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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Church leaders: "Transgenic" plants must be used to feed poor

Many queries that lead people to this blog are from people seeking information on the Catholic position on genetically modified foods. I haven’t posted much on the issue because I didn't feel I had the right amount of information.

But now I do.

When I interviewed him for a recent interview on biodiversity, Dr. Peter Raven of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences sent me a good deal of documentation on the use of genetic sciences in the arena of food security and supply. And yesterday, Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson of Ghana told an audience in Des Moines, Iowa that the findings of science can and should be used to feed the hungry.

As reported in the Des Moines Register,
Citing Pope John Paul II, Turkson told a room filled with about 1,000 people attending the World Food Prize symposium in downtown Des Moines that adverse climate change has affected food production in poor countries, “and the findings of science must be put to use in order to ensure a high productivity of land.”
Turkson asked why biotechnology has elicited “so much displeasure, distrust, skepticism and opposition,” when the “world rejoiced at achievements of Norman Borlaug,” the Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was credited with saving millions of lives with development of disease-resistant wheat varieties.
Cardinal Turkson. Photo: Flicker/Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Turkson suggested some “moral parameters” to help guide dialogue. “Some may claim that research is ethically neutral, that its application is either good or bad,” he said. “But there’s no human activity that’s ethically neutral.”
“There is a need sometimes to be prudent,” he said. “Let’s take every reasonable measure of caution beforehand to avoid the risk of human health or the environment. Such prudence is necessary to any element to advance the common good.”
And there should be transparency with the public, Turkson said. “Adopt the highest standards of communication with the public as well as rules of labeling to guarantee producers’ and consumers’ rights to information.”
“This is necessary for everyone to have a true choice,” Turkson said. “For what makes us truly human is our power to choose.”
He also called patent rights legitimate, given that research is expensive. “But it needs also to be monitored and regulated. Fair ways must be found to share the fruits of research and ensure developing countries have access to resources and innovations. “It’s crucial for humanity’s attainment of zero hunger objective,” he said.
These words echoed comments made by Dr. Raven, who himself is renowned for his studies of life on earth.

In a paper delivered to the International Symposium on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms, Dr. Raven concluded that
[a]ssessments of the biosafety effects of GM crops on biodiversity should not be overly politically-driven or a burdensome impedance to delivering this technology broadly.  Biosafety scientists and policy makers need to recognize the undeniable truth that inappropriate actions resulting in indecision also have negative consequences. We should employ all the tools at our disposal in the drive to build sustainable agriculture. It is no longer acceptable to delay the use of any strategy that is safe and will help us achieve the ability to feed the world’s people. (Emphasis original)
Dr. Peter Raven
Courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden
Elsewhere, he has examined the impact of transgenic foods on biodiversity, a topic of professional interest to him. In writing this February to colleagues in India, Dr. Raven outlined a series of arguments to support genetically modified foods. While lengthy for a blog posting, they are helpful to read because they blend a good deal of practical and moral considerations with what science has to offer. According to Dr. Raven:
1. All crops are genetically modified. They have been the object of selection for the past 11,000 years, since crop agriculture was first developed in the Middle East and subsequently spread throughout the world. One needs only to compare a cultivated strain with its wild progenitor to know the truth of this statement.
2. For the past 200 years or so, precise scientific breeding methods have been applied to the improvement of crops. Seven more or less drastic breeding methods have been applied to re-shuffling the chromosome of individual plants and plant groups, as outlined by Gustafson, Borlaug and Raven (2010). With the exception of transgenics only, no one has ever questioned the inherent safety of any of these methods.
3. In 1974 Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen for the first time inserted a gene from one unrelated kind of organism into another, this precisely modifying the genetic instructions encoded in its DNA. For the past 40 years scientists have been working to determine the safety of such transgenic organisms, and they have universally determined that there is nothing intrinsically unsafe about them or the products derived from them. There is not even a theory as to why they should be unsafenone. Every academy of science in the world that has issued a statement on the safety of food produced by GM crops has agreed that there is no danger; included are the academies of India, Brazil, China, Mexico, the U.S., the U.K., and a number of other countries, each of which reached this conclusion independently after a period of study, review, and reflection.
4. Foods and medicines derived from transgenic plants have been in common and growing in use for some 20 years. These include virtually all beer, virtually all cheese, virtually all soy products, about a quarter of the medicines we use, most maize, much squash, and virtually all papayas produced. It is estimated that currently in the U.S. about 8% of the total diet consists of GM-derived components.  Not a single case of ill health has originated among those consuming such foods, and again, there is no theory about why they would become ill from consuming such foods. 
5. It is sometimes argued that transgenic plants hybridizing with the wild or weedy relatives might give rise to super-weeds or pests of some sort. With some 20,000 kinds of plants in the world classified as weeds, and no demonstrations of the predicted “super weeds,” this seems an argument of no practical value. The excessive use of herbicides or pesticides gives rises to resistant weeds whether or not transgenic plants are involved. The development of additional herbicide-resistant strains of crop plants is being pursued actively by a number of companies.
6. It is argued that the use of transgenic crops endangers the survival of traditional crop varieties and of the practices involved in cultivating them.  Such replacement is a property of any modern crop variety, and it has nothing to do with transgenic varieties per se. India’s excellent National Bureau on Plant Genetic Resources does a fine job of preserving traditional varieties in the country.  It cannot be expected that farmers should continue growing low-yielding strains of crops to preserve them unless the farmers are subsidized for doing so.  In other words, one can’t prop up sustainability on the backs of poor farmers.
Dr. Raven (who is not Catholic) isn't alone in his arguments. In May, 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences issued a statement (that Dr. Raven contributed to) that supports the use of transgenic applications in agriculture. Impressively, the statement summarizes the research and thoughts of some forty scientists and it makes clear up front that researchers took as their guiding words statements of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate (including that “[t]echnology, in this sense, is a response to God's command to till and to keep the land (cf. Gen 2:15) that he has entrusted to humanity, and it must serve to reinforce the covenant between human beings and the environment, a covenant that should mirror God's creative love.” Emphasis original to Caritas in Veritate.)

