Genetically modified foods revisited?

VATICAN CITY — An Irish theologian, Columban Father Sean McDonagh, wrote a commentary recently after reading this CNS story.

The story and Father McDonagh’s subsequent commentary were based on an interview Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Jan. 1.

In his remarks on the scandal of hunger, Cardinal Martino seems to have become more skeptical of how central a role genetically modified foods should be playing in the fight against global hunger.

From our story:

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

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,” said Cardinal Martino.

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

“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,” he said.

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

This is a far cry from the Italian cardinal’s once laid-back attitude toward GM foods which he had made evident during a press conference in 2002. As CNS’s John Thavis reported back then:

A Vatican official who returned recently from a 16-year stint in the United States offered himself as a walking testimonial to the safety of genetically modified foods.

As someone who once ate bread laced with marble dust during World War II, Archbishop Renato Martino said he was only too happy to choose from today’s smorgasbord of high-tech foodstuffs.

“Look at me. I’m in good health, at least I think so. I was in the United States for 16 years and I ate everything on the market, including a lot of GM (genetically modified) food,” the [then] 70-year-old Italian archbishop told a Vatican press conference Dec. 17.

“Up to now, I’ve had no undesirable effects,” he said with a laugh. He recently took up a Vatican position after serving as the Holy See’s representative to the United Nations.

He recalled that as a boy in southern Italy during World War II, he would walk to buy a small piece of bread that “had everything inside, including marble dust.” Marble dust was sometimes slipped into the dough to add substance to the product in times of flour shortages.

But in wartime, he said, that little piece of bread was everything.

“So when someone is hungry, he adapts and eats all kinds of things. Naturally, this (genetic food) issue needs to be evaluated, but I think the whole controversy is based more on politics than on science,” he said.

Over the years, the Vatican has cautiously endorsed genetically modified foods. In 1999, the Pontifical Academy for Life gave a “prudent yes” to the genetic modification of plants, as long as the risks are “carefully followed through openness, analysis and controls.”

In 2003, Cardinal Martino’s council sponsored a study seminar dedicated to the advantages and risks of GM foods. Some noted the number of invited speakers in favor of GM far outnumbered those advocating caution, but Cardinal Martino at the time insisted the Vatican had not passed any judgment on the moral and ethical questions involved.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has shown its support for the potential of GM foods. In 2004, it released a study document that praised the important contributions GM foods could make in combating hunger.

Interestingly, in mid-May this year, the science academy is hosting a study week dedicated to transgenic plants for food security. Judging from the pro-GM flavor of the program’s introduction and the background of its invited speakers, the study session looks like it will glowingly endorse the use of genetically modified crops for feeding the poor.

What are readers’ opinions? Is there already enough food to feed the world? Is the problem of hunger a problem of distribution? Will creating special crops for developing nations help or hurt humanity?

3 Responses

  1. You know my grandfather was a strawberry farmer and he even created a strain of strawberries called the Nora Anne named after the first female on my mothers side of the family.
    Unspoken rule last time I knew about farmers you usually gave away your abundance to those less fortunate than yourself. If you had a good crop that year or you reduced the price for those you knew about who couldnt afford it.
    (During tough times you always take in family if necessary. They did.)
    You learn to make out though.
    Or simply you share what each other has sometimes free and sometimes for a reduced priced depending on the situation.
    Who knows maybe we will see that again someday.
    Hopefully we work toward a better future.

  2. Crop plants are genetically modified for resistance to insects, to make it easier and safer to eliminate weeds, and to prevent crop loss due to disease. There are good reasons why farmers plant these crops. No harm is suffered by consumers, and there is substantial evidence of benefit to the environment in many cases (e.g., reduced use of chemical insecticides that harm beneficial insects and the increase in no-till agriculture). Farmers should be able to decide what crops to plant, and the public should be given the choice of which crops to buy. The regulatory barriers against such crops in the EU and elsewhere protect local farmers, not the consuming public. Archbishop Martino’s objections are unreasonable and unfounded.

  3. GM crops are engineered to be either resistant to a particular herbicide, or to be toxic to a particular pest. They have no other benefits, and even these attributes lose effect over time . This results in more chemical useage to combat pests that have built resistance to the toxins exuded by the crops, or to eliminate the weeds which have assumed resitance to the herbicides due to cross-pollination. No-till is widely used by non GM farmers so this cannot be attributed to the use of GM crops. As these foods are not labelled they are thus untraceable and it would be ignorant to presuppose that they cause no harm as such studies have never been done. However, independant research has shown worrying results that should be followed up. Unfortunately getting access to GM seeds for this very purpose is almost impossible. Why would that be?

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