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Genetic modification: Not your typical food fight
Carol Glatz
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Monday, May 4, 2009
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VATICAN CITY (CNS)—It's not your typical food fight.
The battle being waged is between multinational corporations that market genetically modified crops and environmentalists who warn that gene-altered foodstuffs are not safe.
In an effort to find out whether genetically modified organisms harm human health or not, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will be holding a study week in mid-May to hear what the scientific community has to say.
"There is a lot of propaganda being used by the two sides," Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the academy's chancellor, told Catholic News Service April 29. "And for exactly that reason some scientific clarity is needed" to determine how safe these organisms are.
The arguments put forth by corporations in favor of genetic modification are not trustworthy, he said, "for the fact that they (corporations) are looking to make money."
And, he said, some of the activists who have been sounding the alarm against so-called "Frankenfoods" often do not cite sound scientific studies to back up their claims.
Bishop Sanchez said organizers sought to gather an objective group of experts who have been working with genetically modified organisms for years.
The majority of the 41 speakers listed on the academy's Web site support the use of modified crops for boosting food production and the creation of new sources of energy from nonfood crops. The bishop said that's because there are very few scientists who oppose the use of genetically modified organisms.
Even though it looks like most participants already agree that genetic modification should play a key role in fighting world hunger, Bishop Sanchez believes there will be a lively debate and some disagreement.
For one thing, the academy has invited Bishop George Nkuo of Kumbo, Cameroon, to talk about a recent warning by African bishops against claims that genetically modified crops would solve Africa's food crises.
A working document for this fall's Synod of Bishops for Africa says using modified crops risks "ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding and making farmers dependent on the production companies" selling their genetically modified seeds.
The document said no one should overlook the real agricultural problems on the continent, which include a lack of arable land, water, energy, credit, local markets and infrastructure for transporting products.
It's not the first time the academy has discussed whether genetic modification should play a role in promoting food security. It co-hosted a conference on modified foods with the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican in 2004; some criticized that conference as being too biased in favor of genetic technology.
The academy showed its support for the potential of modified foods when it released a statement—based on the conference discussions—that praised the important contributions such foods could make in fighting hunger.
But academy members want to take another look at the safety of genetic modification, Bishop Sanchez said.
"We have new members who are very interested in this issue," he said, and new concerns have cropped up over the safety of pest- and herbicide-resistant crops.
An herbicide-resistant crop of genetically altered corn or soybeans, for example, allows farmers to douse their fields with herbicide without damaging the genetically modified plants. Farmers may prefer this system because they no longer have to till the land before planting to get rid of weeds; but what of the impact on human health and the environment?
A number of participants have invented genetically modified foodstuffs or work for companies that sell modified seeds.
There also are at least four speakers who have ties to the U.S. agribusiness giant Monsanto, which created a synthetic bovine growth hormone to boost cow milk production as well as insect- and herbicide-resistant seeds.
Bishop Sanchez said those in charge of organizing and finding speakers for the genetic modification study week were two Swiss pontifical academy members: Werner Arber, a 1978 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and Ingo Potrykus, who invented a genetic strain of rice that is rich in beta carotene and can fortify diets lacking in vitamin A.
Oddly, the academy is asking journalists not to attend the meeting or interview participants because the issue is so sensitive and controversial.
The academy chancellor said he has been dismayed at how often journalists will take the one opinion or view of a participant attending a Vatican conference and bill it as the Vatican's official position.
In an effort to avoid that kind of misinformation, he asked that journalists base their coverage of the study week only on the academy's final statement.
Bishop Sanchez emphasized that what comes out of this gathering "will not be part of the Church's magisterium." The Church, in fact, has never taken an official position on genetically modified foods.
The Vatican's somewhat neutral position has meant that genetically modified food supporters and detractors have been "pushing and shoving to recruit the Vatican onto their side," said a front-page article in the May 1 edition of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
The Church is keenly aware of the urgent food crises across the globe, it said, but how the problems of poverty, hunger and malnutrition should be solved "remains an open question."
No one possesses a magic wand and there is still a lack of scientific evidence and consensus concerning the safety, environmental impact and true productivity yields of modified crops, said the newspaper.

For this reason, it said, the issue of genetically modified organisms should be "faced without dogmatism and with common sense and responsibility, not with a barrage of mutual excommunications or, worse, lobbying disguised as a religious war."

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