The document makes many points similar to those noted above by Dr. Raven. As it concludes a variety of considerations, we read that
[g]iven these scientific findings, there is a moral imperative to make the benefits of GE technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations who want them and on terms that will enable them to raise their standards of living, improve their health and protect their environments.
And so in summary, many leaders in the Church are supporting the use of genetic engineering when used morally, rightly, and for the common good. My brothers and sisters in Christ who consider modified foods abhorrent will not be comfortable with this. And indeed, since these statements of support are related to prudential matters and are not de fide pronouncements from the Chair of St. Peter, Catholics can ignore them. But would that be wise?

As a proponent of organic gardening, farming, and eating, I find myself asking that and other questions. I, too, have much to learn and think about. And certainly, the conversation around such issues comes with many strong opinions.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences acknowledges this debate. It also engages it. Indeed, its closing overview of issues such as the public’s understanding of science and the role of the private sector are worth the time to read and reread, as are the statement’s concluding recommendations. As did Cardinal Turkson in Des Moines, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences statement speaks to many of the concerns raised by those who object to genetic modifications within the food supply—concerns like greed, organizational corruption, scientific uncertainty, and so many other characteristics of our fallen human race.

Thus this conversation is a particular, real-world application of what we find in Section 159 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches us about the relation between faith and reason. And as this posting has already taken more space than most, we’ll end it (but not the conversation) with those words from the Catechism—words we should read with prayerful consideration of their implications in issues like feeding the least of our brothers and sisters.
§159: Faith and science: "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are."

UPDATE: A reader commented on the inclusion of biotechnology in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. This is indeed an important piece to the story. The relevant sections of the Compendium are 472 to 480 and they do indeed echo what has been noted above. Here's one example: 
473. The Christian vision of creation makes a positive judgment on the acceptability of human intervention in nature, which also includes other living beings, and at the same time makes a strong appeal for responsibility.[1002] In effect, nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone. Rather, it is a gift offered by the Creator to the human community, entrusted to the intelligence and moral responsibility of men and women. For this reason the human person does not commit an illicit act when, out of respect for the order, beauty and usefulness of individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem, he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties. Human interventions that damage living beings or the natural environment deserve condemnation, while those that improve them are praiseworthy. The acceptability of the use of biological and biogenetic techniques is only one part of the ethical problem: as with every human behaviour, it is also necessary to evaluate accurately the real benefits as well as the possible consequences in terms of risks. In the realm of technological-scientific interventions that have forceful and widespread impact on living organisms, with the possibility of significant long-term repercussions, it is unacceptable to act lightly or irresponsibly.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Data Series #5: What the weather can and cannot say about climate

The Data Series continues with a look at trends in weather and what they can and cannot tell us about climate.

