Divinity Divided No More: Vatican Secretly OKs GMOs


Naive of St. Peter's Basilica. Photo by MatthiasKabel (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the past decade, a lot of ink has been spilled trying to discern the papal stance on GMOs.  While in 2000, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave its preliminary approval, and more recently, some of its vocal members have openly endorsed GMOs, the Holy See, in its public communiqués, always went the way of Switzerland.  But there were always rumors and those who suspected otherwise. The truth has seeped out, however, in recently leaked confidential WikiLeaks cables, and as a result, Vatican’s precarious neutrality has been shattered.

“Recent conversations between the Holy See officials and USAID … confirmed the cautious acceptance of biotech food by the Holy See,” wrote Christopher Sandrolini, a U.S. diplomat to the Holy See, in a cable dated August 26, 2005.  The cable revealed that Vatican was not concerned about the safety, science and the legitimacy of biotechnology and that, in fact, the mainstream opinion in the Vatican was that the GMO science was “solid.”  The Vatican did have an issue with the economic impact of GMOs on farmers.  The Church was concerned that “these technologies are going to make developing world farmers more dependent on others, and simply serve to enrich multi-national corporations.”   The U.S. diplomats actively lobbying the Holy See, however, apparently tried to assuage the Vatican’s concerns by referring to competition among companies and the regulatory process in individual countries as safeguards against these concerns.

The U.S. lobbying efforts, however, hit a temporary snag when one of its closest Vatican allies, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Council for Justice and Peace at that time, withdrew his otherwise vocal endorsement of GMOs.  A cable from August 26, 2005 flatly states:  “A Martino deputy told us recently that the cardinal had cooperated with Embassy Vatican on biotech over the past two years in part to compensate for his vocal disapproval of the Iraq war and its aftermath — to keep relations with the USG smooth. According to our source, Martino no longer feels the need to take this approach.”

Fast forward to 2009 and we find that the Vatican is moving closer to openly embracing GMOs.  In a November 19, 2009 cable another U.S. diplomat to the Vatican confirmed that the “Vatican officials remain largely supportive of genetically modified crops as a vehicle for protecting the environment while feeding the hungry …”  The U.S. diplomat’s cable discussed the remarks made by Pope Benedict during the World Food Security Summit on November 16, 2009 in Rome, during which the Pope emphasized the connection between food security and environmental degradation.  According to this cable, the Pope urged the international community to promote development while safeguarding the planet. Apparently, Pope Benedict sees the use of biotechnology is part and parcel of the “development” that he urged.  Monsignor James Reinert, point person on food security and biotechnology at the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, expressed a similar position to another U.S. diplomat during a meeting.

“Benedict’s mention of agricultural technologies” in his speech at the World Food Security Summit made the U.S. officials giddy as, according to the author of the Nov. 19, 2009 cable, it represents “a small but significant step towards more vocal Vatican support of biotechnologies.” It also represented to the U.S. officials that the years spent lobbying the Holy See were not for naught.

Taxpayers’ dollars advocating corporate interests — not a new concept but never pleasant when the public is reminded about it.

The U.S. diplomats to the Holy See were interested in not only influencing wide segments of the population in Europe and the developing world, but they were also hoping to convince the Vatican to stifle opposition and dissent among “elements of the Catholic population” in general, and clergy in the developing world more specifically.  Although expressing a rather a snobbish attitude towards bishops in the developing world (calling anti-biotech clergy “uninformed” about the science), the current word from the Vatican is that it cannot force all bishops to accept biotechnology. Whether this position will change in the future remains to be seen.

Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks cables did not shock many observers of this topic.  The cables, rather, reaffirmed what many already believed, namely that the Vatican supported GMOs and that a more hearty endorsement from the Holy See is likely in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, WikiLeaks cemented for many the understanding that US diplomats around the world are pushing GM crops as a strategic government and commercial imperative.

The greatest contribution of the WikiLeaks cable, however, lies in its dismantling of the Vatican’s position of neutrality. Prior to the revelations, the Holy See has tried to appear neutral by remaining silent on the issue or distancing itself when scientists from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences endorsed GMOs. All contrary PR campaigns by the Vatican aside, we now know where the Vatican stands on GMOs.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I am by no means a man of religion, but this baffles me on many levels. How can they be on board with intervening with nature?

  • http://www.gmo-journal.com Deniza Gertsberg

    Hi Mike,

    That’s part of the reason we are so interested in this topic.

    Thanks for your interest!



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  • Liz

    Archbishop warns WTO about ethical problems with biotechnology patents
    Comments: 0

    Archbishop Silvano Tomasi.Related articles:•Message of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Young People of the World on the Occasion of the XXIII World Youth Day, 2008
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    Geneva, Switzerland, Jun 9, 2010 / 03:21 am (CNA).- The patenting of genetically modified life forms can be ethically “problematic” and could hurt poorer countries if poorly implemented, a Vatican representative has told the World Trade Organization (WTO).

    Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi addressed the WTO Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council in Geneva on Tuesday about a proposed TRIPS agreement which allows WTO members to exclude plants and animals from patentability but not micro-organisms.

