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Vatican conference discusses moral implications of biotech food

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican concluded a two-day conference on genetically modified organisms Tuesday with a discussion of the moral implications of tinkering with creation by splicing genes to make new plants and animals.

Supporters of the new technologies said they offer great promise to mankind and deserve to be encouraged, while critics said biotech foods will not alleviate world hunger.

The Vatican is expected to make a pronouncement on genetically modified organisms in the future, based on the data gathered during the seminar. Some participants have questioned whether the Vatican was getting a balanced view, since speakers in the pro-biotech camp dominated the discussions, reflecting the views of its organizer, Cardinal Renato Martino.

Martino has spoken out about the potential benefits of genetically modified foods in alleviating world hunger -- a prime concern of the Vatican.

Martino has said the Vatican's aim was to find some common ground for the benefit of mankind, particularly the poor.

The issue of poverty and hunger is a major concern for the Vatican, which rejects arguments that limiting family size by using contraception is one way to improve food security in the developing world.

But two Jesuits, the Rev. Roland Lesseps and the Rev. Peter Henriot, said in a joint paper to the conference that endorsing the use of genetically modified organisms disturbed "the awesome goodness of God's creation."

Lesseps and Henriot, who both are based in Zambia, said church teachings requiring respect for human rights and the natural world mandated that the Vatican take a precautionary approach concerning GMOs.

"Nature is not just useful to us humans, but is valued and loved in itself, for itself, by God in Christ," Lesseps and Henriot said in prepared remarks.

Lesseps, who has a doctorate, is a senior scientist at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Center in Lusaka. Henriot is director of the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection.

A Vatican endorsement of biotech foods likely would draw praise from the United States, where biotech companies have been at the forefront of extolling the virtues of genetically modified organisms, which can be made to resist insects or disease.

But it would no doubt ruffle feathers in Europe, which has imposed a moratorium on growing or importing genetically modified organisms because of fears about their environmental and health risks, and in African countries such as Zambia, which has rejected biotech food aid.

Greenpeace science adviser Dr. Doreen Stabinsky also challenged Martino's argument, telling the conference that genetically engineered crops were not alleviating world hunger and posed environmental risks.

For example, Argentina harvested enough wheat during its 2001 economic crisis to meet the needs of both China and India, but many of its own people still went hungry, she said.

"There is no direct relationship between the amount of food a country produces and the number of hungry people who live there," Stabinsky said in prepared remarks.

Rather, political and economic issues over hundreds of years have contributed to world hunger, she said. The problem will be solved only by addressing inequalities in land distribution, improving access to markets and dealing with cheap imports of staple foods, she said.

Italy's health minister, Girolamo Sirchia, told a press conference that the technology offers hope to mankind.

"There is no data that shows that transgenic foods are harmful to one's health," Sirchia said. "Four-fifths of humanity doesn't have enough food or medicine. Science favors the development of humanity and health."

Dr. Harry Kuiper, a food safety expert at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said current methods adequately ensured the safety of genetically modified foods, even if questions remained about the "unexpected effects" of modification.

"Scientists and colleagues, we think we have the methods to identify unexpected effects using new technologies," he said. "And although I must say there is no 'zero risk' in life -- everything is risky -- we can provide with our methods a very high level of safety assurance."

Thandiwe Myeni, a small-scale South African farmer and chairwoman of the Mbuso Farmers' Association, said she had a positive experience with genetically modified cotton. The genetically modified seeds cost more than regular ones, but she saves money by using less pesticide and harvesting bigger crops.

"We need this technology," she told a press conference after speaking to the symposium. "We don't want always to be fed food aid."

"We want access to this technology so that one day we can also become commercial farmers."


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