Helping us with this is David Vallee, the Hydrologist-in-Charge of the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center in Taunton, Massachusetts. The center provides detailed forecasting information to National Weather Service Forecast Offices and the hundreds of federal, state and local water resource entities throughout the Northeast and New York. Mr. Vallee has also served as Science and Operations Officer and Hurricane Program Leader at the NWS Weather Forecast Office. Mr. Vallee is a graduate of Lyndon State College and is known for his outreach and education work on the behavior of New England Hurricanes, including many appearances on local radio and T.V. networks, the Weather Channel, the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.

NOAA's David Vallee
Mr. Vallee has also conducted research addressing severe storms, floods, heavy rainfall production, the behavior of New England Hurricanes, and most recently looking at the changing river flood behavior as a result of the combined effects of a trending climate (warmer/wetter) and urbanization over the past 40 years.

Catholic Ecology: There has been lots of talk about this or that extreme weather event being “proof” of climate change. What should people know about the differences and the links between weather and climate?

David Vallee: We must remember that day-to-day weather is just that—changeable on a day-to-day basis. Changes in a region's climate happens over time—often on time spans of decades. No one single event should be "blamed" on climate change. However, trends in the behavior of weather systems may be based on our changing climate.

CE: How would a warmer climate impact everyday weather or the seasons themselves?

Vallee: Over time, we would expect to see a short winter season, increased precipitation over the long term, and a continued reduction in sub-zero temperatures and an increase in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees. Keep in mind however that this doesn't rule out having a cold/snowy winter or a cool/damp summer from time to time. These types of events however have become less frequent. The trends across much of New England clearly suggest we are in a part of the country where annual precipitation is increasing, annual temperatures are increasing and season-to-season snowfall has become extremely variable from one season to the next.

CE: It does seem like there have been more storms here in the Northeast and across the USA and the globe. What does the data say about trends in precipitation and storm intensities?

Vallee: It is difficult to say explicitly that storm intensity has changed. Likewise, it is difficult to say the frequency of any particular type of major storm event has increased. But what we are seeing is that when these major storm systems develop they seem to packing more of a punch; more moisture, slower moving, more energy etc. Our region has seen this play out in a variety of ways. The March 2010 floods [in Southeastern New England] consisted of 4 major rain events in 5 weeks, influenced by El Nino and blocking high pressure to our north over Greenland. In a warming climate these types of blocked atmospheric flow regimes are expected to become more frequent. What this means in our region is that if we get stuck in a blocked pattern that has the storm track aimed at New England, we will see lots of precipitation, be it rain or snow.  

CE: Are there other trends you’re noticing that have you concerned?

Vallee: The combination of increased annual rainfall, the up-tick in heavy precipitation events, falling upon our urbanized small to moderately sized watersheds has me most concerned. A wetter regime means our lakes, reservoirs, and soils are wetter more often. Urbanization along some of the basins as limited their capacity to effectively move the water through the system. Increase the rainfall just a bit and you increase the risk for flooding. Similarly, the sea level rise on the coast is equally concerning. We have lost 150 to 250 ft or more of coastline since the 1938 hurricane. This does two things: it places more properties at risk for flooding from hurricanes and it sets us up for a weaker storm being capable of producing inundation along the coast that we would have expected to only happen from a stronger storm. I feel that to some degree, Sandy illustrated this along the Rhode Island coastline last October.

CE: How do recent storms in our area differ from what we may have seen in the past?

Vallee: Parts of the northeast [United States] are now experiencing storms that have more moisture to work with. I don't believe we are necessarily seeing an increase number of storms (nor'easters, hurricanes, etc.). That behavior change is what may be driving the increase in annual precipitation throughout the region. Similarly, prolonged cold snaps have become less frequent and this has resulted in a shift in the spring date when ice typically lets out of the interior rivers, results in a reduced duration of snow covered ground, and during the transition between winter and spring, can result in higher river flows from runoff prior to the start of the growing season.
Aftermath of Sandy along the Rhode Island coast. 
Photo RI DOT

CE: What else would you like people to know about recent weather trends and patterns, or possible future trends?

