Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the scientific academy of the Vatican, whose 80 members the Pope appoints, has kept us guessing since 2000 — will it fully support GMOs? At the turn of the century, the academy expressed its provisional support for GMOs but it was not until recently that it decided to fully and ardently back GMOs. On November 30, 2010, forty international scientists, including seven academy scientists, released a statement demanding a relaxation of what they call “excessive, unscientific regulations” for approving GM crops, saying that these measures prevent development of crops for the “public good.” Furthermore, the academy scientists claimed that scientists have both the right and a moral duty to be “stewards of God” by genetically modifying crops to help the world’s poor. Haven’t we heard that one before?!
Ingo Potrykus, a member of the Pontifical Academy based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he developed “golden rice,” was instrumental in bringing about this recent meeting.
Interestingly, most of the 40 participants were longtime supporters of GMOs. According to U.S. Catholic, not only did the meeting participants include GMO developers (both, those who work for governments and for companies that sell genetically modified seeds), but also, at least four of the speakers have ties to Monsanto.
The scientists’ statement calls for a revision of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which embraced the precautionary principal and was designed to regulate the movement of GM organisms between countries. According to the scientists behind the Nov. 30 affirmation, the risks in question have failed to materialize and the protocol allegedly contains regulatory hurdles that hinder the development of crops by anyone other than large multinational firms.
Despite the scientists’ convictions, there are serious flaws with their arguments. Since the absence of something that we are not looking for is not evidence of non-existence, the argument that risks failed to materialize, well, fails to materialize. And many consumers would prefer “regulatory hurdles” (a.k.a. safety measures) to ensure a modicum of safety for the food they consume.
Both the Pope as well as the Chancellor of the Academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, tried to distance themselves from this hearty endorsement, saying that these statements cannot be considered the official position of either the Holy See or the Academy. If by “official” it is meant that the Pope did not endorse GMOs during a Sunday mass, then maybe the arguments have some merit. Given the recent WikiLeaks revelations, however, it is hard for the Holy See and its bodies of influence to claim neutrality without appearing disingenuous.