    The patenting of life forms, the archbishop warned, could sometimes support “biotechnologies that are problematic both from an ethical point of view and from the point of view of a ‘development-friendly’ intellectual property system.”

    Noting other international agreements which hold that the human genome shall not give rise to “financial gains,” he said the TRIPS agreement, other WTO rules, and all other trade and intellectual property rights agreements should not reduce the ability of states to regulate the aspects of property rights related to human life and dignity.

    These agreements acknowledge the ethical concerns that certain applications of “rapidly developing life sciences” pose to human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, the prelate stated. They also urge states to adopt all necessary measures to protect human life in the applied life sciences.

    Turning to the availability of food, Archbishop Tomasi said, “Private monopolistic rights should not be imposed over those biological resources from which the basic food and medicine requirements of human life are derived.”

    He added that control of patents on the production and distribution of new kinds of seeds and animals could affect both food security and the development prospects of poor countries.

    The prelate also noted “significant concern” about patenting the varieties of seeds that are genetically engineered. He mentioned the risks to traditional and modern research and production, the risks of concentrated seed ownership, and the risks of forcing farmers to buy seeds every season instead of saving them from year to year.

    “The main goal of the international community should be to promote the common good. Moreover, international trade rules and negotiations should aim toward the good of all, especially of those people who are poor and vulnerable,” the archbishop told the WTO meeting.

    Archbishop Tomasi is the Holy See’s permanent representative to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva.

  • Liz

    TURKSON-GM Jan-5-2011 (770 words) With photo. xxxi

    GM crops breed economic dependence, new form of slavery, says cardinal

    Cardinal Turkson (CNS/Paul Haring)

    By Carol Glatz
    Catholic News Service

    VATICAN CITY (CNS) — If farmers in Africa had greater access to fertile, arable land safe from armed conflict and pollutants, they would not need genetically modified crops to produce food, said the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

    Making growers reliant on proprietary, genetically modified seeds smacks of “the usual game of economic dependence,” which in turn, “stands out like a new form of slavery,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson.

    The Ghanaian cardinal’s comments came in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano Jan. 5.

    It is “a scandal” that nearly 1 billion people suffer from hunger, Cardinal Turkson said, especially since there is more than enough food to feed the whole world.

    Crops and livestock are destroyed because of strict trade restraints or in order to keep food prices high and, in wealthier countries, edible food “is thrown in the garbage,” he said.

    “All it would take is a little bit more solidarity and much less egoism” and there would be enough food to nourish even twice the current world population, he said.

    The cardinal said high-tech agricultural practices and techniques are all but useless in areas of conflict and areas that are ravaged by the exploitation of natural resources.

    “In searching for and extracting petroleum, gold or precious minerals present under African soil, multinationals cause enormous damage: they excavate large pits and irreparably devastate fields and forests,” he said. Whether such areas would ever be arable again is uncertain “even if one relied on genetically engineered plants.”

    Cardinal Turkson said some multinational companies are actively engaged in trying to persuade bishops in Africa to support greater use of genetically modified organisms.

    “I think that the real issue is not being for or against GMO,” he said.

    There would be no need for such crops if African growers had access to fertile land that was “not destroyed, devastated or poisoned by the stockpiling of toxic waste” and if growers were able to benefit from the fruits of their labors by being allowed to set aside enough seeds for planting the next year and not be forced to continually buy genetically modified seeds from abroad, he said.

    “Why force an African farmer to buy seeds produced in other lands and by other means? I’m beginning to wonder if behind this there isn’t the usual game of maintaining economic dependence at all costs,” he said.

    Cardinal Turkson said he is not opposed to scientific and technological progress, but it’s important to evaluate whether there is a real need for genetically modified crops.

    He said people should “honestly ask themselves whether it’s more about business trying to make somebody rich,” which was “a reasonable suspicion” given the many examples of similar exploitation in Ghana.

    The extensive interview with Cardinal Turkson also touched upon the justice and peace council’s task of promoting Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth”), the 2009 encyclical that addressed social justice issues.

    The cardinal said there has been a “satisfactory” amount of attention paid to the document by bishops, professors and scholars, but that the council had to address a number of problems that have arisen in the United States concerning the meaning of some of the terms in the encyclical.

    For example, he said the term “social,” as in social development or social responsibility, is meant to convey the sense of the common good, not a political ideology associated with socialism.

    Also the term “gift” reflects the Christian sense of self-giving, while stateside it was thought to refer to a kind of welfare, he said.

    “This made us understand how important it is to put the pope’s texts out in such a way that it’s possible for them to be understood by everyone, even regular people,” he said.

    Even though the cardinal was a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for many years, he said when the pope named him in October 2009 to head the council, he wanted a more complete understanding of what the pope had in mind for the church’s endeavors in the field of justice and peace.

    The cardinal asked for a private papal audience and was granted “a long encounter during which I learned what was the path to take” in the new job.

    The pope said that in the field of justice and peace, “it is necessary to teach people to distinguish between pastoral and political” work, the cardinal said.

    “We are pastors, and we don’t do politics,” he said.

    The church’s pastoral work involves offering a stance and judgment on diverse social issues, not getting involved in the political realm, he said.