Vatican’s Perspective on GMO: Signaling Winds of Change?

Photo by Chris Sloan

Photo by Chris Sloan

While the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, recently reported that the Church has no official position on the practice of modifying the genes of produce, it appears that change may be in the air for Pope’s inner circle. The hope is that the appointment of Cardinal Peter Turkson in January as the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to replace the notably pro-GMO Cardinal Renato Martino would usher in a more cautionary perspective about GMOs from the Vatican.

The L’Osservatore Romano comments concerning the alleged neutrality of the Holy See’s were made shortly after the European Commission approved for commercial cultivation Amflora, a genetically modified starchy potato. Amflora, produced by the largest chemical company in the world, BASF, is currently only approved for starch production, not human consumption, but the leftover skins will be fed to cattle. It will used for industrial purposes like paper and yarn production and making spray concrete.

The controversy surrounding Amflora is that the potato contains a gene that is resistant to antibiotics including kanamycin, neomycin, butirosin, and gentamicin. When antibiotic resistance is making frequent headlines, the European Commission’s approval, and BASF’s cultivation of such crop, is, in the eyes of many, irresponsible.

Despite the Vatican’s alleged neutrality, GMO Journal, which has previously expressed an opinion that reverberations from the Pope’s inner circle suggest a pro-GMO stance, hopes that the recent appointment of Cardinal Turkson signals that the Vatican is ready to confront the GMO debate with greater objectivity and less willingness to blindly repeat the industry jingles of needing GMOs to save the world from hunger.

In fact, unlike his predecessor Cardinal Martino, as the new head of Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Turkson would urge an attitude of caution and further study of the possible negative effects of genetically engineered organisms. Turkson was quoted as expressing a concern that genetically modified food crops could be used as “weapons of infliction of hunger and poverty” if they are managed unjustly. “[T]he issue becomes problematic when a company that controls the use of genetically modified seeds and crops is motivated more by profit than by the declared desire to want to help feed humanity.”  Turkson further explained,

My basic stance, in fact, is pro-science: I believe technological advances have greatly advanced human health and affluence, and will continue to do so, if properly regulated. My concern re: GMOs has always stemmed from a profound skepticism that profit-seeking corporations can be trusted to responsibly serve the public good. One need look only at the constant stream of reports detailing unethical and criminal behavior by major pharmaceutical companies to realize that this is hardly a hypothetical concern.

Yet, despite this apparent policy shift the question is still out there: why is the Vatican officially maintaining an official policy of “no position.” After all, the Vatican has never shied away from taking a stand on controversial issues. Everyone knows, for example, the Vatican’s position with respect to a woman’s right to chose, ordaining women and homosexuals as priests, and the use of condoms in Africa to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.  And yet, when it comes to GMOs, its official position is that it has no position?!

For an organization that vociferously proclaims its support for life, the Vatican’s official silence on GMOs is nothing but enigmatic. Food is the essence of our life and the GMO debate is at the heart of that.  One big concern about GMOs in the corporate ownership of food.  In the words of Cardinal Turkson,

In the case of GMOs we are dealing with a remarkable concentration of intellectual property ownership in just a handful of corporations. Like all well-endowed corporate actors, these companies do not shy from vigorously lobbying governments in favor of putting into place legal frameworks that are designed to maximize profits and minimize caution.

GMOs also impact the health and environmental safety of our global human and animal community and are implicated in the loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, given that by definition GMOs mean manipulation of life, i.e., tinkering with what believers view as intrinsic value of God’s creation, one would expect the Vatican to speak-up and oppose GMOs. Yet, enigmatically, the Vatican maintains an official position of no position.

Some Christian faith based organizations and members of the Church, in the United States and abroad, have not shied away and recognized that their faith commands them to speak out against GMOs.

For example, one of the tenets of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference is that “eating is a moral act,” arguing that Catholics should care about what they eat:

Most of the food available in regular grocery stores also comes from some sector of agribusiness that often places profit before human dignity. Corporate-owned “factory farms,” in their quest for larger yields, resort to genetically modified crops, the negative effects of which are currently unknown, or increasing pesticide usage, the negative effects of which are clearly known.

Similarly, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in February 2003 asked the then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to postpone use of a genetically modified corn, citing possible health risks. In 2002, the Catholic Bishops of South Africa declared, “[i]t is morally irresponsible to produce and market genetically modified food.”

In 2003, 14 Brazilian bishops put out a “declaration on transgenic crops,” in which they condemned the cultivation and consumption of GMOs. The bishops cited three risks: 1) health consequences, including increased allergies, resistance to antibiotics, and an increase in toxic substances; 2) environmental consequences, including erosion of bio-diversity; and 3) damage to the sovereignty of Brazil, “as a result of the loss of control of seeds and living things through patents that become the exclusive property of multinational groups interested only in commercial ends.”

In addition, Christian Aid, a  British ecumenical group, has also been sharply critical of genetic engineering.

Individually, Father Sean McDonagh has been one of the most vocal members of the Church to oppose the genetic manipulation of food.

While many Christian organizations oppose the genetic manipulation of food, and the list above is by far not exclusive, and given that the Vatican has previously been outspoken on many controversial issues, it is hard to accept Vatican’s official “no position” as a position.  It raises more questions and stokes fires of the debate concerning the Vatican’s GMO perspective.  Is someone or something keeping the Vatican from openly taking a stand?