he trying to straddle both sides of the debate? These comments reveal that Cardinal Martino is not against the use of GMO per se, just their corporate underpinnings. I doubt that such position is realistic when corporations developing GMOs are indeed engaged in the endeavor only for profit. Besides, corporate profit making is only one aspect of this complicated debate and does not address health and environmental concerns, issues that, one would think, should also concern the Vatican.

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