Vallee: Given the new regime we seem to be in, the questions in mind are focused on infrastructure; are we designed for this new "place" we find ourselves in?  This applies to the vulnerable coastline as well as our inland rivers and streams. Difficult choice lay ahead when it comes to land use, design criteria, local preparedness and mitigation efforts, etc. Even if we were to plateau [at current] trends and stay about where we are today, are we positioned to deal with these type of weather events to reduce their impacts, reduce the damages and the risks posed to the infrastructure, the business community, and our citizens? Time will tell.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Opening our doors, fostering dialogue

A grainy picture of St. Francis overlooking local climate scientists
at the Diocese of Providence's St. Francis Feast gathering.
A week ago tonight my diocese observed the Feast of St. Francis with a special evening of faith and reason. (I should have posted on this sooner, but it was one of those weeks.)

Some fifty people came to hear local scientists and policy makers speak about climate change and how it has impacted—and how it will increasingly impact—Rhode Island and Rhode Islanders. It was a wonderful evening that brought together my friends and colleagues in the Church with my friends and colleagues in environmental professions. The event also allowed me to meet some fine folks that came by to listen in.

The intent of the gathering (held at St. Paul’s school auditorium in Cranston) was not to win converts to climate change or to Catholicism. Rather, the goal was simply to allow the Church to demonstrate its proper role of bringing moral arguments to worldly matters. In this case, the matter happened to be the highly polarized subject of climate change. But in doing this—by allowing the Church to provide a forum for a climate change talk—some of those who showed up for the science were also introduced, perhaps for a first time or in a new way, to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

The result was, by any account, an overwhelming success. I encourage all my Catholic brothers and sisters to do something like this for any sort of environmental issue. It’s not hard to do. And you don’t need to be a scientific expert to do it. In fact, there are many resources available to help, most especially at the Catholic Climate Covenant.

Here’s the basic recipe:
  • Choose your eco topic—preferably one of some local interest.
  • Reach out to experts, local ones particularly but national ones if you can. Chances are they are looking for community venues to share the fruits of their efforts and the findings of their profession’s science.
  • Find a parish that’s willing to host the event—preferably one that serves a community affected by the issue at hand.
  • Schedule.
  • Advertise.
  • Reach out to the media—reporters are typically intrigued when the Church offers these sorts of events.
  • Bring food.
  • Prepare a free handout or booklet on science of the topic at hand and on the Church’s teachings on ecology. (Again, there are some great resources at the Catholic Climate Covenant as well as at the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)
  • Open with prayer and an overview of why the Church desires to help in such worldly matters; let the experts speak for most of the event; wrap up with prayer; then let the informal conversations take whatever form they will. And, of course, trust always in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
A great example of a Church-sponsored eco gathering took place in 2012 when two dioceses from Ohio sponsored a public meeting on fracking—an issue of great local concern. It was by all accounts a fantastic success in bringing various parties to the table and allowing the public to have access to the conversation.

I’ve been thinking of that event a lot lately. Now that my diocese’s gathering on climate change has come and gone, I’d like to work to up the ante by planning earlier, providing more outreach, and bringing in some nationally known names. After all, the topic of climate change is not going away and Rhode Island will experience the certain effects of rising seas, increasingly strong coastal storms, and heavier inland rains. This makes it a moral necessity to get information to the public and to foster a dialogue that maintains the dignity of the human person and the importance of the common good.

I also appreciate the effect that such events have on those who may know very little about Catholicism—about the Church that instituted universities, hospitals, orphanages, and the scientific method. Indeed, from my own experiences, those entrenched in the secular world of environmental policy—whether in government or academia—are getting worried. Human policies and efforts seem to be taking things only so far—and not far enough.

And so, perhaps, secular scientists may notice that the Church is offering an alternative to the policies of human thought. Perhaps they hear within the Church’s teaching a voice of reason guided by morality, one that transcends human opinion and exhorts virtuous behavior.

All this makes the hosting of such eco events more than a nicety that can be done if time allows. As Pope Francis has been showing and urging us, the Church must insert her voice and activity into the human condition. This includes matters of serious ecological realities—for these directly relate to the common good and they impact individual lives.

And so let us pray for and help each other make these gatherings happen. Let us invite scientists and our neighbors to our Church halls and to our cathedrals. Let us support each other in bringing the Catholic voice to eco issues (and others)—and in doing so let us introduce our neighbors directly (that is, unfiltered by the media or past perceptions) to the Church and her quite necessary truths.

I look forward to hearing from a great many of you as you consider, plan, and implement your local eco gathering(s). After all, as more of these events are held, we can, by the grace of God, help in our own small ways to renew the face of the earth.